New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 19, 2013
ZAGHOUAN, Tunisia » Hayet Saadi says the trouble with her son Aymen began more than a year ago, when he was 16. He started attending the mosque five times a day, she said. Then he began talking of jihad, and of going to Syria to join the rebels fighting the government of President Bashar Assad. In March, he skipped his high school exams and left home.
Finally, on Oct. 30, Saadi came home to find the police surrounding her house. A suicide bomber had blown himself up in Sousse, a seaside resort about an hour's drive south. Another was caught before he could detonate his payload. The police confiscated the family's computers and phones, and her husband spent the rest of the day at the police station. He called her later from there. "Yes, it is your child," he told her. Aymen is now in prison.
In the weeks since the attack, Aymen's trajectory from promising middle-class student to potential suicide bomber has shaken Tunisia, despite the Islamist government's recent show of moderation in striking a compromise with its secular opponents. Homegrown suicide attacks, previously unheard-of here, are the latest sign of spreading radicalization among young people in a country that has become fertile ground for Islamist groups recruiting fighters for the conflicts convulsing the region, from Libya to Syria.
For now, jihadi violence in Tunisia is on a low boil, with two political assassinations and 30 members of the security forces killed this year. But there is growing concern that hundreds of young volunteers — possibly even several thousand — have been recruited through a widening network of hard-line Salafist mosques and then trained to fight in Syria, with the potential to return home to cause more trouble, as Aymen and his companion did.
"Even if just 200 come back, that could cause real problems," said Mehdi Taje, director of Global Prospect Intelligence and a specialist on North Africa. And Syria is not the only place radicalized Tunisians have gone to fight. They have also been found with jihadi groups in Mali, Algeria, Libya and Iraq.
There is a precedent right next door. Algerians who went to Afghanistan in the 1980s to fight Soviet forces returned to fuel an Islamic movement and then a civil war at home that killed some 200,000 in the 1990s. Twenty years later, Algeria is still dealing with insurgents, who have retreated into the desert.
The Tunisian police and army officials have warned of signs that Islamist insurgents may be laying the groundwork for an armed insurgency in their own country, which lies between Algeria and lawless Libya.
Since Tunisia began the Arab Spring almost three years ago by ousting its longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who had forcibly secularized the country, fundamentalist Salafi groups have sprouted in almost every town. They draw thousands of young men and women to their mosques, where they recruit volunteers ostensibly for missionary work in Tunisia, but also for jihad.
Some began vigilante attacks, including an assault in September 2012 on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, two days after the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. In the spring, armed groups also appeared in the hills bordering Algeria, apparently remnants of insurgents retreating from the French intervention in Mali.
Tunisia's top general, Rachid Ammar, warned in a television interview in June that militant Islamists lodged in the mountains on Tunisia's western border were training quasi-military units and were set on overthrowing the Tunisian state and setting up Islamic rule.
"This is not terrorism, it's a rebellion," warned the general, who has since retired. "This is one of the stages of rebellion."
The surge in youthful Salafist followers like Aymen was also evidence of a popular social movement. The Salafist mosques provide open spaces for inquiring youth who are lured by charismatic preachers offering a stirring mix of camaraderie and talk of holy war and self-sacrifice in the name of God.
Although most Salafis insist that their activity is focused on educational and humanitarian causes, it is clear from dozens of interviews with families of the recruits, analysts and government officials that a growing number of young men are being drawn into militancy.
In August, the government outlawed one Salafist group, Ansar al-Shariah, as a terrorist threat. Led by men who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan — many of them released from prison since the start of the Arab Spring — the group has recruited criminals and smugglers, and has also drawn many young recruits into its ranks, security officials say.
The Islamist government originally tried to woo the Salafis to its side, but as violence increased, it began a crackdown aimed primarily at Ansar al-Shariah. The police say that since May they have smashed several cells of the group, detained 300 suspected members, and killed or arrested its main military leaders. In October, six friends who were Ansar members were killed in a clash with security forces in the countryside south of Tunis.
"We hit them very hard," Mohammed Ali Aroui, an Interior Ministry spokesman, said in an interview. "Ansar al-Shariah is in the past now; you don't see their signs or slogans or tents anywhere." The group's leader, Seifallah Ben Hassine, known as Abu Ayadh, is thought to have escaped to Libya, he said.
Under the pressure, Ansar members have retreated underground, but recruiting for jihad continues, by Ansar and other groups, through mosques and religious associations. The volunteers are organized by a network of facilitators who supply money, cars and safe houses in various towns.
The recruits travel mostly through Libya, where they receive military training in camps in and around Benghazi. From there they fly to Turkey, the main access point for rebels entering Syria. The Tunisian police have set up border controls to stop anyone younger than 35 suspected of traveling for jihad. But Tunisia's borders remain porous, as fighters and weapons cross to and from Libya.
Saadi says her son seems to have taken that route. Aymen, now 17, first tried to go to Syria in March when he left home, she said, but the police stopped him at one border check. In August, he took off again and was gone for over two months.
Aymen's plan was always to go fight in Syria, but in Libya some jihadists ordered the two bombers to go back to Tunisia, his mother said. His mother learned of her son's account from one of his prison wardens.
"I am not sure what he was trying to do," she said.
The Libyan jihadists, whose faces were masked, told the two youths that it was not the time to go to Syria.
"The fight is in Tunisia right now; we want to create an emirate there," they said. When the two youths showed some reluctance, the masked men insisted, saying that they had no one else for the job. Government officials confirmed the account.
From the time Aymen started attending mosque regularly, it took barely 18 months until he was caught trying to blow himself up among a group of tourists at the tomb of Habib Bourguiba, the Tunisian post-independence leader, in the town of Monastir. His parents, a primary schoolteacher and an agricultural engineer, had hoped he would follow his older brother to university. He was good at math.
His mother did not blame the mosque for leading him astray. None of his school friends wanted to go to Syria, she added. She blamed other strangers, "older men and sheikhs with cars," for influencing her son.
"It is a shame to call a young man a terrorist," she said of her son. "I see that he is a victim, and the real big terrorists are still roaming on the streets and young men like my son can be influenced."