Why Tunisians are attracted to jihad and what to do about it
Tunis - The number of young Tunisians attracted to jihadi war zones has reached 3,000 according to the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. Tunisian authorities believe the number is considerably higher.
Many reasons have been offered as to why Tunisia is proving particularly fertile ground for jihadi recruitment, including ingrained socio-economic inequalities, disillusionment with the promises of the 2011 uprising, government laxity and the post-uprising dismantling of the security apparatus, all aggravated by the chaotic situation in neighbouring Libya.
But the most important factor in the recruitment of fighters is the potency of the recruitment message, contact with jihadist fighters who have returned to Tunisia and the jihadists’ sophisticated use of social media.
Recruiters make use of the religiously inspired message of holy war and frame the hardships many Tunisians face in terms of what the “other” inflicted upon them.
Jihadists portray a world in which Muslims are oppressed by non- Muslims, creating an existential threat. This perceived existential threat, in turn, activates a sense of obligation to protect the common group to which they belong and to defend persecuted co-religionists.
It also creates a social movement that provides people the sense of security that comes with membership in tightly knit community and that offers a Utopian worldview, an appealing vision of the future (in stark contrast to their current misery).
In short, the jihadist message allows Tunisians, most of them young, a chance to dream, gives them a sense of belonging and even offers the prospect of achieving the prestigious status of martyr.
Brother-to-brother and friend-to-friend recruitment strategies have also been effective in the making of foreign fighters. In fact, the insurgents’ outreach campaign is given impetus by the process of “contamination” by previous foreign fighters in mosques and jails. Predisposed young men and women are easily influenced by those who engaged in previous foreign wars and who now have links with jihadists abroad.
Jihadists are also known for their startlingly effective and sophisticated social media expertise in both indoctrinating potential young recruits through, not only their narrative, but also the “ghoulish pornography” of their propaganda videos and the seductive appeal of their shock-and-awe methods. Their brutality conveys an aura of power, a very effective message when trying to recruit among the young and powerless.
To confront the rapidly changing jihadi landscape, both online and off, as quickly as the terrorists do, a three-part strategy is necessary: Prevention, pre-emption and response.
Prevention depends largely on timely, accurate intelligence and intelligence sharing in identifying returnees and potential recruits (ideological activists, drifters or followers, marginalised youths and adventurers). With this information, more specific and targeted strategies for preventing violent radicalisation and facilitating disengagement and reintegration can be developed.
A purely state-centric approach is insufficient for combating non-state security threats like the foreign fighter phenomenon. Deradicalisation and reintegration include investing in education and developing counter-narratives that emphasise non-violence, tolerance and a modernist interpretation of religion.
Mobilising non-governmental entities such as religious leaders and civil society organisations will help to build trust between the government and citizenry. There also must be greater empathy with the root grievances of the marginalised communities in which recruiters operate.
Addressing these grievances diminishes the resonance of violent ideologies. In fact, the key to weakening insurgents’ capabilities to recruit and mobilise youth is to dismantle their social base by winning over the hearts and minds of local communities. This approach undoubtedly takes hard work, resources and time — all of which play to the recruiters’ advantage, which is why this bottom-up approach should be accompanied with coercive measures that include shutting down recruiters’ ability to use mosques and social media to spread their message and swiftly bringing them to justice.
Should the efforts to respond to “returnees” fail, violence could worsen, undermining Tunisia’s already fragile transition and possibly spilling over into neighbouring countries. It could be fatal to assume that the foreign fighter phenomenon can be seen only in a local context with limited implications for other countries. That is why a Euro-Med-African regional force ensuring a regional collective response to such new emerging security threats becomes vital. Until there is a regional and international solution to the regional and global problem of jihadist recruiters, they will continue to entrench themselves in our cities and provinces.
There is also an urgent need to find a negotiated solution to the civil war in Syria and the fratricidal chaos in Libya. Both crises are serving as nerve centres for extremist groups in terms of sources of income and recruitment of fighters. Until they are resolved, these conflicts will continue to have a destabilising effect on the entire region.