In August and September of 2016, Ioana Moldovan traveled to Tunisia to better understand the push and pull factors driving a number of youth in the country to turn to radicalization. While there, she spoke with people from local nongovernmental organizations, state officials, longtime unemployed persons, people who almost got radicalized, former fighters and the families of those who joined different extremist groups. Some of their accounts are quoted in this piece, while others have been used for context. Their stories do not attempt to encompass the exact journeys of all former and current extremists and their families in Tunisia, nor are the groups they have joined the only radical forces at play in the country. But their experiences ― and the experiences of those close to them ― provide a glimpse into this complex situation.
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TUNIS, Tunisia ― Five years ago while training at a terrorist camp in Sirte, Libya, Mehdi started to miss his mother. The young man from Douar Hicher, a low-income suburb at the edge of Tunis, had gone to Libya to join an extremist group.
Four months in, he decided to come back home.
“That was the only reason [I returned],” Mehdi, who requested his name be changed for his safety, said when we spoke in his small repair shop early last September. “[My mother] sent me a message,” he continued. “She was crying. I could not bear to see her like that.”
While in training, Mehdi remained in contact with his mom. He was not allowed to keep his own phone, but sent messages to loved ones through a messenger delivering a pre-recorded video on a phone that was sent back and forth between members of the group and their families, he said. Families would watch the videos and then record something in return. It happened no more than twice a month.
Mehdi’s mother, who was 60 at the time, used these moments to persuade her son to reconsider. And it worked.
“I did not want her to be alone anymore,” Mehdi, now 26, admitted, “so I came back.”
But just a short while earlier, the unfulfilled promises of the Tunisian revolution had pushed him over the edge.
The wilting of Jasmine
Not long after the Jasmine Revolution, the uprising in Tunisia credited with kickstarting the Arab Spring, ended, Mehdi became fed up. All he did was walk from his house in Douar Hicher to a cafe nearby and then back again, day after day. The protests in 2011 that led to the ousting of longtime Tunisian dictator President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had failed to bring about all the reforms many had fought for.
Mehdi was unemployed when the movement began. Despite having two years of training in electrical engineering, he’d been unable to secure a job since 2008. He’d tried his luck as a day laborer, but never got more than four or five days of work a month.
Jasmine was his chance to start fresh. But when the fervor died down and the better future didn’t come, his hope and the hopes of many Tunisian youth who had taken to the streets for change, began to fade. In that shadow, frustration grew. That’s why Mehdi turned to another route for a sense of purpose.
He wasn’t alone.
'People were thirsty for religion.' Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, president of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad
The years following the revolution saw many young Tunisians take the path of extremism.
“People were thirsty for religion,” one activist, Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, told me, and they wanted something that would help them better understand the world around them.
In a country that is, at least nominally, 99 percent Sunni Muslim, Islam was the logical choice. But for many Tunisians who had grown up under Ben Ali and his predecessor, Islam was a religion they did not know very well.
Ben Ali largely restricted the teachings of imams to government-controlled sermons, hoping to move the country towards a more secular Islam. Religious groups had little say in political life, and many religious leaders were simply cast aside.
When Ben Ali was deposed, these groups began to fill the power vacuum. Long forced to keep politics under wraps, they now found themselves with a space to more effectively spread their political agenda. As a number of their more politically active members were released from prison as amnesty following the revolution, their political shift became more pronounced and more explicit. Furthermore, they sought to gain popularity and spread their influence within the country by capitalizing on the deteriorating socioeconomic conditions and providing the public with social services such as food and medicine.
“After the revolution, there was this big void, and that void was filled by extremists who had been released from prison or returned from exile abroad,” Mohamed Iqbel, who founded the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, or RATTA, a small nongovernmental organization working to rehabilitate and reintegrate returned Tunisian extremist fighters, told me.
Between 2012 and 2013, Tunisia saw high numbers in terrorism recruitment. Extremists, especially followers of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, a radical Islamist group that subscribes to much of al Qaeda’s ideologies, infiltrated mosques around the country, “spreading their poison,” as Mohamed Iqbel put it.
According to the Tunisian religious affairs minister at the time, some 400 of the country’s more than 5,000 mosques were overrun. Everyday Tunisians witnessed a number of their mosques become places of hard-line propaganda. Those who attended would often end up in gatherings led by extremists, spending the night being sold on promises of a better future that could supposedly come from going on violent “holy” missions, Mehdi told me. Not long after, scores of young people would just disappear from their neighborhoods, leaving without saying goodbye.
Those who remained would reach out and ask what it was like.
“God is satisfied with what we are doing,” the fighters would often reply, attempting to entice others to take the same path.
In April 2012, Mehdi joined them, going to Libya to take part in what he said he considered a “holy war.” He had not been very religious, and it was only recently that the idea of a larger ideological battle started to resonate with him.
“At that time I really hated Tunisia, especially because of the unemployment,” he said. Most of the other people in his town, he guessed, felt the same way.
“I swear to God, 90 percent of the people who join [terror groups], Tunisians, especially from my neighborhood, have nothing to do ― and that is the worst,” he said.
And this boredom and restlessness extends far beyond Mehdi’s neighborhood, which has been a hotbed for Ansar al-Sharia’s preaching and radical rhetoric.
According to former Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid, only a small number of Tunisians become radicalized for ideological reasons. Most young people, he said in 2015 at a Council on Foreign Relations event, are instead drawn to terrorism because of the economic downturn.
“Some of them, they think that through [extremism] they can go to paradise and things like that,” the former leader said. “And they do believe in that.” Yet that’s not the only thing driving them, he admitted. “They didn’t have jobs. ... They couldn’t have a normal life.” And so, like Mehdi, they looked for an alternate means of livelihood.
Unemployment runs at roughly 15.5 percent in Tunisia. For young people under 30, like Mehdi, the situation is even worse. According to World Bank data cited by the United Nations, “Two out of five youth under the age of 30 representing almost a third of the working population do not have jobs.”
Some young Tunisians feel as though they are losing the best years of their lives. They get angry and rise up in protest when nothing seems to change or get better. Others can’t handle the depressing reality and eventually take more drastic measures like committing suicide or turning to terrorism.
Mehdi’s tumultuous journey to Libya was not so different.
'They didn’t have jobs. ... They couldn’t have a normal life.' Former Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid
It is hard to picture Mehdi with a gun; perhaps it is his small stature, his tiny nose and ears. More likely it is the large, natural smile that often dominates his face.
But he shot. Twice a week at the very least.
Mehdi spent four months and 13 days at the training camp in Sirte. On Tuesdays and Fridays, he learned to shoot. The rest of the days, he practiced dismantling and assembling Kalashnikovs, running, praying and playing soccer.
For the time spent in the camp, which was housed in an old army barracks, he was paid handsomely. Mehdi said he was making $3,000 a month ― a salary nearly 10 times what some of the fighters I talked to said they would make in common jobs at home ― and the food was free.
“We had to be paid,” he said, “because they know that in some families, fighters are the only breadwinners.” At Mehdi’s camp, a messenger would bring money home to the fighters’ families. With the money he sent back, Mehdi’s mother was able to buy a fridge and pay for his sister’s wedding.
But Mehdi’s mom wanted her son back. Nothing else mattered. Not even the money. She had already lost one son to terrorists when Marwan, Mehdi’s older brother, had left to fight in Iraq in 2003, telling his family he was going to Algeria to study the Quran. He was 20 years old. His last call home came in 2007. She still remembers each word.
“Hello, mom, how are you doing? Pray for me.”
His mother had started crying. He had hung up. Four years went by. Nothing. And then finally, the family received a call from an unfamiliar voice.
“Is this the family of Abu Abaida Atunsi?” the stranger had said over the line, using the fighter name Mehdi’s brother had been given.
“Yes, that’s my son, Marwan.”
“He is fine, doing well,” the voice had continued. “Do you have any message for him?”
“Tell him I won’t forgive him unless he comes home,” she had said.
Marwan never came home. But his brother, Mehdi, did.
* * *
‘Be happy sister, Mohammad is a martyr!’
It was a Saturday morning in October 2013 when Naziha Bel Jayyed, 55, missed the call. She was outside doing laundry when the phone rang, so it was her daughter, Amal, who listened to the words they would both remember years later: “Be happy sister, Mohammad is a martyr!”
On Oct. 4, Naziha’s son, Mohammad Bel Behi Jlassi, 27 at the time, had left their home in Ettadhamen, a suburb in northwest Tunis, to go to Libya to work in a hotel as a pastry chef. He had worked there in the past, before the revolution, and now he had received a new contract.
From Tripoli, he called his mother to tell her he was fine and settling in. Then seven days of silence. His phone was off when she had tried to call. And then another call came.
“Mom, I have to tell you something,” Mohammad had said. “I am in Syria.”
“What are you doing there?” Naziha had asked, a mixture of sorrow and anger in her voice.
“I swear, mom, I am coming back home ― and I will tell you everything,” her son had assured her.
But Mohammad never made it home. His large portrait hangs in the living room in his place.
To this day Naziha, can’t fathom how Mohammed ended up in Syria.
Nothing in her son’s behavior had led her to believe he would join a terror group. He was a good child, she said. A happy kid who loved to take care of small animals and watch Popeye, the classic cartoon sailor, and Simba from “The Lion King.” He would cry watching sad movies and come back home running after school to see her. They had a deep bond, she said.
After he graduated high school, Mohammad started working, baking sweets. In his free time, he would make sandwiches and sell them on the street. You could count on him, Naziha said. He had never brought any trouble home. In fact, he took care of his mother, often telling her to stop working and saying she had done enough for them already.
“When I was going to work, he would get on his bicycle, follow the bus I was on and when I got off, he would come give me a kiss and then return home,” Naziha recalled.
It was the first time she’d smiled in the two hours we had spoken. The suffering and long hours spent crying were etched on her face. Her eyes seemed as if they were set upon a different time and place. Her hands, the same that used to caress her son’s cheeks, kept touching each other in her lap trying to grasp for something that what was no longer there.
Mohammad was the one who always made the family laugh. The one who made Naziha laugh.
'After his death, the house is sad. The walls are crying.' Naziha Bel Jayyed, mother of a missing Tunisian extremist fighter
“After his death, the house is sad,” Naziha said. “The walls are crying.”
Naziha’s pain also comes with a tiring uncertainty. She has no real evidence that her son is dead ― no picture or proof of his body to give her closure. All these years, it has consumed her. People in the neighborhood talk, and the fact that she keeps on hearing different versions of how he died hasn’t put her mind at ease.
For a year and a half, starting with that terrible Saturday, Naziha thought about taking her own life. She imagined banging her head against the walls like she did the day she heard the horrifying news, jumping in front of a car, setting herself on fire. She was determined to do it, but little by little she started to tell herself that maybe her son was still alive. The hope that there’s a tiny possibility that he is still living, even as unjustified as it seems, keeps her alive today.
“I am alone and helpless,” Naziha sobbed. “Fighting alone.”
As she continues her solo fight, she’s worried that she could have done more. If only the circumstances of the economy had been a little bit better. If only work had been more kind, she tells herself.
“If he had a good job here, he would have never left for Libya.”
Mohammad Bel Behi Jlassi was not unemployed before he turned to terrorism; he worked in Gourmandise, a fancy sweet shop chain spread around Tunis. His problem was his boss ― he made three times the money and always made Mohammad do his chores as well. For a year and a half, Mohammad came home complaining to his mother about the way he was treated at work. He even tried to start his own small pastry business at home, but the governmental agency that finances small and medium-sized enterprises would not give him a loan. Mohammad was trying to raise money to get married and build a place for him and his future wife on top of his family’s house. Going to Libya to work as a pastry chef was part of this plan.
“He felt oppressed,” Naziha said. “He felt the injustice.”
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Mohammad’s sentiments echo so many others here. Even those who never turned to extremism feel the weight of unemployment in the country. They have been wronged by the system, unable to move forward in their careers or build lives for their families. And even after putting up a fight, the future still seems dark. The reality of the revolution’s failure is difficult to come to terms with.
“The revolution in Tunisia was done with the slogan ‘work, freedom and national dignity,’” Ahmed Sassi, a 31-year-old in charge of communications for the Union of Unemployed Graduates in Tunisia, said. People weren’t just in it for political freedom ― they wanted other socioeconomic rights and jobs as well, Ahmed, who holds a master’s degree in political philosophy, continued. “But their demands fell on deaf ears, of the state, of the decision-makers of this country.”
'Fighting terrorism ... is fighting ignorance, poverty, corruption, indignity and injustice.' Ahmed Sassi, communications manager for the Union of Unemployed Graduates in Tunisia
Ahmed sees this firsthand each day. He spends most days in his family’s store, just across the road from the tram line in El Kabaria, one of the poorer neighborhoods of Tunis. The little kiosk, which sells everything from flour, croissants, juice and bubble gum, to diapers, shampoo and Gillette shaving blades, serves also as a meeting place for the young people in his community. Often, neighbors wander in and discuss their grievances and dreams.
Hearing the details of his neighbors’ lives day after day has made Ahmed particularly attuned to the problems that afflict everyday Tunisians the most. One of those is the large population of youth who “find themselves useless in their society, with so much energy, with so many dreams, with their knowledge and intelligence” left untapped. They have all the reasons to become radicalized, he said, and it’s happening over and over again with too many failing to recognize why.
“Fighting terrorism in Tunisia is fighting unemployment, fighting ignorance, fighting poverty, fighting corruption, fighting indignity and injustice,” he said. It’s not just one single battle.
These days though, a number of Tunisians are preoccupied more with the influx of extremists returning to the country than concerned about preventing radicalization. Some fear the return of Tunisian fighters from Syria, Iraq and Libya will disrupt the progress Tunisia has made or bring home even more unrest. People have taken to the streets shouting things like “no pardon for terrorists,” and the government is looking for ways to tackle the controversial homecoming.
Authorities say about 800 of the Tunisians who went to conflict zones to join terror groups have returned in the past decade, according to the Associated Press. Some reportedly came back without passing through customs, but Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed has warned that returning fighters will immediately be arrested when they land on Tunisian soil.
Others disagree with this harsh legal reaction and find it potentially counterproductive.
Aslam Souli said he believes Tunisia should have a more inclusive response ― one that helps rehabilitate these people rather than simply puts them behind bars.
Aslam, 23, created the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism, a small organization working to counter violent extremism in the country, with a group of his friends. The organization aims to study the push and pull factors of radicalization in Tunisia.
'One day [returned extremists] will come out of jail. You have to face that reality. What will we do then?' Aslam Souli, founder of the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism
He believes his initiative is key “because those people can’t just get back to their communities easily ― those people participated in violent acts.” Instead, Aslam said, Tunisia “should have specific programs of rehabilitation, of reintegration. There are none.” The government’s main effort to curb terrorism ― throwing returned fighters in jail ― he said, ignores the root problems.
Aslam said it would be ideal if Tunisia could follow in the footsteps of Morocco, which has instead sought the help of moderate imams to both prevent young men from leaving the country and reeducate those who fell victim to extremist propaganda. But he admitted that it isn’t so simple.
“It’s a very hard process, and it costs a lot. Tunisia [can’t] afford it,” Aslam said, noting that the economic situation in Morocco is nowadays better than in Tunisia, with foreign investors seeing the neighboring country as safer and more stable.
“That’s why I understand the government’s approach of systematically putting them in jail, but I think it is just delaying the issue,” he continued. “One day they will come out of jail. You have to face that reality. What will we do then?”
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Islam’s high esteem for mothers
One answer to how Tunisia can act in the short term comes not from political or legal measures, but from family. One of the most influential ways to counter terrorism stems from a mother’s effort to keep her son from the arms of radicalization ― it’s Mehdi’s mother sending him messages to convince him to come back.
Although Tunisia has not been strict religiously in recent years, some of the values of Islam are strongly embedded in the Tunisian culture and way of life. Islam’s high esteem for mothers is one of them. Verses in the Quran emphasize the burdens carried by a mother and the respect she should be granted. And the Hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet Muhammad, shows the prophet often reminding his followers of a mother’s status.
One hadith, for instance, goes like this:
A man once consulted the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) about taking part in a military campaign. The Prophet asked the man if his mother was still living. When told that she was alive, the Prophet said: “(Then) stay with her, for Paradise is at her feet.”
Aslam sees the same values of respect and devotion in the returnees he works with. Often their only visible regret is that when they left, they did it behind their mothers’ back ― and without their permission, he said.
Even when he talks to former fighters about killing people, Aslam doesn’t see the same level of regret in their eyes or hear it in their voices.
'You lied to your mother, you made your mother feel pain.' Aslam Souli, National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism
“It’s not a problem for them,” he said. “But there is one thing that makes them tense ― their weak spot. And that’s when you tell them: ‘You lied to your mother, you made your mother feel pain.’”
Most of the fighters’ mothers do not accept their sons’ decision to go to fight, and perhaps die, in Syria or Libya. They try to stop them, so they end up leaving without saying goodbye. Mothers then start calling, pleading over the phone. And according to Aslam, this has a strong effect on the recruits.
When calling and crying leads nowhere, mothers turn to people like Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, the founder of the reintegration and rescue program, who are leading initiatives to not just help returned fighters but assist their families in re-establishing a sense of normalcy as well.
Mohamed Iqbel became personally invested in the fight against radicalization when his then-23-year-old brother suffering from muscular dystrophy ― a hereditary condition that has forced him into a wheelchair ― was recruited and taken to Syria.
For him, it’s not just about fighting the radicalization, it’s about fighting the misconception that comes with it as well, a misconception he is all too familiar with.
“If a young man leaves, that does not make his entire family terrorists,” he said. But too many people don’t see it that way. Relatives are blacklisted.
It’s something he has to contest every day.
Going back? Absolutely not.
Unfortunately, the stigma families of extremists face is not aided by the fact that they are often forced to be discreet when trying to secure the return of their child, Aslam explained. Such a task tends to fall on the mother, in part because of the value the culture places on her and the strong mother-son bond that has resulted in.
Instead of publicly denouncing her son’s actions, a mother will more likely focus on keeping means of communication open, sending him text messages, for example. This tactic, Aslam said, is an effort to avoid jeopardizing the link the between the mother and her trusting child. She can’t publicly condone what he has become in order to prevent others from following the same path if doing so means losing that vital connection. At the same time, she can’t advertise her efforts to bring her son back home either for fear of being mistaken for having terrorist connections. So, often, the mother ends up fighting a solitary and isolating battle.
And while the battle may seem never-ending, for these mothers, it’s worth it.
* * *
It’s been over 13 years since her son Marwan left for Iraq, but Mehdi’s mother has never given up trying to find him. She went to the authorities and filed a report with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. When nothing came of it, she persisted. Today, she still adds credit on her phone, calling the ministry day after day to see if just maybe someone will have news about her missing Marwan.
At one point she tried to get her case onto a famous Tunisian TV show that focuses on reuniting lost family members, but the host turned her down.
“That’s the most powerful thing we could do, try to get onto the TV show,” Mehdi said. “We tried everything.”
She still adds credit on her phone, hoping just maybe someone will have news about her missing son.
Eventually, she may stop trying to look for Marwan and slowly come to terms with the reality many mothers of terrorists eventually have to accept ― that their son isn’t coming home again, that there will be no reunion, no explanation, no goodbye.
For now, she’s content to have Mehdi, even after everything they’ve gone through.
He’s not going to go back to that life, he said. Not now that he has seen the toll it has taken on his mother.
“Absolutely not, I was young back then,” Mehdi said. “She is old, almost blind. I cannot leave her alone.”