By Anouar Boukhars
More than six years after the revolution that ousted former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia’s border regions remain hotbeds of social discontent and agitation.
Underpinnings of Radicalization
The current government’s approach to terrorism has the potential to fuel further radicalization.
President Beji Caid Essebsi likes to dismiss violent militancy as something induced by alien fanatic barbarism.9 Such an ideology-focused approach ignores the underlying drivers of militancy. It also limits the government’s ability to assess the threat in a systematic way. Government actions that ignore the social, economic, and regional underpinnings of militancy will influence the trajectories of terrorism in Tunisia.
A dispassionate assessment of Tunisia’s problem with militancy points more toward socioeconomic and regional factors than it does to religious fundamentalism. The rare sociological studies conducted on militancy in Tunisia show that the young Tunisians most sympathetic to AST hailed from the poorest neighborhoods and were the least religiously observant.
Aggrieved youth sympathize with jihadists because they tend to share the same underprivileged socioeconomic backgrounds and inhabit the same blighted neighborhoods.
Radical ideologies might be influenced by regional context and geopolitical grievances, but they are an expression of their local environs. This is especially true for the latest generation of Tunisian militants who were not around for the first wave of battles in Afghanistan in the 1980s and were too young for the second round of major fights, which began after the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States and intensified with the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
This third generation of militants, who came of age with the 2010–2011 Tunisian revolution, is best exemplified by the perpetrators of the dramatic terrorist attacks that hit Tunisia in 2015. They were born in the 1990s, had a taste of repressive authoritarianism, and then stumbled into the politics of revolt that put an end to the repressive rule of Ben Ali.
They were disappointed by the inability of the postrevolutionary government to deliver for them, and the revolutionary thrill quickly gave way to the embrace of Salafi jihadism as the primary vehicle of resistance.
Today, the youth who become militant tend to be better educated than their average countrymen, but unemployed or underemployed. They are between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four. Many, including the three perpetrators of the Bardo and Sousse attacks, hail from impoverished backgrounds and marginalized regions. Intense feelings of insignificance in the Tunis suburbs or the poor outskirts of Kasserine Governorate allows radical groups that combine social and preaching activities to make inroads at the expense of the state.
Before AST’s defeat, joiningthe group was tantamount to joining a revolutionary movement capable of rupturing thegenerational and institutionalorder. The movementwas a welcome home for those on the margins of society looking for a way to vent their frustrations with the democratic transition and their dashed hopes.
The failure of the democratic transition to improve the economic conditions for young Tunisians has led many to feel that the system is rigged against them. A 2014 World Bank report on removing hurdles to youth inclusion found that 68 percent of urban and 91 percent of rural youth have no trust in the political system. Political leaders remain largely older, Francophone, and middle class while the majority of Tunisians are young, Arabic-speaking, and disempowered.
Coping with disappointing outcomes differs from one individual to the next. But the Tunisian experience shows that anger at the persistence of social exclusion and regional disparities, combined with exposure to radical Salafi preachers, are important factors in understanding youth radicalization.
As frustration grows, some individuals become more prone to nihilism, as the high rates of suicide and self-immolation in the most impoverished neighborhoods and regions demonstrate. Others become susceptible to the heroic charms of jihadi warriors on the battlefields of Syria, Libya, or Kasserine’s Mount Chaambi,which is near the Algerian border.
The challenge for Tunisian government officials is to understand this youth revolt. Viewing Islamic fundamentalism as the main driver of radicalism misdiagnoses the problem. Anytime there is a terrorist attack, the state cracks down on suspected radicals. Salafists complain of degrading treatment, unlawful raids, arbitrary arrests, and judicial harassment.
Families of suspects and fighters who have returned home to Tunisia also complain of persecution and systematic police abuse. In the absence of a deradicalization program or a policy of social reinsertion, such a heavy-handed security approach is counterproductive. Worse, it is “pushing people to terrorism,” says Ridha Raddaoui, a lawyer and co-author of a recent report on terrorism in Tunisia published by the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights.
The same concerns have been raised by international rights groups who warn that abuse in the name of security only compounds the security threats the country faces.
Tunisian prisons—notorious for overcrowding, poor sanitation, and torture—are becoming perfect settings for radicalization. This was brought into stark relief by the dramatic transformation of a twenty-five-year-old Tunisian from rapper to Islamic State fighter.
Maurouane Douiri, known as Emino, was a womanizing singer who liked to post photographs of himself in front of a sports car with scantily clad women. But after an eight-month stint in prison for hashish possession, he underwent a rapid and dramatic lifestyle change. In one year, he abandoned rap, changed his attire, and announced his allegiance to the Islamic State in a Facebook post in March 2015.
Before his radicalization in prison, he had criticized police violence against Tunisia’s youth. It is this police repression, argues his former lawyer Me Ghazi Mrabet, that is responsible for Emino’s conversion to radical Salafism.
The persistent stigmatization of impoverished communities and the trauma associated with aggressive and intrusive policing instill in young people profound feelings of humiliation by and bitterness toward state authority. This frustration is often expressed in protests, street violence, and violent extremism, especially in the long-neglected border regions that bear the brunt of the government’s ironfisted security policy.
Anouar Boukhars – nonresident scholar in Carnegie’s Middle East Program. He is an associate professor of international relations at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland.