Disillusioned with the outcome of the revolution they spearheaded, young Tunisians have become easy prey for extremist recruiters in the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where thousands have been radicalized, experts say.
The impoverished North African nation, reeling from last week’s beachside militant massacre that left 38 foreign tourists dead, has been praised for holding democratic elections and for its vibrant civil society.
But it has also become a major source of extremists in Syria, Iraq and Libya – an estimated 3,000 Tunisians have gone to fight for ISIS and other militant movements.
To political scientist Olfa Lamloum, this comes as little surprise.
After Tunisia’s 2011 uprising deposed strongman Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, many youths “believed a better world was possible,” she said. “But they faced total disillusionment. For the vast majority of them, nothing has changed at all.”
Those living in marginalized neighborhoods still face soaring unemployment, have no social security, and are frequent victims of police violence, she said.
Four years after the uprising, the security services that were known for their repressive methods under Ben Ali have yet to undergo any significant reform.
Youths in marginalized neighborhoods like Ettadhamon and Douar Hicher on the edges of Tunis “naturally develop a rejection toward the state that gives them nothing but the security state,” Lamloum said.
That is where radical groups come in. “In some poor areas of Tunisia, the Salafist option ... [and for a smaller number, the extremist militant option] appears to be the only political possibility on offer,” she said.
Even having a degree does not guarantee a future in Tunisia, with youth graduate unemployment at 30 percent, official statistics show.
Worse still, “the more education a young person has, the fewer the chances he will find a job,” Lamloum said.
Pro-democracy activist Alaa Talbi, director of the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights, said anger among the disaffected was pushing them into the arms of radicals. “The main common enemy between Salafists and [extremists] on one side, and young people who aren’t necessarily fundamentalists, is the police,” he said.
Many new recruits are shipped off to Syria, Libya and Iraq, only then to “return here to continue their jihad, with a view to establishing an Islamic state across the Arab world.”
The perpetrator of the beach attack near Sousse, Tunisia’s worst-ever extremist massacre, identified as 23-year-old student Seifeddine Rezgui, worked in a cafe and once enjoyed breakdancing. The authorities say he was likely radicalized online and that he received weapons training from militants in Libya.
Monica Marks, a visiting fellow at the European Council of Foreign Relations, said some sidelined young people see extremist groups as “a shortcut to meaning.”
“They can define themselves as heroes or freedom fighters.”
Chaos in Libya is having a direct impact on its smaller neighbor, said Marks, as people like Rezgui and the two young men who killed 21 tourists and a policeman at the National Bardo Museum in Tunis in March travel eastward to train with militants “and plan homegrown attacks back in Tunisia.”
On the street, there is a sense of all-round condemnation of the ISIS-claimed attack, but also a grave feeling of concern for the fledgling democracy’s future.
Poverty alone cannot explain the radicalization drive, as middle-class young people are also joining ISIS.
At a protest in Tunis to denounce Friday’s attack, an employee of national carrier Tunisair in his late 40s, who asked to be identified only as Kamil, said he feared for his unemployed 23-year-old son. “It’s not about poverty – it’s about having a place in society ... ISIS gives them money and a role to play,” he said.
In Ettadhamen, Walid, an unemployed man in his late 20s, said extremist recruiters are busy at work in the neighborhood. “You just need to go to the mosque a few times, and along comes a guy who starts brainwashing you,” he said.
In the aftermath of the beach massacre, the government announced it would close 80 mosques operating illegally.
But Walid said recruiters work quietly, and “in many, many mosques,” adding: “They offer hope to the hopeless.”
His 28-year-old friend Jamaleddine cursed his generation’s fate. “More than anything, I want to live a good life. I want my rights,” he said, anger and desperation in his voice.
But some young men feel they only have two options, he said. “Either they travel to Europe [illegally], or they go to Iraq or Syria and join ISIS.”
Read Full Original Text