GLOBAL ECONOMY

Jihadi launchpad Tunisia hesitates taking extremists back

  • In this photo dated, Dec. 24, 2016, women demonstrate outside the Tunisian parliament, in Tunis, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016. Poster reads : no to the return of Daesh's criminals in Tunisia. About 200 people have protested in the Tunisian capital against the return of Tunisian jihadis who have fought abroad. The gathering was prompted by the deadly truck attack in a Berlin Christmas market by Tunisian Anis Amri, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and was killed Friday in a police shootout. (AP Photo/Ons Abid)

    In this photo dated, Dec. 24, 2016, women demonstrate outside the Tunisian parliament, in Tunis, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016. Poster reads : no to the return of Daesh's criminals in Tunisia. About 200 people have protested in the Tunisian capital against the return of Tunisian jihadis who have fought abroad. The gathering was prompted by the deadly truck attack in a Berlin Christmas market by Tunisian Anis Amri, who had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group and was killed Friday in a police shootout. (AP Photo/Ons Abid)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this photo dated, Dec. 24, 2016, women demonstrate outside the Tunisian parliament, in Tunis, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, with banner reading : No to Terrorism. Tunisia has the dubious distinction of being one of the world's primary exporters of jihadi fighters, and now as extremists suffer defeats on the battlefield, many Tunisian people fear what will happen when  Jihadis return to this vulnerable country.(AP Photo/Ons Abid)

    In this photo dated, Dec. 24, 2016, women demonstrate outside the Tunisian parliament, in Tunis, Saturday, Dec. 24, 2016, with banner reading : No to Terrorism. Tunisia has the dubious distinction of being one of the world's primary exporters of jihadi fighters, and now as extremists suffer defeats on the battlefield, many Tunisian people fear what will happen when Jihadis return to this vulnerable country.(AP Photo/Ons Abid)  (The Associated Press)

  • In this photo dated Thursday, Feb. 4, 2017, Rabia Farjallah, the mother of Mohamed Bel Hadj Amor, who was arrested by Syrian forces and jailed since 2012, poses next to a portrait of her son in Kelibia, Tunisia. Tunisia has the dubious distinction of being one of the world's primary exporters of jihadi fighters. Now, many fear they will return to a vulnerable country of backlogged courts and porous borders. (AP Photo/Ons Abid)

    In this photo dated Thursday, Feb. 4, 2017, Rabia Farjallah, the mother of Mohamed Bel Hadj Amor, who was arrested by Syrian forces and jailed since 2012, poses next to a portrait of her son in Kelibia, Tunisia. Tunisia has the dubious distinction of being one of the world's primary exporters of jihadi fighters. Now, many fear they will return to a vulnerable country of backlogged courts and porous borders. (AP Photo/Ons Abid)  (The Associated Press)

Tunisia has the unhappy distinction of being one of the world's biggest exporters of jihadi fighters, only to see young men trained by the Islamic State return home to kill Western tourists, soldiers and even an unfortunate shepherd.

Now, as the extremists suffer one battlefield defeat after another, Tunisia is being torn by a furious debate over what to do with returnees from among the 3,000 to 6,000 who left — and even how to determine the threat they pose.

"The danger is there. These are people who were indoctrinated. These are people who left and who destroyed their Tunisian passports and who announced that they belonged to the nation of Daesh," or IS, said Dr. Boutheina Chihi Ezzine, a leader of a protest movement against a government she fears is too willing to downplay the danger in exchange for social peace.

"Frankly," she said, "we do not know how these people can come back and have the same values as we do, the sense of belonging to Tunisia, to the Tunisian nation."

The country's prisons are full, its courts are backlogged with terrorism cases, and its desert borders are porous. The country, which is not on the Trump administration's banned travel list, is the only one to emerge from the 2011 Arab Spring with a functioning democracy.

It's that democracy that allowed Ezzine and others to start organizing when President Beji Caid Essebsi said Tunisian jails were too crowded to jail every jihadi who returns, and that most posed no danger. The first protest, held after a Tunisian follower of Islamic State attacked the Berlin Christmas market, drew just a few hundred; the second attracted upward of 1,000.

By official count, around 3,000 Tunisians traveled to the war zone in Libya, Syria and Iraq — most of them to join Islamic State and other extremist groups. Many analysts believe the real number is at least double that. Another 1,250 young people were blocked from leaving, and it is believed that thousands of others are smoldering sympathizers.

In 2015, a Tunisian trained in an Islamic State camp in Libya opened fire on a beach, picking off tourists as they sunbathed. Two others stormed the galleries of Tunis' Bardo Museum, a popular destination for foreign visitors. In March this year, Islamic State fighters attacked the border garrison of Ben Gardane, and 55 people died in the ensuing fight. A teenage shepherd who refused to hand his flock over to the jihadis was beheaded.

Ezzine is among many who believe the government can't handle the coming influx, and for her, the last straw was hearing the president downplay the threat in an early December interview. She tracked down Facebook groups of Tunisians with the same concerns and persuaded them to pull together into a collective.

"Even if we have begun to have some political stability, we remain a country that has lived through attacks, through political assassination," she said.

The group's slogan — "No to the return of terrorists" — touched a nerve. Her group is now meeting with political leaders, ministry by ministry, to press for a plan.

The government is careful to say that any Tunisian who wants to return can do so.

"We deal with this subject according to the constitution and to the laws," said Chafik Hajji, a Tunisian diplomat who handles the returning fighters. "Article 25 of the Constitution says that it is forbidden to deprive a Tunisian of his citizenship and to prevent him from returning home. We treat this subject, therefore, with all the seriousness and responsibility that it deserves."

Ezzine herself acknowledges that no Tunisian can be blocked from returning home, but says the government has done little to prepare for them. Unlike Saudi Arabia, which has had similar issues with jihadis in the past, there is no formal deradicalization program, even if one could be shown to work.

The government says it jails the most dangerous and monitors the rest. Around 800 are already back, Hajji said. Many, additionally, are trapped in legal and diplomatic limbo abroad.

"Tunisia is horrified by the idea that there are thousands of Tunisians who will return together to Tunisia. That's not happening. We know that these people left in small groups of two or three people and they are returning the same way," said Ridha Raddaoui of the Tunisian Center of Research and Study of Terrorism.

Raddaoui and Ezzine say the government has no real way to evaluate those who return. They are questioned, and anyone who acknowledges having committed crimes in the war zone is jailed for trial. But the evidence needed for conviction, if it exists at all, is in Syria or Libya. And, Raddaoui said, most end up being freed.

For months, Raddaoui has been examining more than 500 legal cases involving Tunisians accused of terrorism. The result was an in-depth, statistical look at why the Arab Spring's only democracy is also a major exporter of armed extremists. A significant find, Raddaoui said, was a handwritten letter captured during a firefight with extremists near the Libyan border.

"In the text, these terrorists say we are the people who benefited most from the Tunisian revolution," he said. "Because first they were able to get out of prison, they were able to organize on a national level, with recruits and everything. They trained, they armed themselves, they created their own camps in the mountains of the northwest."

They found easy prey in the young people of Tunisia, who expected little from the pre-2011 authoritarian government but had high hopes after its fall. It turned out to be no easier to find good work under democracy than under an autocratic government. Things have only deteriorated further for the nation of 11 million. Tourism dried up, and the unemployment rate, officially around 15 percent, soared among the young, who began to leave for Europe — and for the war zones of Syria and Libya, which shares a 400-kilometer border with Tunisia.

The situation of the travelers can be murky. Mohammed Bel Hadj Amor crossed into Syria at age 19 in 2012, among the first of successive waves of young Tunisians headed for the war zone. Whatever his plans — he says he only wanted to help the Syrian people — he was thwarted almost immediately. He was intercepted first by Islamic State extremists, who killed four of his friends, and then detained by Syrian government forces.

His mother only learned what had happened to him 13 months later, when he appeared in a documentary from the prison where he was being held with 42 other Tunisians. Since then, she has visited him once and received countless calls and texts from behind bars.

But, the family said, Tunisia would not let the group come home. Hajji said the government has received no official request from Syria to take them back. But on Jan. 15, Amor called home to say they had been released and walking out of the prison in Damascus, destination unknown.

"We are leaving now. Pray for us! Don't worry. God bless you all," he said in a voice message that his sister, Leila, plays over and over in the family's home in coastal Tunisia.

That was the last word from the group.

The man who persuaded Mohammed to leave for Syria ultimately died there himself more recently, fighting for the Islamic State group. Another recruiter, who had targeted Leila's 12-year-old son, remained in town. Her son, she said, now harangues his mother to wear the veil and spends his free time at the mosque.

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Bouazza ben Bouazza contributed from Tunis.