As soon as you enter al-Alia town, close to the city of Benzart north of the capital Tunis, you will be surprised by the overflowing coffee shops, thronged with hundreds of young men.
Two days after the presidential elections, we entered the town at 11:00 in the morning. It was a normal weekday and a crowd of young were sitting in coffee shops, seemingly waiting for something.
Nabil al-Qarawy, the businessman who is in prison on charges of corruption, garnered the most votes in the elections, because he distributed food to the poor, while the Nahda Movement candidate, Abdul-Fattah Moro, came second.
We asked one young man, who said he spent most of his time at the coffee shop, what he does for a living. He said he was waiting for a chance to leave Tunisia through ‘al-Harraqa’: “There are no jobs here,” he lamented.
We asked him about the hundreds of young men from his hometown who went to join the jihad in Syria. He told us that one of his unemployed relatives was among them.
That relative had also been spending his days at the same coffee shop, waiting for an ‘al-Harraqa’ chance, when one day a preacher from the mosque came up to him, an encounter that led to the youth being sent to Syria.
More than a hundred young men left al-Alia— a town whose population does not exceed 20,000– to join the war in Syria, between 2012-2014, the period of the “Troika Rule”, as Tunisians call the years when al-Nahda Movement, the Tunisian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, was in power.
Al-Alia is not the only town that has witnessed a jihadist hemorrhage of its youths. In actual fact, the numbers of young men leaving for Syria from nearby towns exceeds al-Alia’s. The towns of Menzel-Bourguiba and Sajnan, for example, also in the Benzart province, have the same unemployment problem as al-Alia’s. And these two coastal towns are not too far from the “European paradise.”
At that time, Saudi and Qatari associations came to Tunisia to fund the trips to Syria, according to Tunisian officials
The married jihadists took their wives with them to Syria. Back then, leaving the country was easy. There were entities that funded those trips, issuing passports and providing financial support for the families left behind.
Later, most of the mujahideen were either killed, arrested or disappeared in the sands of Syrian and Iraqi deserts.
Their wives and widows were left in isolation camps north of Syria. Back home in Tunisia, it is mostly the maternal grandmothers who are fighting for their return.
The mujahideen’s mothers, for their part, have lost their enthusiasm for the cause after the death or disappearance of their sons. And the “jihad trips” have put the two sides of the family through turbulent times, during which a rift was sown between in-laws.
45-year-old Samira’s daughter and five granddaughters are trapped in northern Syria. The death of her son-in-law, Hassan Ibn-Najmah in Raqqa, has put a strain on the relationship with her in-laws, who accused her of facilitating their son’s trip to Syria. After he died, they severed contact with their granddaughters, too.
When Ibn-Najmah left for Raqqa with his wife, the two had just been married. They had their five daughters while in Syria.
When Hassan was killed in a battle in 2016, his wife moved with their daughters to the Roj camp, close to Qamishli.
Every week, Samira carries photographs of her grandchildren to Tunis, to take part in the sit-ins for the families of Tunisians stranded abroad in conflict zones.
Samira, whose daughter got married at 18, and is now 25, says she herself got married at an even younger age than her daughter. Her son-in-law used to work in construction. A few months into their marriage, he left for Syria, and his wife joined him a month later.
Samira says she did not know her daughter had intended to travel to her husband, and that she did not have a passport. “Someone helped her issue a passport and paid for the trip expenses,” she says.
We met four grandmothers in al-Alia who, like Samira, wish to be reunited with their daughters and grandchildren stuck in the north Syria camps, and for that, also take part in the weekly sit-ins in Tunis, carrying photos of their grandchildren, but hiding the faces of the mothers.
Most Tunisians do not feel responsible for their 5000 compatriots who joined the wars in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
In the same way, these grandmothers do not hold themselves accountable for what their sons-in-law, sons or daughters have done. All the events that led to their daughters’ departure for jihad happened behind their backs. Strangers were involved in organizing everything.
Jihadi recruitment during the Troika years was a difficult mission. Salafist preachers became a visible phenomenon on the Tunisian scene.
After the revolution, the ‘Amnesty Law’ called for the release of thousands of salafists from prison and enabled hundreds of others to return home from their exile, thus opening the door wide for jihad in Tunisia.
Soon salafi jihadists gained control over 400 mosques around the country, according to Hadi Yahmed, an expert on jihadist groups and the author of “I Was in Raqqa.”
At that time, Saudi and Qatari associations came to Tunisia to fund the trips to Syria, according to Tunisian officials. The expression ‘Da’wa camps’– to designate the almost-public recruitment centers for young jihadists– became popular in the press and in everyday parlance. And in regions not far from the capital, semi-military entities were formed, like the salafi police.
There is a mosque in the upper part of al-Alia where most of the recruitment happened, according to the grandmothers interviewed by Daraj.
In this town, circumstances were ripe for generating conditions for “leaving the country”, which is the same as “Harraqa,” only with the added hotbeds of war.
According to Hadi Yahmed, one of the common characteristics of a Tunisian Jihadist is the fact of being born in a suburb or a town neighboring a major city, like At-Tadaman town Douar Hicher near Tunis, and al-Alia, Menzel Bourguiba and Sajanan on the periphery of Benzart.
Shahida Al-Tarabulsi’s daughter and three grandchildren are cast away in Ayn-Issa camp, near Raqqah. She is the only grandmother we interviewed whose son-in-law is still alive. Ironically, he managed to return to Tunisia and turn himself in while his wife and children stayed behind in Syria.
When Shahida learned that her son-in-law returned, she immediately headed to the police station, and complained that her daughter, who was pregnant, was stuck in Syria and wanted to come home, too.
The officer asked Shahida to go home and wait, and said he would get back to her later. That was more than a year ago. Shahida never heard back from the police.
No one in Tunisia feels that thousands of Tunisian men, women and children being stuck in conflict zones, is an issue that the country must face. The average Tunisian believes that those should actually be banned from returning home.
Officials believe the same, even though they never themselves publicly declare it. Instead, they relegate the task of doing so to their advisors.
Néji Djelloul is an employee with the rank of Minister who ran for president in the last elections. Now head of the presidential Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies (ITES), he told Daraj, “I, myself believe that they shouldn’t return to Tunisia! The countries that helped them leave must keep them. No need to mention names. We all know those states.”
And in response to a question about other societies’ responsibility for a phenomenon born in Tunisia, Djelloul says: “There is a global legal status called “Bidoon” i.e. stateless. These people have no nationality, and there are thousands of them!”
The magnitude of this phenomenon has not been given adequate attention. Tunisians, be they secularists or islamists, do not want to deal with the issue. The former radically reject the Islamic model in all its manifestations. While Islamists, aware of their role in creating this phenomenon―know that opening this subject for discussion will reveal the extent of their involvement.
Everyone is in denial of this national predicament, abdicating their responsibility for finding a solution for those trapped in conflict zones.
But the ugly truth is, while this denial at home continues, back in those Syrian isolation camps, the jihadi recruitment conditions are being recreated.
There is more to the story than young men joining Isis and leaving widows and children behind in camps.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of children today living in the worst possible conditions.
52-year-old Fethiye Ben Taha’s two grandchildren were left alone in al-Hawl refugee camp upon the death of both their parents, before a Tunisian family from al-Alia living in Syria took them in. Consanguinity keeps Tunisian expats in Raqqa tightly bound together.
Fethiye is, again, demanding the return of her grandchildren to Tunisia, at a time when the father’s family is showing no concern whatsoever for their fate.
In another sign of the country’s denial of this predicament, Tunisia has not officially counted the number of its citizens who left to fight abroad. The numbers vary. They start with 3,000 fighters, a figure considered reduced and unrealistic, while semi-official entities like ITES put it at 5,000.
International research institutions’ also estimate at up to 5,000 the number of Tunisian fighters in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.