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Geopolitics

The Tunisia Paradox: Arab Spring Success, Terrorist Hotbed

Tunisia is the birthplace of the Arab Spring democratic uprising, and the only to have seen democracy survive. But it is both a source and victim of homegrown terrorists.

Police forces on patrol in Tunis
Police forces on patrol in Tunis
Frédéric Bobin

MENZEL BOURGHUIBA — There's a pomegranate tree and a vine stock in the small courtyard. Beyond the outer wall, you can make out the expanse of the Bizerte lake, spreading under the smooth Tunisian light.

Majid Bachahed grabs a branch, gathers three pomegranates and kindly hands them to the visitor. He doesn't want to show it, but an unfathomable grief is gnawing at the 50-something farmer. Life goes on in his little house on this rocky hillock near Menzel Bourghuiba, in northern Tunisia, where sheep wander amid the olive trees. But that life is haunted by the obsessive absence of a son, Ahmed, who vanished in Syria.

The growing number of young Tunisians taking up the call of jihad has become an urgent question since the country began to be hit by a series of terrorist attacks. After two assaults targeting foreign tourists that killed a total of 60 people, a suicide bombing Tuesday against presidential guards left at least 13 dead in the capital.

The week before the latest attack in Tunis, Bechahed invited us to sit in his living room, where a framed sura from the Koran hangs on the white wall. "He told us he was going to Lebanon," the father recalls of his son. "He said he'd found a job there."


That was in March 2012. Ahmed was 29. The picture his fathers holds tightly between his fingers shows a confident young man with short hair, big eyes and a high forehead. He's now rotting in a Damascus jail. Lebanon was a lie. Ahmed had in fact travelled to Syria, apparently via Turkey. "It was a trap," the father mumbles. Placed on the front line, most of the group of 43 Tunisians he was fighting with ended up in Bashar al-Assad's prisons.


Three-and-a-half years later, his unconsolable father is still waiting for him to return, and trying to understand. Bechahed explains why he was so convinced that Ahmed had gone to find work elsewhere. "The hopes for the youth are limited in Tunisia," he says.

Nothing in particular


Still, we insist. We ask him about Ahmed's Salafist-like beard in the photograph. Did the young man have any ties with the radical groups that emerged in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution that toppled dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011. "I hadn't noticed anything particular," Bechahed says.

Seating nearby, his brother-in-law Mustafa intervenes. "You know, people sometimes have their secrets."


The Bechahed family's situation is increasingly common in Tunisia. This small north African country of 11 million inhabitants embodies a striking paradox. It's both the stage of a unique democratic transition in the Arab-Muslim world, the only 2011 "Spring" to have survived, and yet also one of the biggest providers of jihadists ready to go abroad to fight. According to a United Nations working group on the use of mercenaries, about 5,500 young Tunisians left the country to fight abroad, a very high figure given the country's modest population.


The preferred destinations for the aspiring fighters are Syria (4,000), followed by Libya (between 1,000 and 1,500), Iraq (200), Mali (60) and Yemen (50). The social and economic disenchantment that followed the revolution, especially among the youths of the abandoned regions in the center of the country (Gafsam, Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, etc.), where the uprising originated, offered a breeding-ground for these departures.

In their own way, these youths are reclaiming for themselves — albeit under a different ideological banner — the legendary tradition of Tunisian mujahideen from the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, who went abroad to fight for decolonization and Arab nationalism. The difference being that today's jihadists can turn against their own country. Therein lies the radical new challenge facing Tunisia.


The country was hit hard in the spring, suddenly put on the map of international terrorism with two spectacular attacks: the first on March 18 against the Bardo National Museum in Tunis, famous for its works of art dating as far back as the time of Carthage and Rome; the second was June 26, against the tourist resort at Port El-Kantaoui near Sousse. A double symbol was targeted: the glory of a pre-Islamic civilization and Western tourism.

ISIS appeared to focus on destabilizing the Tunisian economy by weakening one of its pillars, the tourism industry, which employs almost 14% of the working population. A well-thought-out strategy to undermine order.

Tuesday's attack against the presidential guard may mark a shift, though signs were already emerging last week that new targets were at risk. On Nov. 13, the day when Paris was attacked, a young shepherd was beheaded in the Sidi Bouzid region because he refused to give a goat to a group of jihadists. A month earlier, another shepherd in the neighboring region of Kasserine was shot dead by jihadists who believed he was an informer.


These regions in central Tunisia, marginalized by an economic model that has long favored the coast, have seen an insurgency emerge since 2012 in the surrounding mountains. These groups, more linked to al-Qaeda than to ISIS, have taken the police as their target of choice, but civilians can be exposed at any moment. A Tunisian official said on Nov. 17 that a massive plot had been uncovered and just barely averted.


In the Bechahed family house, the silence can suddenly be broken while talking about Ahmed, jailed in Damascus. Emotions take over. The mother, dressed in an orange and green headscarf, clenches her lips harder. "She doesn't sleep at night, she weeps all the time," Majid Bechahed says in a whisper. Thinking of its sons, its shepherds, its exiled fighters lost in Syria and Iraq, Tunisia is in pain.

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