What drives Tunisian foreign fighters? New study offers answers

Tunisian jihadists surveyed shared a sense of disillusionment with the state and anger at perceived injustice and oppression.
Sunday 27/05/2018
Major challenge. Tunisian anti-terrorism brigade officers stand guard outside the Bouchoucha military base in Tunis. (Reuters)
Major challenge. Tunisian anti-terrorism brigade officers stand guard outside the Bouchoucha military base in Tunis. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisian foreign fighters are motivated by a range of political, economic and religious factors and do not share a unified set of moral convictions or fit a “particular social or intellectual profile,” state survey results published by the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES), a think-tank run by the Tunisian presidency.

The survey, funded by the Netherland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is based on a questionnaire and in-depth interviews with 82 individuals convicted of terror offences, including 58 prospective foreign fighters and returnees.

The results indicated that the jihadists surveyed did not suffer disproportionately from poverty, unemployment, neglect or other socio-economic conditions often cited as driving factors for extremism. They did, however, share a sense of disillusionment with the state and anger at perceived injustice and oppression.

“Tunisia is a country of injustice… a country of confinement/imprisonment… It tried us for our ideas,” said one respondent quoted anonymously in the survey.

“Tunisia has no state. Tunisia has a gang which governs it,” said another.

The view that the Tunisian government is corrupt, abusive and oppressive was prevalent. Nearly all — 90% of the foreign fighters — associate Tunisia, either totally or partially, with the image of “the country of injustice…” wrote the study’s authors. “Tunisia was also described as a country that fights Islam and Muslims and as a country that wants its citizens to abandon their religion to serve Western interests.”

Many respondents said their sense of disillusionment was exacerbated by the perceived failure of Tunisia’s 2011 revolution, which the majority said they participated in and were initially optimistic about.

Other common denominators were low levels of education and prior disposition to criminal or illicit behaviour. Less than 15% of the survey’s respondents said they attended university but nearly 70% were at one time using drugs, alcohol or other illicit substances, often from an early age.

This meshes with previous research indicating that jihadist footsoldiers often have criminal backgrounds and are less motivated by deep-rooted religious piety than by revenge, a misplaced sense of heroism or violence.

Psychiatrist Marc Sageman, a former CIA operative who has studied the biographies of hundreds of jihadists, said “religion has a role but it is a role of justification.”

Speaking to the New Statesman in 2016, he said: “To give themselves a bit more legitimacy, they use Islam as their justification. It’s not about religion, it’s about identity… You identify with the victims, [with] the guys being killed by your enemies.”

“You don’t have the most religious folks going there,” he added.

Tunisian foreign fighters’ views on religion and ethics seem to reveal a confused understanding of Islam, according to the study’s authors.

While most foreign fighters asked said they “agreed that Islam is a religion of tolerance and peace, rather than a religion of war and armed combat,” they described violence by “terrorist groups,” such as al-Qaeda or the Islamic State (ISIS), as a “legitimate and inevitable reaction” to foreign aggression, though most did not consider violence against Tunisian citizens permissible.

There have been six confirmed terror incidents on Tunisian soil since 2011, most by Tunisians claiming affiliation with ISIS or al-Qaeda and directed against foreigners or Tunisian security services.

“When Islam orders us to defend Muslims, there is no other choice except using violence… but is it (called) violence when it is self-defence?” asked one respondent.

The study’s authors said: “This contradiction between, on the one hand, the recognition that Islam is a religion of tolerance and peace and the search for justificatory evidence in favour of violence and terrorism, on the other hand, is the result of indoctrination, recruitment strategies and young people’s ignorance of religious precepts.”

In the end, they adopt “the illusory impression that every single act they perform constitutes a step in the process of reviving the type of Islam embraced by earlier model generations… This is what has encouraged the returnees coming back from the hotbeds of armed conflicts to believe that they are advocating a tolerant view of Islam, although their declarations remain replete with the rhetoric of violence and hatred.”

While most foreign fighters expressed a desire to reintegrate into society, it is unclear how many turned away from extremist beliefs and no longer pose a threat, the study’s authors said.

“Based on the interviews conducted with our population sample, it cannot be categorically ascertained whether the (foreign fighters) have really repented their previous acts or adopted a less radical mode of thinking,” said the authors. “What is known is that almost half associate the concept of ideal society with the community in which sharia is adopted.”

With the remnants of ISIS’s failed caliphate under assault in Syria, where thousands of Tunisians are believed to have travelled to fight, authorities face a pressing concern about how to deal with Tunisia’s returnees. Many citizens, wary of increased terror or instability, advocate either stripping foreign fighters of their nationality, imprisoning them indefinitely or keeping them under strict surveillance on their return, all strategies that come with significant legal and practical challenges.

The ITES study states that “arresting or keeping all [foreign fighters] under surveillance on their return to Tunisia is both an infeasible and ineffective use of resources,” and heavy-handed security practices run the risk of increasing rather than curbing terrorism.

Instead, the study advocated expanding rehabilitation and de-radicalisation programmes for foreign fighters, investing in educational opportunities and undergoing a thorough “reassessment of current Tunisian security policies, with an eye towards lessening the present reliance on repressive measures.”

“Many (foreign fighters) justify their radicalism based upon feeling oppressed by the government; relaxing some restrictions on non-violent Salafi organisations might reduce the potential for radicalisation among vulnerable populations,” the study said.