A member of the Tunisian security forces stands guard at the site of a suicide attack in the Tunisian capital in October of last year. (Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images)

Tunisia Claims 1,000 ISIS Recruits Have Returned Home

Many of the jihadists slipped in clandestinely, sparking fears they could become involved in terrorist activities within the country

As the last bastions of the Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate” in Syria appear to be crumbling in the face of a major U.S.-led offensive, members of the terrorist group are fleeing to Iraq, taking advantage of a porous border.

In 2003, jihadists from across Europe and beyond traveled to Iraq after the U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein’s regime and ignited Sunni-Shiite sectarian tensions. Disaffected Sunni groups united with disbanded members of the Iraqi army to form a branch of al-Qai’da, which then morphed into Islamic State (ISIS). In 2011, many of them, including foreign jihadists, went to Syria when the civil war broke out and joined up with groups opposing President Bashar al-Assad’s regime, dominated by the Shiite Alawite sect.

When ISIS seized large swathes of land in Syria and Iraq in 2014, more recruits traveled to the region to help forge the growing “caliphate.”

In the last few years, 800 of these fighters as well as their family members have fallen into the hands of the Kurds and are awaiting their fate in prison camps in northeastern Syria. Kurdish authorities and U.S. President Donald Trump have called on their governments—many European—to repatriate and prosecute them.

When it comes to the rest of the fighters, security officials claim they are simply blending in with civilians in Iraq and Syria or joining affiliate groups in other lawless lands like Afghanistan, Libya and Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, while a smaller number are slowly filtering back into the societies from whence they came.

One such place is Tunisia.

Mokhtar Ben Nasr, the head of the government’s National Counterterrorism Commission, recently warned parliamentarians that 1,000 ISIS terrorists returned to the North African nation between 2011 and 2018, whereas roughly 3,000 are still in combat zones.

Of the returnees, some have been arrested and are awaiting prosecution but a larger number re-entered the country clandestinely.

Matt Herbert, a partner at Maharbal, a Tunisia-based consultancy firm, told The Media Line that a primary concern is whether these returning terrorists will become involved in militancy within the country.

“It’s important to point out that we really haven’t seen foreign fighters engage in urban terrorist attacks in Tunisia which made it onto the world’s radar,” he said, while noting that attacks have nevertheless been perpetrated in the country such as the ones in 2015 at the capital’s Bardo National Museum and at the Port el-Kantaoui in Sousse.

“There is the potential for these fighters to make their way into the Western regions of the country where there is a low-grade insurgency along the Algerian border. If they are able to make it out there, they would add to the capabilities and capacities of the groups operating in those mountains, potentially making the insurgency that much more lethal and dangerous,” Herbert said.

The fighters in that region have many adherents to the ideologies of ISIS and al-Qai’da in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) respectively, he explained. But the path that led them to become radicalized was not just born from religious conviction, but also frustration. Therefore, the return of ISIS fighters won’t necessarily have as much of an impact on recruitment as government efforts to address social frustrations.

“The level of sympathy for them in Tunisia is generally quite low. There is a high level of frustration in some quarters with the government and its services, but this does not equate into out-an-out support for various militant ideologies. In that respect, this development is unlikely to drastically impact the security situation but is still a cause for concern.

“Tunisians have historically faced challenges in putting in place effective de-radicalization programs for those in prisons, or in keeping those convicted on terrorism charges out of the general population,” Herbert concluded.

Sharan Grewal, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution and an expert on security matters in Tunisia, told The Media Line that the government claims most of the returnees have been imprisoned, are under house arrest, or are being monitored.

“But the challenge for the country is what to do with returnees when there is insufficient evidence to go to trial, or if they held minor roles such as an ISIS cook rather than a fighter,” he said.

“Tunisia does not have a clear program to rehabilitate and reintegrate them, and is instead simply keeping them under house arrest or monitoring. While that is one solution, it keeps them in the same marginalized and repressed conditions that may have contributed to their radicalization in the first place. It therefore risks renewing their commitment to ISIS and could spell future terrorist activity domestically or abroad,” Grewal concluded.

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