How to reintegrate foreign fighters: the Tunisian case

Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, president of RATTA, the Rescue Association of  Tunisians Trapped Abroad, sat in a chair in the hall of a hotel in Avenue Bourguiba, the Champs Elysées of Tunis. His phone was constantly ringing. He screened every single person entering the building. With him was the father of a jihadist fighter killed in Iraq. His name was Mohamed too.

REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

Walid went  to Iraq in 2013. His father didn’t know what organization he had joined. Two months after Walid left , Mohamed received a call from an unknown number. The voice told him his son was killed in action and he was finally to become a shahid, a martyr. 

“I didn’t know what happened to Walid. He had never talked about jihad or going to Iraq or Syria to fight. He wasn’t an extremist. Unkike many young Tunisians, he had a job. A good one. What I know is that he wasn’t the only one to embark on this. There were others from my village that have embraced the jihadists’ cause. Where I live, recruiters are extremely active.”

The man comes from Sejnane, in the north of Tunisia. The media had described this city as the first Tunisian Salafist emirate, ruled by extremists. At least 80 men from Sejnane went to Iraq, Libya or Syria, to fight with ISIS or other jihadist groups. The vast majority have died.

Recruiters and extremists threatened him many times because of his campaign against them. Some intimidated him with messages coming directly from Iraq. “I’m not the only in this situation, but we are all by ourselves. The authorities don’t do anything about it”

At least 700 Tunisians out of some 3000 who had left have eventually came back. Those numbers have made Tunisia the biggest exporter of jihadists in the world. Some ended up in Syria or Iraq, the so-called Levant, others opted for Libya and entered the ranks of Ansar al Sharia.

Many were radicalized after the fall of Ben Alì regime, when several extremist imams and religious figures stepped up to gain the attention and the power they didn't have before. Many outcast and hopeless youths, educated or not, have been enchanted by them and set them selves a new aim in jihad.

In this situation, Ratta comes into play. Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb started this battle for personal reasons at first. “My brother was one of these jihadists. Fortunately, he came back and managed to reintegrate into society.”

The association was founded after Mohamed’s brother came back from Libya in 2013. “Many parents and relatives of foreign fighters contacted me after my story became known. We decided to do something together to bring back our loved ones and help them to go back to society.”

RATTA provides different kinds of help, including legal and moral support, directed to both the families and the fighters. Generally, the association’s first step is creating a contact with the people in the battle zones and then finding a way to bring them back.

Mohamed told an anecdote. “This fighter was in Syria at the time. We made him believe that his father was really sick and that his wife could be led into temptation be cause of the distance. I know he’s in Tunisia now. I hope he hasn't been arrested.”

However, the constant shortage of funds and the lack of time and tools don’t allow Mohamed to work as he would like. “All of us are volunteers and we have another job. It’s not easy finding time for this. Moreover, we don’t have an office and our resources are limited. We usually gather in cafés and our activities consist of sit-ins and rallies in front of embassies or ministries.”

Mohammed revealed that many of these foreign fighters are inexpert and naive, and they immediately regret their choices once in the battlefield. That's why he firmly believed a large number can be rehabilitated. “It’s like a cancer. The disease spreads  but it’s not terminal. We need to act before these people become irrecoverable. Before the metastasis starts.” For this reason psychological  support is vital, like the support given to veterans with PTSD. It can be the right response, together with a wider deradicalization process, Mohammed say.

The Tunisian authorities aren’t receptive to this kind of approach. For foreign fighters, being arrested and put in prison for quite a long time is fairly common in Tunisia. Police tends to use the stick more than the carrot with them. According to Mohamed, these measures are counterproductive. The use of violence instead of moral support can result in alienation and stress for those who return from jihad. “There is no long-term strategy to solve this problem and fight the wrong mentality that leads people to join ISIS. The state response is nothing but strong coercive measures.”

In July 2015, following the attacks at the Bardo museum and on the beach at Sousse, the government signed a new anti-terrorism law. It gives more sweeping powers to combat terrorism, like arbitrary imprisonments and tight surveillance of suspects.

For him, this attitude prevents the authorities from coping correctly with this issue. On one hand, the government condemns and punishes those at the bottom of the scale, the foreign fighters, and on the other, it doesn’t do anything against those at the top of it, the recruiters and the sponsors.

Mohammed pointed to them as the source of all this, the first who should be stopped. Some of them have occupied important positions. “They are the real terrorists, who take advantages of these hopeless young people. ISIS pays recruiters according to their skills. It is like any other company looking for technicians and university educated people to hire.”


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