Tunisian best-seller at centre of debate on returning jihadists

Sunday 23/04/2017
Testimony. Author Hedi Yahmed presents his book in Tunis, on March 23. (Reuters)

Tunis - Hedi Yahmed’s book “I Was in Raqqa” is add­ing to the debate on the threat of the possible return of Tunisians who left the country to fight for jihadist groups.
The book tells the story of Mo­hamed Fahem, a 27-year old Tuni­sian jihadist who joined the Islamic State (ISIS) in November 2015.
“This testimony is neither the ac­count of a detainee or a coerced per­son,” Yahmed, who inter­viewed Fahem in Turkey last year, wrote in the preface. “This is an un­coerced testimo­ny. A testimony from inside ISIS… conveyed freely, without any form of pressure.”
Yahmed, an award-winning Tunisian journal­ist, has conducted extensive research on Islamist groups and is the author of the 2015 book “Un­der the Banner of the Eagle.”
Yahmed said “I Was in Raqqa,” published in Tunisia by Editions Arabesques, was an attempt to dismantle “the whole structure of and (expose) the cultural and religious models that generated terrorism.”
While Yahmed begins the book by saying “the witness bears full responsibility for all of the choices, statements and actions he commit­ted,” some have expressed concern that the narrative romanticises the jihadist’s account.
“Do not read this book. It is steeped in hypocrisy from (begin­ning) to end,” warned Tunisian dentist Faten Terrab, who said that the “killer’s account” gives a white­washed version of history.
Samira Benjira, a Tunisian moth­er, expressed concerns that the book makes Fahem out to be a vic­tim.
“It is a danger for teens to read,” Benjira said. “It is more harm­ful than pornography.”
There were demon­strations last year in Tunisia against the re­turn of jihadist fight­ers, arguing that the government should go to any lengths to prevent their return. Despite a consti­tutional provision that bars authorities from denying entry to any Tunisian na­tional, many argue that jihadists can­not be integrated into society and pose a grave threat to the country’s security.
Yahmed’s book, which details Fahem’s time “fighting and living in Raqqa” as well as his “upbringing, childhood and adolescence,” lands at the centre of the controversy.
While it paints a compelling por­trait of a troubled ISIS jihadist, who is unsure whether to blame his mother or the Tunisian government for his descent, the writing is shal­low and disjointed, making the plot difficult to follow.
The book reads like a weak imita­tion of Jean-Paul Sartre’s “Nausea,” which tells the story of French writ­er Antoine Roquentin, who is tor­mented by his own existence.
Unlike Roquentin’s philosophi­cal quest that laid the groundwork for Sartre’s existentialist frame­work, Fahem’s path ends in ex­tremism as he resigns himself to the ideology of radical Islam even after experiencing first-hand the caliphate’s brutality.
“It is certain that I find out throughout my experience that the model of the just and fair Islamic state is collapsing,” Fahem said. “It is true that the dream I came from afar to realise, leaving behind my loved ones, is becoming stained. Several friends shared my concerns.”
Despite these admissions, Fahem shows no remorse for the victims of the wars he was part of nor does he express regret over the thousands of lives that were ruined. Instead, he repeatedly boasts about his role in Syria’s and Iraq’s killing fields.
What Fahem said he does regret, however, is not killing members of Tunisian security forces before he left the country. By his account, Fahem’s path to ISIS via Libya and Turkey was as smooth as a sultan’s carpet.
“I took part in razzias (raids),” Fahem said. “I witnessed the thick­ening blood of horror. I was stifled by the gunpowder. I walked into hu­man body parts strewn over battle­fields. I was jolted by explosions of booby-trapped vehicles.
“This is the law of wars for which we flocked into in the thousands. If we do not kill, we get killed. It is bet­ter to forget about this now.”
Yahmed said Fahem’s tale is not unique. “Many share his view,” the writer said.