KASSERINE, Tunisia – On Valentine’s Day in 2014, Safouan Aichaoui updated his Facebook status with a smiley face and the words “feeling alive.” The Tunisian 24-year-old had arrived in Idlib, Syria, one year earlier to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra.
On the social media platform, he added a longer post in Arabic: “Many people think that jihad is the closest way to death. They don’t realize that it actually prolongs life. I swear to God, you feel the pleasure of your existence. It’s not a pointless existence. And every day you are born again.”
Three months and twelve days later, Aichaoui was dead. Back in his hometown of Kasserine, 29-year-old Abdelhamid Mhadhbi found out from Facebook that his childhood friend and neighbor had been killed in a fight against Syrian government forces. Mhadhbi had been corresponding with Aichaoui since he left Tunisia for Syria in 2013. Besides posting pro-ISIL images on Facebook, Aichaoui had sent photos of himself with new comrades in Syria, dressed in black and pointing index fingers to the sky, his green eyes smiling straight at the camera. “I am never coming back home. I want to complete my life in jihad,” he told Mhadhbi in one chat exchange, mixing in French shorthand. “g trouve mon bomheur ici.” I’ve found my happiness here.
Aichaoui was one of an estimated 4,000 Tunisians who have become foreign fighters in Syria, along with 1,000-1,500 in Libya, 200 in Iraq, 60 in Mali and 60 in Yemen, making Tunisia the world’s top exporter of fighters to radical groups abroad. Most are 18-35.
The state’s response is a security crackdown: closing mosques, arresting aspiring fighters and building a wall on the Libyan border. But civil society groups, family members and the young Tunisians themselves say that’s not enough. The country’s young people were raised under a dictatorship that suppressed critical thinking, rendering many of them at once hungry for religious identity and vulnerable to fundamentalist preaching. As Tunisia struggles with its democratic transition, they have fallen prey to violent networks offering not only economic opportunity and social inclusion, but also a confident worldview.
Aichaoui was one of these youth. No one in his family knew Aichaoui was going to Syria until he called his mother from the Turkish border. “He’d reached a point of no return then,” Mhadhbi said, literally and ideologically. “He was convinced.” Aichaoui had left the underdeveloped interior region of Kasserine six years ago to study in Tunis, but seemed unchanged when he returned for holidays each year. Aichaoui had been quiet and religious, Mhadhbi said, praying daily and refraining from drinking. But he’d never shown violent or desperate tendencies; on the contrary, Aichaoui was an A-student, pursuing a master’s in information technology management. Jabhat al-Nusra gave Aichaoui a job, house and wife, but he could have found all those in Tunisia. What Syria offered him was the chance to be a hero, Mhadhbi said.
“Safouan was looking for martyrdom. He saw himself dying for God’s sake,” Mhadhbi said. “Even if Assad’s regime fell, he would never come back. He’d go to Chechnya or Afghanistan.” Aichaoui found a new surety in Syria, Mhadhbi said, writing condescendingly on social media about the glory of jihadi life and urging his friends to join. In March 2014, Aichaoui posted a photo of a dead jihadist's face, circling a patch of light on his forehead. “Look at the light descending on him… look at his smile,” he wrote in the caption. “I swear to God, brothers, I am kissing him and keep rubbing my nose in his face till I am satiated with the smell of musk wafting from him … That’s God’s grace that he bestows upon whoever he wishes.”
When commenters questioned the musk, light or violence, Aichaoui retorted that they were victims of the media, clueless about true martyrdom and jihad. “What do you know about legitimate fighting?” he wrote. “I never respected you before and now it’s even worse … If you had chivalrous zeal you’d have come to defend your religion. Instead you’re defending the democracy of infidels.”
While some youth go to Syria seeking death, others go to escape it. In Douar Hicher, a poor neighborhood in the outer suburbs of Tunis, 60-year-old Umm Taher said she’d stopped her 18-year-old son from going to Syria. “Our kids go to jihad from hunger and poverty. Look how we mothers are working to keep them alive,” said Umm Taher, who sells cheap dresses on the street for a profit of a few dollars a day. Her husband requires regular kidney dialysis and can’t work, while her seven children are all unable to find jobs, despite two of them having advanced degrees in physics and chemistry. “Only a handful of people are really living in Tunisia,” she said, adding that life had gotten more difficult since the revolution. “Our kids are walking to death. But when they see darkness in front of them, they say, ‘I’m dead anyway. There’s nothing to lose if I go.’”
Umm Taher and her son had been fighting at home one day about his usual problems, she said: smoking marijuana, drinking, stealing, when he yelled that he would leave her for Syria. “Fine, go,” Umm Taher yelled back. “But then I got scared.”
So she reported her son to the police, who came to Umm Taher’s home and arrested him – not for ideological reasons but because he'd tested positive for drug use. He’s been in detention for a month now, she said, and will likely stay longer on multiple charges of theft and crime.
Most youth in Douar Hicher went to Syria under similar circumstances, Umm Taher said. “They were smokers, drinkers, addicts – then they read something on the Internet, pray for two days, and become ‘Salafis’,” she said. Now Taher is talking about getting on a boat for Italy once he’s free, she added. “The state doesn’t care. They let our kids go, and then they die.”
Many Tunisians blame state negligence for what they term a youth-radicalization problem, especially accusing Ennahda, the Islamist party elected to lead Tunisia’s first post-revolution government, of letting ultra-conversative ideologies fester. Tunisia’s last four years began with a security and authority vacuum immediately after Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s overthrow in 2011. The transitional government allowed amnesty for thousands of political prisoners, including hardliners like Abu ‘Iyadh, leader of Ansar al-Sharia, a radical group initially allowed to function freely. Its members streamed into Tunisian society, often providing charity and social services to marginalized areas, then taking over mosques, replacing the imams and sheikhs who had been appointed by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. The groups openly encouraged Tunisians to finance, support and join groups in Syria.
Moez Ali, president of UTIL, an organization promoting political participation, said that Tunisia’s government largely ignored the groups. “The government tried to minimize what was happening. They’d say ‘don’t exaggerate,’ while our kids were being brainwashed and sold in a human trafficking network of ‘takfiri’ mafia,” Ali said.
Meanwhile, violence linked to these groups grew within Tunisia, peaking with a series of political assassinations in 2013. The government outlawed Ansar al-Sharia, but related networks had already taken root across Tunisia, most notably in Chaambi mountain overlooking Kasserine on the Algerian border. There, the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Uqba ibn Nafi brigade is regularly clashing with and killing state security forces.
Authorities turned a blind eye to the danger, Ali said, because no politician wanted to be seen as anti-Islamic after the revolution. Flexibility toward Salafis could bolster one’s voter base, especially as some Tunisians were voting based on a vague perception of candidates’ religious values rather than for theories of change or socioeconomic programs. It could also please donor states in the Gulf, whose support remains critical to cash-strapped post-revolution Tunisia.
Said Ferjani, an Ennahda political relations officer, called these accusations unfair. “It’s nonsense to say we encouraged these people. They voted against us in the elections,” Ferjani said. There’s also a difference between the establishment, a holdover from Ben Ali’s time, and political parties, Ferjani added. “We can affect policies, but we cannot change the institutions. It’s not like we brought our own secret service and police.” The Ministry of Interior, not Ennahda, decided when to outlaw Ansar al-Sharia, Ferjani pointed out. They also implement Tunisia’s current security strategies.
Adam, a 32-year-old former Salafi who asked that only his first name be used, said that combating ideology with violence is what drove many Tunisians toward such a movement. "I was almost a ‘perfect Salafi’ at one point,” Adam said, explaining that he'd adhered to strict religious practices, rejected Tunisia's democratic state, and supported “jihad” in Syria as a duty to defend Muslims. But as groups like ISIL demonstrated increasing brutality, especially toward other Muslims, Adam pulled back. “I believe our religion is not so bloody,“ he said. ”This is not the way to change things.”
A street vendor in the old city of Tunis, Adam was drawn to Salafism under Ben Ali’s regime. Salafis have been oppressed throughout history for being “true to their beliefs,” Adam said. He liked Salafism because it was clear – “one plus one equals two” – and bold, unlike the state-sponsored narrative of quietist, submissive Islam.
The appeal of Salafism became clearest to Adam in 2008, he said, when he was imprisoned several weeks for having a beard and wearing religious dress. Under Ben Ali, Salafis, moderate Islamists and secular dissidents alike were violently treated. The brutality of groups like ISIL — also known as the Islamic State — is unnatural, Adam said, but scrape off the propaganda of decapitations and beach shootings, and you find people “psychologically disfigured” from generations of oppression, starving for justice and convinced that it is only available through stringent application of Islamic law.
“People think the Islamic State is about decapitation, but it’s also a system of retirement benefits, fair banking, pregnancy leave and welfare. People want to feel like human beings, not this global inequality where only the rich are happy,” Adam said. More and more Tunisians are seeing that “the lie of democracy and pluralism” doesn’t bring justice and dignity, Adam said.
Many Salafis eschew violence, but youth are hard-pressed to resist the narrative of a global war against Islam, said Sergio Altuna, an analyst with the Global Security Institute. “It’s so easy to say, look at Israel and Palestine! Look at Saudi in Yemen! Look what America is doing!” he said. “You can point at many ‘tyrants.’”
The answer to extremist ideology must be free choice of alternative ideas, Adam said. He rejects ISIL because they are enslaving people by force, not conviction.
“It’s not sustainable to hold a gun to someone and say, ‘live like me or die.’ Islam does not need slaves,” Adam said. “It needs liberated people who know what they believe. It’s about people’s free will to decide.”