The Factory: Who Sent Tunisians to Syria?

Hazem El Amin- Alia Ibrahim
October 2, 2019
Everyone Daraj interviewed in Tunisia, from researchers to journalists and officials, confirm the existence of well-known entities behind sending Tunisians to Syria after the revolution broke out there.

Taheya al-Sabou’y, from the Tunisian city Qairouan, is the mother of a young man who traveled to Syria and was killed there. She says she learned her son was about to travel to Syria just before he left and informed the police at the time, who detained him for a few hours at the Libyan border, but soon released him, whereupon he crossed the border to Libya, then traveled to Syria via Turkey.

Everyone Daraj interviewed in Tunisia, from researchers to journalists and officials, confirm the existence of  well-known entities behind sending Tunisians to Syria after the revolution broke out there.  

Apart from the well-founded accusation that al-Nahda Movement, in power at the time, facilitated the travel of young jihadis to fight in the Syrian war, the freedom bequeathed to Salafi-Jihadist groups after 2011 played a major role in magnifying this phenomenon and spreading it across Tunisian cities. 

During those years, specifically in 2012, the Salafi-Jihadists became a part of the political scene in Tunisia. We, the journalists who visited Tunisia to cover the post-revolution developments, went to meet them at their mosques in the capital and other cities. 

In Tunis, al-Fateh Mosque was the salafists’ meeting point, where they openly discussed organizing ‘jihad’ trips to Syria. It was all happening within sight of the police, and with its consent.

Behind the scenes of the Da’wah (Islamic calling) tents and mosques occupied by Salafi-Jihadists recently released from prison, Gulf organizations were funding those trips. 

Tunisian journalists have robust evidence supporting the claim that Saudi and Qatari organizations came to Tunisia after the overthrow of the regime. The jihadist trips to the Levant required a sum of money that most young men who traveled could not afford, let alone the cost of taking their wives and children along, in addition to providing financial support for the rest of the family left behind. None of that was a secret.

Hanan Zobeis, a Tunisian journalist who participated in the investigative reporting on the phenomenon says that “sending Tunisian young men to Syria began during the Troika rule, between the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2015. There was a clear policy to encourage young Tunisians to travel to conflict areas, specifically Syria. Those young men were offered facilitations, financial and otherwise, in the border regions. Al-Nahda government was fully aware of this phenomenon, but did not try to put an end to it.

In addition to al-Nahda’s responsibility, the fact is that the living conditions in Tunisia were repelling to young people, who longed to leave their country, whether in the direction of Syria or any other destination. 

The overthrow of Bin-Ali’s regime opened the door for the marginalized suburbanites to come forward and become prominent political players. Having  been shunned out of post-revolution politics, Salafi missionaries who returned from abroad, those who were released from prison, and those who raided mosques and expelled their imams, all turned into local leaders. 

Even though they do not belong to al-Nahda’s base, the movement used them, on one hand, to confront local secularists, and on the other, in their regional projects, in which they cooperated with their Muslim Brotherhood counterparts in Lybia and Turkey, and finally in Syria, for which they provided more than 5,000 Tunisian jihadists, who traveled there via Turkey. 

Muhammad Iqbal ibn-Rajab, head of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, narrates the events that reveal al-Nahda’s role in facilitating those young men’s trips to Syria. 

He recalls the speeches of Nour el-Deen al-Khadimi, the Imam of al-Fateh Mosque, who had close ties with al-Nahda at the time, encouraging people to join Jihad in Syria. Al-Khadimi was later promoted to the post of minister of religious affairs in the Nahda government. 

Another al-Nahda official, Habib al-Loz, said in a documented statement, “Had I been young, I would have traveled to join Jihad in Syria.”

The mujahideen’s families

Although all those who are concerned by this phenomenon hold al-Nahda responsible for it, there is an unspoken agreement in Tunisia to refrain from pointing fingers at the movement, and instead turn a blind eye to the whole conundrum. 

Iqbal has no faith in the Tunisian government’s will or desire to address the situation. He hopes the United Nations will step forward and pressure countries to repatriate their nationals, especially the children. 

A parallel problem emerges here as to how to authenticate the nationality of those children. Many of their fathers died in Syria. Many widows remarried, giving way to another prominent phenomenon: the ‘two-father families’.

For hundreds of families stranded in the camps of northern Syria, Tunisians and other, the experience of living in the “caliphate state” produced new social lifestyles and family combinations that are difficult to disentangle via the personal status laws in effect in their original countries. 

Ezz el-Deen al-Toumy, from al-Mahdeya province in the Tunisian south, is the grandfather of two children living in al-Rouj camp. His son, Abdul-Moneim, was killed in Raqqa. His widow, Yasmine, got remarried to another Isis militant from Lebanon and bore him children, before he in turn was killed. Yasmine registered her children from both marriages as Lebanese. 

Officials in Tunisia justify this denial by referring to other, especially European countries, who are also avoiding the issue of their nationals joining Isis

Abdul-Moneim was an engineer who graduated from a Canadian university before returning to Tunisia. In Mahdeya city, he got engaged to his would-be wife whose family had moved to Raqqah to “live for God’s cause,” which later made them decide to move again into the Caliphate State so their children would grow up to be “soldiers of the Caliphate.” 

Today, 9 years since the phenomenon appeared, and 4 years since it has been contained from a political and security viewpoint, researchers agree that the internal conditions for its renewal are still in existence. 

“Isis offered wrong solutions to an otherwise real problem, which is marginalization,” says Néji Djelloul, noting that the illiteracy level is at 80% in some regions, while 32% suffer from malnutrition, and about 300,000 university graduates are jobless. If we add to these indicators the existence of hotbeds of regional tension and an internal political atmosphere that facilitates these fundamenlist groups’ work, then the birth of a new generation of terrorists is inevitable.

Officials in Tunisia continue to deny their responsibility in this phenomenon. They justify this denial by referring to other, especially European countries, who are also avoiding the issue of their nationals joining Isis. The truth of the latter statement does nothing, however, to find a solution for the problem. 

France has citizens in Kurdish and Iraqi prisons, their wives and children in isolation camps. This has created tension in the relationship between Paris and the authorities of a country like Iraq, which had previously sentenced those foreign nationals to death. Parisians then took to the streets to protest against the death sentences, for those are French nationals and France does not have death penalty. At the same time, France refuses to bring those nationals to trial on its territory. 

The stalemate is even greater in Tunisia. Here, we are talking about thousands of combatants and a much larger number of women and children. A Syrian Democratic Forces official informed “Daraj” that all their attempts to approach the Tunisian authorities to discuss the issue have failed. 

Muhammad Iqbal told “Daraj” that Tunisian authorities order any woman who wants to come back, to travel to Turkey first and turn herself in there. Turkish authorities would then hand her over to the Tunisian embassy. Only then would the embassy be left with no other choice but to repatriate the woman back to Tunisia. 

The problem is entering Turkey has become almost impossible for those nationals.

A Fourth-generation Jihadist?

Writer Hedi Yahmed, lists possible reasons that might bring the fourth generation of Tunisian jihadists to life. He says that prisons, at the moment, host about 3,000 Tunisian jihadists, and there is an equivalent number of jihadists-to-be, whom the authorities had prevented from leaving. Add those who fought in Libya and Syria and survived and now remain free, and we are face-to-face with a whole generation that is ready to resume violence at the first chance, according to Yahmed. 

This chance can be the emergence of new conflicts in or outside the country, or the return of al-Nahda to power. 

Hanan Zobeis confirms that the nucleus of the new generation will be formed in isolation camps: “News is out that many combatants, along with their wives and children, started heading to Europe where they pose as Syrian refugeess and apply for asylum,” she says. Many women told Ms. Zobeis that they would indeed follow this European path which others tried and succeeded in.

The Tunisian political class thinks it is possible to be evasive in dealing with the issue. A specific plan to address it has yet to be put on the table.  

Around 1,000 combatants succeeded in arriving to Tunisia where they got arrested and prosecuted. But thousands of others are still either in Iraqi and Kurdish prisons or hiding in the desert. And those who got killed in battles left behind families who are unable to obtain death certificates or any document certifying the identity of their children. 

It seems that skirting responsibility began when the authorities allowed many to leave Tunisia for the sake of jihad outside it. Back then, al-Nahda thought that would help bring down Bashar al-Assad, and secularists thought the outgoing jihadists were a good riddance. 

“If he dies, he will die a martyr,” al-Nahda leader told a woman who came to solicit his help in stopping her son from going to Syria. 

When asked about the mujahideen’s fate, Néji Djelloul replied “Why do you want to place the blame on Tunisia and its people for massacres carried out by preachers and groups that came from abroad after the revolution and took advantage of the country’s breakdown and the weakness of its institutions to send Tunisian nationals abroad?!”

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