The death shaking Tunisia and re-imagining the 'IS recruit'

The death shaking Tunisia and re-imagining the 'IS recruit'
Can the tragic death of a Tunisian man in Tuesday's Istanbul airport militant attacks change attitudes towards the families of Islamic State group recruits, asks Nazanine Moshiri.
4 min read
01 July, 2016
Tunisians are mourning the death of the father of an alleged IS recruit [AFP]
The story of Fathi Bayoudh - a Tunisian father killed in Tuesday's militant attacks in Istanbul International Airport - has reached the attention of an international audience. What makes his story so compelling is that the 58-year-old doctor and military officer traveled to Turkey in a desperate attempt to claim his only son back from the clutches of the very same group which it appears are responsible for his death. There has been an unprecedented outpouring of grief on social media, for a person many Tunisians can relate to. Fathi Bayoudh was a doctor and a humanitarian, too.

Mokhtar Ben Nasr - a former army colonel who knew Bayoudh well - describes him as a caring person. During the refugee crisis following the Libyan revolution of 2011, Bayoudh stayed in a camp in southern Tunisia and helped more than 15,000 men women and children.

"He took care of their food, their medicine, and their health," Ben Nasr said. "He was a patriotic man who spent a long time in the military. He went to save his son from terrorism, but unfortunately he was a victim of terrorism, this is [his] fate and destiny. I am so sorry for him. May Allah now have mercy on him."

In many ways, the story of his struggle has opened up a discussion on a subject that many here feel uncomfortable discussing. According to the Tunisian government there are around 5,000 young Tunisians fighting for groups such as IS. Mohammed Iqbal Ben Rejab runs the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, a group that helps families get in touch with loved ones-turned-fighters. He says that it was Fathi Bayoudh's connections to important people that enabled him to track down his son. He complains that there are so many families in a similar situation who have received no state help at all.

The emotional return of Fathi Bayoudh's body back to his native Tunisia [Mosaique/YouTube]

"There are lots of parents sacrificing everything to go to Turkey, to try convince their sons to leave the jihadi group. I know one case where the family is selling their house to pay for their expenses."

The details of Fathi's son's recruitment are not clear. What we do know is that he travelled to Europe with a young girl; their parents thought that they were going to work in Switzerland. Like so many IS recruits, they ended up in Turkey, where they found a route into Iraq and then Syria.

In the past, Tunisian security forces - and indeed elements of the Tunisian press - have stigmatised the families of fighters. Youssef Cherif a political analyst, says this case shows that it can happen to anyone. "This is perhaps the first time a case such as this has been so well documented. Bayoudth's son is obviously the offspring of this country's elite, and his actions show that the problem goes beyond ignorance, poor conditions or sheer radicalism."

I recently wrote about how 'open discussion' could be one of the most important weapons against IS recruitment. The Bayoudh's no doubt kept their plight secret, like so many others. In May, I met Olfa Hamrouni, a mother who lost two of her four daughters to IS. Her teenage girls joined the group in Libya.

She felt stigmatised and excluded from Tunisian society after she spoke openly about her situation. Unlike the Bayoudths, Olfa Hamrouni is poor and underprivileged. Tunisian authorities ignored her pleas to help her children come home, so she felt she had to go public.

There are many theories as to why IS continues to attract Tunisians. Youssef Cherif is convinced that it is down to "an identity crisis connected to former President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali's deconstruction of Tunisia's identity. Ben Ali's clampdown on political and religious movements, created a sense of emptiness among a generation, which grew up under his rule. It was a vacuum that was easily filled by extremist ideologies, which were quicker and more efficient in their force of attraction than democratic, secular or peaceful Islamist movements to influence".

Fathi Bayoudth's death might now give others - like him - the strength to speak out. However, Mohamed Iqbal Ben Rejab fears that nothing will change until the government starts taking the idea of rehabilitation seriously. "There is no real strategy to counter terrorism. There are no committees in the foreign affairs ministry or social affairs ministry to deal with this issue. The government does not have a magic wand to deal with this, but it does not have the intention or will to do something."

Nazanine Moshiri is a freelance journalist and security expert based in Tunis. You can follow her on Twitter @nazaninemoshiri