Deradicalization plans for returning jihadists: the case of Tunisia

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In late September 2017, the Tunisian government announced its aim to deradicalize the 2,000-2,500 returning Tunisians who fought alongside the Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya. How the program will work and whether it will be successful is largely unknown. The news was reported in the Arab press with hardly any details about its set-up, associated benefits, risks, or funding. Whether the government has the financial capacity to implement and sustain the program is unclear, especially considering competing domestic areas of priority, coupled with the nation’s budget constraints.

According to the Saudi newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, the Tunisian government’s counter-terrorism and counter-extremism committee has stated that the country has secured a large amount of funds to develop the rehabilitation program in 2018. Not surprisingly much secrecy surrounds such an ambitious initiative given the highly-sensitive political and security issues linked to the returning jihadists. This is especially true in a country that currently ranks as the second largest exporter of foreign fighters to the Islamic State.

Tunisian society is very much divided on the question of return. Last December, hundreds of people rallied in Tunis against allowing the return of fellow citizens who fought for extremist groups abroad. The protest was prompted by the Berlin Christmas market attack by Tunisian-born Anis Amri. Another similar demonstration was staged in January. Many intellectuals and civil society activists stand against accepting the jihadists’ return, and the Tunisian General Labour Union firmly excludes any form of pardon. Tunisians living in the internal regions, rather, favor their comeback. These poor areas are where most of the youth who joined the Islamic State come from. In the past, the head of the Islamist Ennahda Party, Rached Ghannouchi, supported the idea of allowing Tunisian jihadists who renounce violence to come back home. Ennahda, in fact, had once proposed the implementation of a deradicalization program that would treat ex-fighters like people in need of support.

The Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, an organization that provides families of fighters with legal advice and counselling to the young militants, conceived a program with a psychological approach focused on tackling the root causes of radicalization.

In the face of widespread fears of the security impact that an inflow of Tunisian militants would make, political leaders have tried to reassure the public that they are ready to deal with the threat. Prime Minister Youssef Chahed previously said that returning terrorists would be subject to the provisions of the anti-terrorism law. Many worry, however, that Tunisia’s legal system cannot absorb such a large number of extremists.

Some parties have even proposed a bill to deprive fighters of their citizenship. However, as President Beji Caid Essebsi reminded the nation late last year, all Tunisians have the constitutional right to return home. Article 25 of the Tunisian Constitution prohibits the state from revoking any citizen’s nationality or from forcing citizens into exile or extradition by banning them from entering in the country. Analysts say that there is little political will among the Tunisian parties to create a deradicalization program ahead of the 2019 elections, as there is fear of public backlash.

Elissa Miller, non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council's Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, suggested that the government should better communicate the initiative to the Tunisian public, and make the case of why reintegrating ex-combatants back into society is important. In her view, any deradicalization plan should be proactive, tie into the economic policies formulated by the government and include the provision of prospects that would disincentivize marginalized youth from turning to terrorist groups to fulfil some sense of achievement. She pointed to the grievances in the hinterland regions. “What good is rehabilitating these youngsters and taking them back to the same situation from which they came?” argues Miller. “There needs to be changes to the social and economic status of the country’s disenfranchised areas.”

Aitemad Muhanna-Matar, Assistant Professorial Research Fellow at the London School of Economics Middle East Centre, thinks that a deradicalization program would require an understanding of jihadist returnees. She noted that many young men who were engaged with the Islamic State, following its territorial losses suffered in Syria and Iraq, have seen their dream of a caliphate broken. They are likely traumatized by the group’s extreme brutality, and harbor a sense of defeat, as they make the decision to return to their homeland. “Returnees critically need not just socio-economic but also psychological support to get them out of this deadlock along their transition”, Matar said. She conducted research on Tunisian Salafi youth and the driving factors behind their radicalization from 2014 to 2016. Her paper on self-deradicalization in Tunisia shows the potential of deradicalization from within the Salafi/Jihadi doctrine. The research is drawn from the personal narratives of 28 Salafi youth who voluntarily shifted from being radical to adopting a pragmatic vision of Salafism that denounces violence and supports political engagement, without being targeted by state-led religious rehabilitation programs. As revealed in the paper, investing in the experiences of self-deradicalized youth, who have knowledge and experience to deradicalize others, and reflecting on their engagement with radicalism can be an effective long-term strategy. Rather than stigmatizing deradicalized Salafis or constantly highlighting their wrongdoings, Matar observed, this would help radical youth rethink their ideas.

The LSE research fellow gave her thoughts on how the Tunisian government should deal with returning fighters. It needs to be taken into consideration that they return on an individual basis, not in an orderly and collective manner, - each with a different experience and level of ideological connection to jihadism. They should be carefully put through a rehabilitation program, under adequate security surveillance, though the security dimension should not be over-emphasized. A pool of specialists from multiple areas of expertise should treat the young men and women, including professionals with knowledge of the jihadist ideology. Through the program the ex-fighters should regain confidence about their role in society – namely at a social and economic level - that would prepare them to go back to their normal lives.

Multiple factors motivate so many young Tunisians to join terrorist groups outside of their country, which is known to be one of the most progressive and tolerant in the region. Paradoxically it is among the world’s top per person producers of extremist militants. UN experts have estimated the number of Tunisian jihadists fighting in Iraq, Syria and Libya to be roughly 5,500, whereas the figure given by the Tunisian Interior Ministry is just under 3,000. Economic deprivation, high unemployment, social marginalization, along with prolonged exclusion by the regime as well as by the political and intellectual elite, have been the main drivers pushing average Tunisians to embrace extremist Salafi discourse, and eventually become jihadists.

With many of the socio-economic demands still unmet since the 2011 uprising, despite some political advances, and the terror attacks at the Bardo museum in Tunis and at a Sousse beach in 2015, the country’s tourism sector is devastated, badly affecting the economy, and discouraging foreign investment. In addition, the decision by Ennahda to abandon the religious sphere has left a void that has been filled by radical preachers, as ISPI analyst Stefano Torelli recently pointed out in the Italian daily Il Fatto Quotidiano. Add to this the growing influence in the Maghreb of Islamic State-affiliated groups, the Libyan chaos along the Tunisian border that creates a safe-haven for terrorists facilitating arms smuggling, and the departure and transit of fighters.

The proximity to Libya poses a major security threat whereby extremist groups have close ties with criminal gangs that funds and arms them”, Miller emphasized. This is what makes it worse in terms of Tunisian youth being attracted by these terrorist cells, and justifies a cautious attitude – if not outright skepticism – toward ambitious reintegration schemes. Tunisia remains a relative success story in the very difficult follow-up to the Arab Springs, but the challenges posed by extremist groups and networks are truly daunting.

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