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 â€" 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 â€" albeit under a different ideological banner â€" 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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food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

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