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From the Winter 2014/2015 Issue "Europe Under Fire"
By Simon Speakman Cordall
TUNIS, Tunisia—There’s nothing very remarkable about Sejenene, the small dilapidated fishing town that lies within striking distance of the Ottoman port of Bizerte on Tunisia’s northern coast. Lining the streets are cafés, where men sit and drink coffee, puffing on the ubiquitous shisha pipes. It could be anywhere in Tunisia. Walid Sabahi grew up here. It was in Sejenene he met and married his wife, found a job as a bus driver just like his father, and would spend his evenings practicing tai kwon do, or drinking coffee and chatting with his close circle of friends. Like the town itself, there was nothing remarkable about Walid Sabahi. He wasn’t religious. He wasn’t interested in politics. The tumultuous events of the revolution three years ago had largely passed him by.
In February, however, Walid did something truly remarkable. He blew himself up in a suicide attack 2,500 miles away from Sejenene, in the Iraqi city of Mosul. His family only found out weeks later. An anonymous voice called from an Iraqi number to tell them. The voice said Walid had left instructions for the family not to be informed until after his wife had given birth. The news has destroyed them. Walid’s mother does nothing but cry. His widow must be coerced into eating so she can sustain herself while she nurses the baby that Walid left before ever seeing. Neither can sleep. Their neighborhood remains in shock. Nobody knows what to do.
A week later, sitting in the dark recesses of a Tunis café, Walid’s father, Mohamed, is still angry. He insists on displaying the phone pictures he took of the Salafists he claims recruited Walid to the jihadist cause. “They have taken over,” he declares. “After the revolution, they threw the old imam out of the mosque, replacing him with one of their own.” Before last year, Walid wasn’t even religious. “He just liked to spend time with his friends. They were a close group. They liked to drink beer and smoke, but last year they stopped. They started to spend more and more time at the mosque, often even between prayers. They grew their beards.”
Mohamed remembers the day Walid left. It was December 15, 2013. Walid was working the morning school bus run, from 5 a.m. to 8:30 a.m., came home straight after, packed some clothes, and left. He said nothing to his family. They thought he’d gone back to work. When he hadn’t come home by the evening, they called him, but he said he was just drinking coffee with friends. The following day, he still hadn’t come home. Now he could not be reached at all. A few days later, one of Walid’s friends came to his parents’ house and asked if he was missing. They said he was. That was when his friend confessed that Walid had left with others on jihad.
Mohamed couldn’t understand. He took to accosting in the street those he saw as having recruited his son. He would publicly accuse them of terrorism. Eventually, a delegation came to his house, promising Walid’s safe return in exchange for Mohamed’s silence. That promise was never kept. Walid called in February of this year. “He said whatever he wanted in his past life he didn’t want anymore. He said that all he wanted now was his afterlife,” his father recalls. At some point later that month, Walid strapped explosives to himself and traveled to a city in a country where he’d never been before to blow himself up.
As of October, the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior listed up to 3,000 Tunisian fighters as active within Syria and Iraq, with a further 9,000 detained at ports, airports, and border crossings as they tried to leave the country, suspected by officials of attempting to join jihadi missions in Syria and Iraq. No reliable information is available to indicate how many fighters have joined these missions since the Western bombing campaign against the Islamic State began in September. However, reports suggest an increase in both jihadist numbers and activities. The most recent figures, from August this year, cite 6,000 new fighters as having swelled the ranks of the Islamic State since the beginning of its rapid push across northern Syria and into Iraq, according to the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 1,300 of those are, like Walid, thought to have come from outside either Syria or Iraq.
Within Tunisia, attacks on military and government targets have been occurring in the country’s central belt with painful regularity since the 2011 revolution. Fourteen soldiers were killed in the Chambi region during Ramadan in July. A year earlier, the assassination of leading opposition politician Chokri Belaïd, an act seen as drawing a direct line between the then ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda Party and the country’s swelling jihadist movement, all but paralyzed Tunisia’s nascent democratic evolution. Throughout Tunisia, from the leafy streets of the capital to the desert wastes of the Sahara, a pervasive fear of jihadi-inspired terrorism is increasingly tangible. Black-clad policemen with automatic weapons stand vigil at every major junction. Barbed wire isolates official buildings.
As parliamentary and presidential elections inch ever closer later this year, Tunisia’s security apparatus is hoping for the best, but bracing for the very worst. Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb is no stranger to cases such as Walid’s. As President of the Rescue Association for Tunisians Trapped Abroad, a local charity specializing in repatriating non-combatant jihadists, he has seen the same sorry scenario play out across Tunisian homes too many times. “No one ever realizes they’ve gone until it’s too late. It’s sudden. Sometimes they don’t even pack. In one of our cases, a son left his widowed mother without a word. He’s now in jail in Syria, and she’s left with nothing. Just the other night, a group of between five and seven simply just left.” No one knows when they will be heard from again. Even death in jihad is uncertain.
“Without the body, families struggle to understand what’s happened,” Ben Rejeb continued. “It’s mental torture. In other cases, two days after being informed of their son’s death, they’d get a call from the son explaining that there’d been a mistake. Sometimes a whole year can go past, and then their son will turn up in prison somewhere. Walid’s family have heard these stories, so they don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to react.” Certainly, accepting the suicide of a son, husband, brother, and now father, can be no easy thing.
RECRUITING THE VULNERABLE
Everyone in Tunis knows a story like Walid’s, especially the young former Imam of Tunis’ central Al-Zaytuna mosque and General Secretary of the National Union of Imams, Fadel Achour. He is a slight man, his thick beard adding decades to his 33 years. However, his experience as an imam has already made him an authority on the jihadists’ recruitment tactics. “There are 5,100 mosques in Tunisia. We’re confident that, at one point, the jihadists had control of over 1,060 of them. The government figures are lower, but I’m confident about our number. They [the jihadists] don’t reach out with a single message. It’s more subtle than that. They’re changing it to the needs of the individual. They find out what people want, what they’re missing, and they promise it to them. It’s well-organized. It’s a whole system.” The procedure is a simple one. The recruiters go to the mosques, where there can be up to 1,000 people. And they watch—looking for who’s weak and who’s strong, who’s happy and who’s angry. Imam Achour knows well how it works as his father and grandfather before him were all imams.
Once there, the jihadists can dazzle those who may never have left their hometown with the movement’s international elite. “This relates to the intellectual leaders of jihad. They’re coming from Europe and elsewhere,” Achour continues. And each town in each country has something to offer. “They’re running a talent show. Each country has its own talent, and that’s what they’re after.”
Further north, in a beach house overlooking Tunisia’s postcard perfect Mediterranean coast, the Crisis Group’s Michael Ayari leans over a cup of coffee and a cigarette. He’s confident what Tunisia’s talent is: “They’re educated. At a minimum, they’re literate. They are given positions of responsibility. They’re able to organize operations.” More importantly, after forays into both Iraq and war-ravaged Libya, they’re often experienced.
Ayari also points to Tunisia’s long history of colonization and the growth of smuggling networks opposed to the restrictions of any central authority. From the Ottomans to the French, colonial power in Tunisia only truly thrived in the north and selected coastal towns. Elsewhere, colonial influence existed in the negative—taxes and the enforcement of alien laws. Further fueling this sense of internal dislocation was the discovery of extensive phosphate deposits in Tunisia’s southern hinterland. “Half the Arab world went there for them,” Ayari continues. “They brought their ideas.” So it’s no coincidence that it’s from Tunisia’s southern regions the first winds of revolution began to blow, sweeping across North Africa and onward to the heart of the Middle East.
Prior to events in the small border town of Sidi Bouzid in December 2010 that eventually led to the fall of the autocratic regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, resistance to the Tunisian regime had been burning underground, occasionally flaring into a blaze. “They’re more politicized,” Ayari says. “They were the first to engage in Pan-Arabism. The first to take up political Islam, now jihadism is taking hold there. What happens in Palestine, what happens in Iraq, happens in the South. They’re more a part of the region than any single state.”
As far back as 2003, urged and aided by a silent partnership of Salafists and security services, many of Tunisia’s young and disaffected left to fight the American and other Western crusaders in Iraq. “In Ben Gardene alone [a small border town in Tunisia’s south], 800 people left to fight in Iraq,” Ayari notes. Still, following a political volte-face typical of the region, all were arrested, jailed, and tortured upon returning in 2006. After the revolution, though all were amnestied, their hard-line views had been further hardened.
So it’s unlikely many harbor much sympathy for today’s regime in Tunisia, or in Iraq for that matter. However, to dismiss those leaving for jihad as ignorant or inherently nihilistic is a mistake, Ayari asserts. “There are rich, educated people among them. There’s a real intellectualism at work here. Writers like Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi are serious. There’s an ideology of jihadism that’s comparable to any other belief.” For the young men of Sejenene, or their counterparts throughout the south, where smuggling is frequently the only alternative to a lifetime of unemployment, the opportunity to redefine themselves and find meaning through a form of their religion must have been irresistible. “You can go to Syria to fight and not be a jihadist. Equally, you cannot go and still be one. It’s the idealism that makes the jihadist,” Ayari observes. “It’s the only truly anti-systemic ideology in the Arab world right now. They make you dream.” Ayari pauses and laughs at a thought, “and Ennahda—do they make you dream?”
BUNCHES OF KIDS
Walid’s story isn’t uncommon. Scott Atran, anthropologist at France’s National Center for Scientific Research and senior research fellow at Oxford University, has heard innumerable such stories. “Bunches of kids, sometimes dozens, go at a time. The imams may give them a push, but they usually don’t need much. These guys are mostly self seekers,” he points out. A recent study by Atran and some fellow researchers on interactions, both online and socially, demonstrated that most form their own group. “You can map an average person’s social interactions by concentric circles, one circle representing ‘me’ and one circle representing ‘the group,’” Atran continues. “You give them five successive pairs of these circles to choose from, ranging from entirely separated to entirely overlapping. Only truly committed guys, the militants, choose the last pair of entirely overlapping circles, sometimes even blackening everything out to show that there was no possible difference between ‘who I am’ and ‘who we are.’ These fully fused groups have a special sense of destiny and invincibility, no matter the odds or the powers arrayed against them.”
In such circumstances, information and opinion can only go sideways. Information enters a circle and will then travel, unchallenged, through each point along it, becoming amplified within a nearly endless feedback loop. As any musician can attest, the collective sound becomes deafening. Denied any outside source beyond the immediate circle to challenge the group, opinion becomes fact and those that challenge it, heretics, Atran’s study concludes. Hence the success of the recruiters amongst tightly knit social groups such as Walid’s where, once exposed to the call of jihad, the group essentially radicalizes itself.
Sejenene and the endless number of similar small towns interspersed throughout Tunisia and the larger Arab world are providing rich pickings to the jihadist recruiters. “Jihadism goes straight to the disaffected, to the driftwood of globalization. You go to them. You tell them they’re wasting their lives. You give them something meaningful. More than meaningful, you give them something heroic. You tell them they’re going to save the world, even if they have to destroy it first,” Atran says, describing jihad’s core constituency.
Even deliberate acts of terror—crucifixions and the beheadings—attract rather than repel. “We’re talking about true believers here,” says Atran. “They’re sending out a message. We do not compromise. They have a sense of the sublime that we rarely see. There’s terror here, but it’s a sublime terror. It’s spectacle. It’s the bloody demonstration of the power to control death. What we’re seeing is blood curdling moral virtue.” Jihad has always been powered by the strongest of emotions.
Salafism, the fundamentalist interpretation of Islam that fuels global jihad, speaks directly to them. In the 1980s, with the overt blessing of the West, the Gulf states were able to fund the spread of their fundamentalist doctrine throughout Afghanistan as a counterweight to the vaunted atheism of its Soviet occupiers. That seed, planted in the Central Asia mountain ranges of the Pamirs during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, has since sprouted, flourished, and borne fruit. The subsequent collapse of the U.S.S.R. left a countercultural void where jihadism has prospered, building legitimacy in the wars that followed and gaining currency in the mountains of Bosnia, Chechnya, and Dagestan, up to its most recent insertion into the ideological vacuum left in the wake of the 2011 Arab revolutions. The West’s War on Terror in both Iraq and Afghanistan created a moral quagmire that many are holding up as vindication of the jihadist cause. In North Africa and the Middle East, for every horrific image of a decapitated journalist or aid worker, there are countless images of Western soldiers torturing or humiliating Iraqis and Afghans.
SYRIA'S WIDER JIHAD
It’s within this wider, global jihad that the conflict in Syria and Iraq is taking place. Moreover, with the Islamic State’s most recent advances, taking it within striking distance of the Turkish border, this latter-day jihad is experiencing a new and vital surge in other, less visible corners of the Arab world. Those engaged in it have few doubts about the absolute morality of their mission. Without such a highly specific virtue or purpose, actions of such groups as the Islamic State unfolding in Syria and Iraq become unthinkable.
“The West wants to dismiss the Islamic State as a kind of death cult. It isn’t,” concludes Atran. “These guys have a roadmap to glory. They’re operating by a fixed moral compass. If you look at the Islamic State, if you look at the way they operate, it’s simple: moral conviction equals victory.”
To young men like Walid, mired in the economic backwaters of Sejenene, their prospects and opportunities diminishing with each dip in the value of the dinar, such clarity must be tantalizing. In the wake of the 2004 Madrid train bombings, Atran did a study in Morocco. Five of the seven plotters who later blew themselves up grew up together in the same neighborhood in Tetuan, Morocco, went to the same elementary and secondary schools, and played soccer together. “I asked some kids playing soccer by a garbage heap who their heroes were,” Atlan recalls. “Number one hero was Ronaldinho, a soccer star from the Barcelona team. Number two hero was the Terminator. They had no idea of his relationship to the then governor of California. And number three hero was Osama Bin Laden.”
Atran returned in November 2008 and asked the same question. Then, the number one hero was Eto’o, another Barcelona star, but the number three hero now sandwiched between the Terminator and number four, Osama Bin Laden, was Barack Obama. “This tells us one thing pretty clearly,” says Atran. “These kids are looking for heroes, and they’re at a crossroads where ‘Yes we can’ and ‘Happiness is martyrdom’ have almost equal pull.” Atran is similarly skeptical about the West’s plan to degrade the jihadists’ resources. “This isn’t about money. The fighters don’t care about money. What are you going to buy when you’re saving the world? Humanity goes to its greatest lengths for good or evil, for killing and living, not for families and the mortgage.”
Indeed, with each passing day, the West’s ongoing bombing campaign seems to be providing further proof of the clarity of jihad’s call. Ask.fm and Twitter are awash with images of the innocent dead, victims of the American-led air assaults. That some Gulf states, long distrusted by many throughout the Arab world, are part of the air campaign, only fuels the messages of mistrust and hatred radiating from the conflict zones, as well as compounding wider regional suspicions of ingrained Western orientalism.
“Our problem is what to do with all this energy,” Atran concludes. “What’s going to compete with this kind of certainty? Moderate Islam? After IS, what appeal is there in that? What are we going to offer them, shopping malls?”
It’s a message echoed by Imam Achour. “We need to think about how we can rehabilitate the returnees, psychologically, spiritually, and religiously. What can we give them that’s going to bring these fighters home. It’s a trust issue. The risk is that the returning fighter is going to see a moderate imam and perceive a kafir (infidel), a slave of the government.” While the Islamic State may offer its followers the noble fury of holy jihad, Imam Achour sees little but a disparate group of lost and angry young men.
Quoting the seventh century caliph Muawiyah bin Abi-Sufyan, he says, “‘Bring them into the sunlight.’ They’re ready for this. They need this.” The fate of returning fighters is never far from Ben Rejeb’s mind either. He has already been contacted by a small number of fighters less enthusiastic about rallying behind the jihadist flag than their compatriots in the face of the current bombing campaign. But the direction their zealotry might take when they return to Tunisia is worrying him. “According to the Ministry of the Interior, around 250 fighters have already returned. They’re arrested at the border, but there’s no consistency [as] to how long they might spend in prison. Sometimes it can be as little as 10 days, sometimes as long as a year,” says Ben Rejeb. “I worked with a woman whose nephew had returned from Syria as a radical. He’d shaved his beard, but he brought the ideology back intact. They beat him and put him in the prison at Mornag. All they succeeded in doing was confirming everything he’d already suspected of the government. Now he just wants to fight them. You don’t know how people will react when you do that to them. You don’t know how they’ve been trained. They’ve given this guy the right to think the way he does. They’ve convinced him it’s the righteous path. All he’s going to do now is convert other fighters in Tunisia.”
That 9,000 individuals within Tunisia have already shown themselves sufficiently motivated to attempt the journey to Syria and Iraq is lost on no one. “They [the Tunisian authorities] are expecting something during the elections,” says Ben Rejeb. “I don’t know what, but security’s even tighter. Have you seen the barbed wire outside the cathedral? That’s been extended since the last elections.”
Back in Tunis, Mohamed is still coming to terms with his grief. “More young men are leaving. The government doesn’t even try to stop them. They know who the recruiters are, but they don’t do anything.” Walid’s death has given him a grandchild he must now raise. “I am here. I can care for the child, but there are other families. Who’s going to take care of them? In the end, Walid was scared of returning to Tunisia because of what was waiting for him here. If the government only offers prison, they’re creating even more suicide bombers. They’re creating more orphans.”
Simon Speakman Cordall is a journalist currently living in Tunisia. He tweets @ignitionUK.
[Photo courtesy of Americans Abroad Media]