Tunisia: Returning terrorist fighters
After the fall of many cities held by the Islamic State (IS), the terrorist organization has been practically defeated. This, however, is creating a major problem for the countries where terrorist fighters are from, as many of them are returning home. The UN estimates that between 5,000 and 7,000 Tunisians traveled to Libya, Iraq, and Syria to fight with the Islamic state. Today, estimates by the Soufan Center and the Global Strategy Network state that up to 800 Tunisians have returned home.
The Tunisian government strategy for those who have returned home is imprisonment. However, the International Center for Strategic Studies in Tunis claim that more than 300 returning terrorist fighters are hiding in caves in the Chaamnbi Mountains. These mountains serve as strongholds of groups associated with the Islamic State and Al-Qaeda in Tunisia.
Communities in Kasserine, only a few miles away from the Chaambi Mountains, are marginalized and youth are still waiting for a major change to occur after the Revolution. Frustration is the main feeling among youth who think their government has failed them. Up to 44 percent of youth claim that the situation has not improved after the Jasmine Revolution. In a country of 11 million people, there is roughly 650,000 people unemployed. When looking at the labor force, this represent 40 percent of the youth population. Other numbers show an even greater number for youth unemployment in Kasserine at 65%.
The lack of opportunities combined with other factors such as lack of identity and sense of belonging had led many youth to opt for joining violent extremist groups. What is clear is that religious ideology is not driving youth to join these groups; instead, it is mainly frustration and the current economic situation. While some youth join violent extremist groups, others set themselves on fire to protest the current situation.
Just like gangs in Central America, violent extremist groups provide returning fighters a family and an identity. These fighters have already lost a battle with ISIS, and are not willing to lose another one at home. The current situation in Tunisia could worsen if returnees become role models or icons for frustrated, vulnerable youth. For those who cannot find meaning in their lives due to the current circumstances, these groups provide an alternative not because of their ideological position, but most importantly because they can be a source of income. Although ISIS and Al-Qaeda may differ in ideology, both are engaged in illegal trafficking in Tunisia, providing a source of income for youth, albeit small.
Also like in Central American violent gangs, kids are now involved in violent extremist organizations as informants. They are sent to the communities to check who is a member of Tunisia’s army. After these people are identified, they are killed in raids to family homes. There are documented cases where extremists have killed their own family members.
Currently, there are no programs to rehabilitate returning fighters in Tunisia. These programs are costly and the country does not have the resources for this type of programs. A rehabilitation strategy as seen in European countries would be feasible if 20, 50, or even 100 people would be returning to Tunisia. However, with 800 people returning, individualized or specialized programs are not a viable option.
Prisons unfortunately make things worse. However, given that this seems to be the only option now, a strong focus on group rehabilitation in prisons as well as control of negative externalities could be implemented. The problem, again, is that Tunisia is not ready to absorb such a large number of returning foreign fighters.