Tunisia’s 3000: why have so many gone to join the Islamic State

Abigail Watson


Protests in Tunis, scossargilbert via Wikimedia Commons

Tunisia, often seen as the lone success story of the Arab Spring, has seen 3000 nationals go to fight for the Islamic State (IS). This is a thousand more than Jordan, which is closer, and five hundred more than Saudi Arabia, which is “a traditional jihadist hotbed with three times Tunisia’s population”. Moreover, the current exodus of “holy warriors” is the largest in Tunisia’s history. Yet, there are still no conclusive answers as to why so many Tunisians have been persuaded by IS’s message.

Many have blamed economic problems. The African Development Bank said youth unemployment was at “a particularly worrisome level” of 34%. While the New York Times have said “education is inexpensive but jobs remain scarce” making young people “prime candidates for jihad”. Similarly, numerous Tunisians told the New York Times that those who have gone to fight for IS went for economic reasons. This conclusion also seems to be shared by IS recruiters. For example there is a growing presence of militant Salafis in poor neighbourhoods and some have claimed Qatar is funnelling money to Tunisian NGOs to encourage Tunisian youths to go and fight. Yet, others have noted that Tunisia is not the only country which has fallen on hard times nor are the new recruits exclusively from poor backgrounds. So there must be more.

Others have suggested that new freedoms given after the Arab Spring have been exploited by radical Islamic groups, who are now able to “preach and recruit more openly”. Eileen Byrne, for the guardian, has said since the Arab Spring “radical Islam has moved into the mosques and an overexcited free-for-all has overtaken the internet”. While Pierre Bienaimé, at Business Insider, has said “[n]ew freedoms in the country during its democratization process has allowed more vocal praise for ISIS and open recruitment”. Similarly Lotfi Ben Jeddou, the former Tunisian Minister of the Interior has said: “We gave them too much oxygen, and now we are choking on that oxygen”. Tunisia’s Islamist party Ennahda admitted that it failed to control radical Islamists by overestimating “the power of democracy alone to tame violent extremism”. However, the government is increasing its security measures – claiming it now has a “zero tolerance policy” against would-be IS fighters – and its counter-message – displaying billboards that say “Terrorism is not ours” – yet Tunisians continue to flow to Syria.

Some have said the fact that Muslims continue to be oppressed has pushed many to go and fight for IS. Human rights organizations and lawyers have said the government is “engaging in the same arbitrary arrests and systematic torture of prisoners practiced by Ben Ali’s brutal regime”. Marwen Jedda and Imen Triki, two human rights lawyers who represent Islamist clients, have said that those going to fight in Syria have done so because they believe it is a better option than “going to prison, and being tortured and harassed” in Tunisia. Adding credence to this conclusion is the fact the government has not denied that it has engaged in torture. It claims there have been “lapses” and that the ministry is working to eradicate it.

Rights advocates argue that the government’s overemphasis on security is fuelling the flow of Tunisians to the IS. IS’s caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi played on this sentiment in his speech at the end of June last year when he claimed: “The rights of Muslims are seized by force” and mentioned Tunisia specifically where he said “a war is being waged against chastity and hijab”. Yet, Baghdadi also mentioned the persecution of Muslims in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, the Arabian Peninsula, Caucasus, Sham (the Levant), Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Philippines, Iran, Pakistan, Libya, Algeria and Morocco – and it could be argued that Muslims feel persecuted against in more places besides, for example Western Europe. So this does not really explain Tunisia’s 3000 conclusively.

It might be that the lone success story of the Arab Spring wasn’t that successful after all. While its Constitution is now inclusive and progressively gender sensitive, people seem to feel that their lives haven’t changed. Their new freedoms did little “to improve daily lives” or “create jobs”. As Ennahda Movement member, Said Ferjani warned: “Without social development, I don’t think the democracy could survive”. This is especially true when people have fought for and began to expect more, in terms of economic problems and religious persecution, during the Arab Spring. It may be that, when their lives remained unchanged, they started to think politics had failed them and were susceptible to calls for a new, “greater” calling. This is evident in the fact a lot of the people interviewed in Tunisia said that the quest for justice was a motivating factor in joining IS. Ahmed, who was interviewed by the New York Times, said “the Islamic state is a true caliphate, a system that is fair and just, where you don’t have to follow somebody’s orders because he is rich or powerful”. While Mourad called IS the only hope for social justice.

While no reason seems conclusive it may be that – in the anti-climactic aftermath of the Arab Spring when people had fought for something more just to be living the same life – IS recruiters claimed religion would give them the higher calling and the social justice that politics never could.

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