In Central Tunisia, Birthplace Of Arab Spring Now Jihad Hotbed

Mohamed Bouazizi's tomb (foreground) in December 2014.
Mohamed Bouazizi's tomb (foreground) in December 2014.
Frédéric Bobin

SIDI ALI BEN AOUN â€" Ali Chadli opens his eyes wide, incredulous even now. No, he had no idea his sons were planning to leave for Syria, where they eventually died. "They were praying as usual," he says. "I hadn’t noticed anything particular."

The aging man invites us to take a seat next to the grapevine, on the terrace of his little farm, outside a small village called Sidi Ali Ben Aoun. The village sits at the end of a bumpy path lined with olive and barbary fig trees, at the foot of the infamous Sidi Aich mountains, where armed groups have their hideouts, according to villagers.

Located 250 kilometers south of Tunis, this Salafist stronghold is a different world altogether. Here, a portion of the young people dream of jihad in Iraq, Syria or Libya. Some are even starting to turn their anger against their own country.

For Ali Chadli, the troubles began in 2012, with a phone call from Turkey. The voice on the other end was his son Mohammed, who hadn't, the father realized, "gone there for tourism."

Before that, Mohamed attended univeristy and found a job in Tunis as a security guard. He seemed happy and settled, which is why his Ali Chadli was so stunned when his son disappeared to Turkey, the entry door for jihadists heading to Syria. The farmer had no idea that more trouble was yet to come.

A year later, it was his younger son, Raki, who telephoned, days after vanishing. The phone call came from Libya. A second call followed a few weeks later, this time from the Syrian city of Raqqa, the ISIS "capital." Ali Chadli can only speculate about how and why things transpired the way they did. "Maybe he was influenced by his elder brother,” he wonders.

The irony of the situation is that the two brothers joined rival organizations: Mohamed fought with al-Nusra, a local al-Qaeda branch, while Raki joined ISIS. That didn’t keep them from staying close to one another. It was Raki who called their father when Mohamed was killed in July 2013. Raki himself died in a U.S. airstrike on Raqqa in July 2014. One of Raki's friends called the father to inform him.

Over the past few years, in the small village of Sidi Ali Ben Aoun alone, between 15 and 20 young people are said to have left and gone abroad to fight under the jihadist flag. And the flow continues.

Central Tunisia, left out of the economic development that has mostly benefitted the prosperous coastline, seems to be particularly vulnerable to the jihad temptation. In early July, the country was shocked to learned that some some 30 young adults from the southeastern village of Remada, including three soldiers, had crossed the border with Libya.

Warrior traditions

Tunisia has now become one of the biggest suppliers of jihad candidates around the region. A preliminary report by the United Nations Working Group on the use of mercenaries, published in early July, suggests that some 5,500 Tunisians have left to country to fight, a figure well above the 3,000 that had been officially acknowledged up to that point.

The report pointed out that between 1,000 and 1,500 of them were in Libya. This group of jihadists trained in Libya is particularly worrying here because their main target, it appears, is Tunisia. The attacks in the Bardo Museum on March 18 and at the tourist resort in Sousse on June 26, carried out by perpetrators believed to have been trained in Libya, have highlighted this danger only too well.

To minimize the risk, the Tunisian government decided starting in March to limit the possibility for Tunisians under 35 to travel abroad. Parental permission is now required to visit Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Turkey.

In the city of Sidi Bouzid, where Sidi Ali Ben Aoun’s Salafist hotbed is the subject of many conversations, the state’s purely security-oriented response inspires general skepticism. The city is considered the cradle of the pro-democracy Arab Spring revolution that began in December 2010 when Mohamed Bouaziz, a young street vendor, set himself on fire to protest government harrassment. Now Sidi Bouzid is brewing with resentment over unfulfilled social and economic promises.

"For disenchanted youths who want to leave, there are two options: illegal emigration or joining ISIS," says Lamine Bouazizi, a left-wing militant.

A file photograph of Sidi Bouzid in 2011. Photo: Magharebia

Taking up arms is made easier given that the region has a strong mujahideen (fighters) tradition. “Whether they were fellaghas, fighting against France, or Arab nationalists who would leave to fight for the Palestinians, this area between Gafsa, Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid has always had a pool of revolutionaries," Lamine Bouazizi explains. "There are legends about them."

The latest in this long line of fighting legends is ISIS. But there's more to the phenomenon than just history and tradition. In the case of Sidi Ali Ben Aoun, there’s a sort of taboo, an embarrassing truth that nobody wants to be too vocal about. Those who left for Syria are sending money back home.

Ali Chadli admits he received "little sums" from his sons but insists it wasn’t much. Some observers, however, say the influx of money is more significant than locals will admit â€" enough to expand a family's home, add to its flock of sheep, perhaps fit out the living room with a flatscreen TV. Jihad is about anger and adventure. But it's also about economics.

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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