Debates about the recruitment of Tunisian young people to fight in Iraq and Syria have recently been sparked off after the former US Ambassador to Tunisia, Jacob Walles, issued a statement attributing the phenomenon to the Troika government of 2012 to 2013, led by the Tunisian Ennahda Movement.
Walles' remark was made in the Policy Forum at The Washington Institute as part of the long-running Stein Counterterrorism Lecture Series. The lecture was co-given by Aaron Zelin, an expert in foreign fighting in Tunisia.
"In the aftermath of the 2011 revolution, several major political developments set the stage for the emergence of foreign fighters from Tunisia. That same year, the government declared an amnesty for all political prisoners, a move that wound up freeing many dangerous jihadists. At the same time, the shakeup within the security forces following the ouster of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali diminished the state’s capacity to deal with these jihadists, contributing to subsequent problems. The Troika government of 2012-2013 initially tolerated jihadist activities. Taken together, these factors allowed radical groups to form, recruit new members, facilitate travel to Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and, eventually, organise attacks inside Tunisia," said Walles.
Walles divided the Tunisian government’s response into four phases. "During the first phase (2011 to September 2012), Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia and other radical groups were generally permitted to organise in the open and send fighters to join what was then viewed as a popular struggle against Syria’s Assad regime. In the second phase (2012-2014), the government realised it had a problem, as extremist groups began carrying out terrorist operations inside Tunisia, starting with the September 2012 attack on the US embassy and followed by two high-profile political assassinations in 2013."
Walles noted that during the third phase (2014-2015), the technocratic government led by Mehdi Jomaa began much closer cooperation with the United States and other foreign partners. A new counterterrorism law was passed in 2015, and the capacity of the security forces to confront terrorism improved. These domestic constraints prompted jihadists to shift their operations abroad, according to Walles.
The number of Tunisians mobilised to fight with Isis in Syria and Iraq amounted to 3,000 in 2015, excluding those who joined the Nusra Front, Al-Qaeda's affiliate in Syria. In Libya, some 1,500 Tunisian fighters joined the jihadist groups between 2011 and 2017, according to a study published by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy in January 2018.
Although the debate about the outflow of Tunisian fighters to foreign countries has been raised from time to time, the Tunisian government never seemed to disclose the source behind those networks. And in spite the fact that the Tunisian parliament approved in January 2018 the establishment of a committee to investigate the jihadist networks that recruited Tunisian youths and sent them to conflict zones in Syria, Iraq and Libya, the committee has not released any clear results so far.
For its part, Syria issued last week a list of terrorist supporters and financers in the country. Syria's Combating Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing Commission (CMLTF) placed a number of figures and Islamic organisations, including Tunisia's Ennahda Movement, at the top of the list, according to Syrian opposition newspapers.
In a related context, the Ennahda Movement has called for "a comprehensive national reconciliation that can enable the Syrian people to regain their country and enjoy a democratic life, and Syria to refurbish its position among Arab and International organisations.” The Movement's remark was made in the wake of the Arab countries' efforts to restore diplomatic ties with Syria.
In 2018, the Sudanese President visited Syria at the end of the year, and the UAE and Bahrain reopened their embassies in Damascus. Talks are currently being held about bringing Syria back into the Arab League during the upcoming Arab League Summit in March in Tunis.
Also, in December 2018, after an eight-year hiatus the first commercial airliner from Damascus landed at Tunisia's Monastir International Airport since Tunis, under the former Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki, cut relations with Syria in reaction to the government's suppression of the pro-democracy uprising.