Who are the French and Tunisian Islamic State soldiers?

Who are the French and Tunisian Islamic State soldiers?
Comment: France and Tunisia face similar challenges, and must seek to alleviate the exclusion that has become so widespread among their young men, write Yassine Nabli and Malek Lakhal.
8 min read
The involvement of Tunisians in terrorist organisations has national and international roots [AFP]
This is the fourth article in the series 'France and Tunisia's war on terror'. Read the introduction here. 

France and Tunisia are two of the biggest providers of combatants to Islamic State group (IS). What has prompted so many of their citizens, most of them young people, to join the organisation?

In Tunisia, studies and official reports have highlighted the disturbingly large numbers of young Tunisians leaving the country to join so-called jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq.

A United Nations report from July 2015 put the number of Tunisians taken on by these groups at 5,500. Their involvement was voluntary, a religious migration prompted by attraction to the concept of jihad and dreams of a return to a model Islamic state. However, key economic, social and political conditions can also be identified in these young people's lives which contribute to their support of 'jihad

Social exclusion, creator of extremism

The involvement of Tunisians in terrorist organisations did not begin with the Syrian crisis; it has national as well as international roots. The efforts of jihadists to engage the sympathies of the Tunisian public began after the fall of Ben Ali in January 2011, a time of renewed hope.

Although it is difficult to isolate the jihadist currents prevalent during this period, they seem to have been based principally around specific charismatic leaders, and to have targeted young people.

The Tunisian Forum for Social and Economic Rights (FTDES), produced a study called "Terrorism in Tunisia through juvenile records" which shows that 75 percent of people investigated by the courts were between 18 and 34 years of age.

This tallies with the statistic quoted by the minister for internal affairs, Hedi Majdoub, in April 2017. Tunisians in combat zones numbered 3,000, 96 percent of whom were aged between 24 and 35. What makes these young people want to leave their homes to fight far away?

In the fight against terrorism, the Tunisian state lacks any clear strategy or co-ordinated overview

Studies indicate that areas on the margins of society, such as the working class districts surrounding the capital and also more rural areas, are fertile ground for jihadist implantation, whether aimed at encouraging terrorist acts at home or recruitment to conflict zones.

These young people are socially and economically fragile, affected by unemployment, poverty, high educational drop-out rates and social stigma. A study of the working class area of Douar Hicher, one of the largest in the capital, states that "a considerable proportion of these young people are unemployed or work erratically, in activities related to the informal economy; work which does not guarantee financial or psychological stability, much less high social standing".

Social exclusion feeds into the narrative of "jihad in the service of God" preached by some mosques, which seek to fill the gap created by social vulnerability.

The group Ansar Sharia, classified as a "terrorist organisation" by the Tunisian authorities in August 2013, has profited greatly from it. The Tunisian government's official position on the Syrian question in itself partly coincides with the jihadist propaganda.

The troika government, led by the Ennahdha party from 2011 to 2014, hosted a conference by Friends of Syria in February 2012 which featured visiting preachers inciting jihad. These included the Egyptians Wajdi Ghoneim and Mohamed Hassan, who gave a series of talks across the country in February 2012 and February 2013. Religious television channels and social media also carry this message.

The announcement by Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi in June 2014 of the coming of the Islamic caliphate prompted many young Tunisians to dream of an ideal Islamic state that could transcend the nation state.

It is worth exploring the relationship between the way the Tunisian nation state presents itself, and the numbers of young people spurred on by the desire to destroy it, especially given the country has already experienced its young citizens leaving to fight in the war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan in the late 80s, and in the second Gulf War from 2003.

The consequences of a state crisis

In the fight against terrorism, the Tunisian state lacks any clear strategy or co-ordinated overview.

Faced with the proliferation of terrorist operations, successive governments have chosen to focus on emergency security measures.

Since 2015, many official declarations have been made about a document to be published outlining a national anti-terrorism strategy. This document has still not appeared.

State policies which result in poverty and marginalisation for many citizens continue to bolster terrorism

The state's approach to Tunisian citizens returning from combat in Syria demonstrates its inability in dealing with the problem: Since 2014, when the then minister for internal affairs, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, announced the return from Syria of around 400 young Tunisians, politicians from the parties in power and the opposition have been locked in controversy about how to deal with the consequences of this "reverse migration".

Tensions heightened following the announcement of the "repentance law", which excused many jihadists from judicial proceedings. In August 2015, after the president of the Ennahdha party requested that the doors to repentance be opened, his party was accused of pushing President Beji Caid Essebsi to enact the law. The president had already said "we will not put them all in prison… we will take the necessary measures to keep them away from harm".

Read more: What is terrorism?

Security files about the networks working to transfer young Tunisians to combat zones have been subject to political blackout, despite the creation of a parliamentary investigation commission on 31 July 2017. The commission has still not reported, due to tensions between its delegates, some of whom accuse Ennahdha of being behind the networks in question. 

State policies which result in poverty and marginalisation for many citizens continue to bolster terrorism and the processes that lead to it, helping jihadists to target more widely and to root themselves into society. These policies have also fed the distrust of the state felt by young Tunisians. This non-affiliation contributes to an erosion of their faith in the future.

Poverty and exclusion

In France, as in Tunisia, there is convergence between the official position of ending Bashar al-Assad's regime in Syria, and the calls to jihad. Both countries have contributed a significant number of people to the jihadist fight. While France and Tunisia might seem very different at first glance, an investigation of the profiles of the individuals involved, as well as the response of the state, reveals some common ground.

It is hard to obtain precise statistics on the number of French people who have left to fight in Syria. The Co-ordination Unit for the Fight Against terrorism (UCLAT), created in 1984 with the aim of increasing co-operation between French security services, collected information on the profiles of the 265 French jihadists presumed dead in Syria.

In spite of their considerable differences, France and Tunisia face similar challenges

It found their average age was 28, 52 percent were the descendants of immigrants, while 24 percent had no links with immigration, and 56 percent lived in one of the country's "priority neighbourhoods" (areas in which the average earnings per inhabitant are the lowest).

These figures support the theory of a correlation between socio-economic inequality and radicalisation.

Academic research on the subject has thrown up a variety of profiles, but agrees on some key points. Many of the converts to Islam are young people who have dropped out of school or have already become petty offenders and been radicalised in prison.

As in Tunisia, extremist religious ideology offers its followers the possibility of elevating their social standing and achieving some recognition, in a world in which horizons are narrow due to high unemployment and reliance on unstable and precarious employment.

In France, radicalisation is also fed by the subtle day to day discrimination experienced by the populations issuing from postcolonial immigration. Racial profiling and discrimination in recruitment, to cite just two examples, are phenomena which the state has failed to address effectively. 

An end to the rule of law in an explosive social context

France has been harder hit by terrorism than any other European country. It has also provided the most recruits to the Syrian jihad, around 1,700 individuals, according to official figures cited by Edouard Philippe at the presentation of "The Fight against Radicalisation" plan.  

Of the 323 adults who have returned to France, some have been remanded in custody, and others kept under observation. The Centre for Deradicalisation pilot project was closed in July 2017, the experiment having proved inconclusive.

Read more: The misinterpretation of 'Jihad'

In Syria and Iraq, 680 French adults and their families have been detained. France claims to be confident about the capacity of the Kurds and the Iraqis to judge these people fairly; however it says it will intervene in the case of the death penalty. Repatriation is a particularly unpopular option among an already polarised population.

France has the highest Muslim population in Europe, yet has always had difficulty accepting its plural identity. The increase in terrorist attacks has resulted in greater stigmatisation of Muslims, while religious extremism has widened the fracture between Muslims and non-Muslims.

In spite of their considerable differences, France and Tunisia face similar challenges. Both societies urgently need to re-examine a range of economic and social questions, right down to the nature of their social contract, and seek to alleviate the exclusion they have produced. Security issues have taken precedence, however, and there is no evidence of this re-examination taking place. 

Yassine Nabli is Deputy Editor of Nawaat, researcher in Muslim Arab Culture and specialist in the history of political movements in Tunisia and the Arab world. 

Malek Lakhal has been a journalist at Nawaat since December 2017, and has a degree in political theory from Sciences-Po, Paris. She is co-founder of the literary magazine Asameena.

Follow her on Twitter: @Malek93

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.