Fears mount­ing as Tu­nisia await re­turn of ji­hadists

UN says 5,500 Tu­nisians are fight­ing along­side ex­trem­ist

Kuwait Times - - INTERNATIONAL -

Fears are mount­ing in Tu­nisia that the re­turn of ji­hadists from for­eign bat­tle­fields could desta­bi­lize a coun­try al­ready reel­ing from a wave of at­tacks since its 2011 rev­o­lu­tion. Con­cern has in­creased af­ter a Tu­nisian was iden­ti­fied as the sus­pected at­tacker who mowed down 11 peo­ple with a hi­jacked truck at a Ber­lin Christ­mas mar­ket last week and also killed the driver.

The ram­page was claimed by the Is­lamic State group in a video show­ing Anis Amri pledg­ing al­le­giance to IS chief Abu Bakr Al-Bagh­dadi. Days later Tu­nisia said it had ar­rested Amri’s nephew and two oth­ers it said were linked to the Ber­lin at­tack sus­pect but not to the as­sault it­self. Tu­nisia has wit­nessed an emer­gence of ex­trem­ism since the 2011 rev­o­lu­tion that top­pled long­time dic­ta­tor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, as well as a wave of ji­hadist at­tacks on for­eign tourists and se­cu­rity forces.

The United Na­tions es­ti­mates that more than 5,500 Tu­nisians are fight­ing along­side ex­trem­ist groups, in­clud­ing in Syria and Iraq and Libya where IS seized swathes of ter­ri­tory. “The is­sue of re­turn­ing ji­hadists is acute be­cause the noose is being tight­ened around IS in Syria, Iraq and Libya,” said po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Hamza Med­deb. He was re­fer­ring to ground being lost by IS fight­ers in Syria and Iraq un­der an on­slaught by the US-led coali­tion and the fall of their Libyan bas­tion Sirte which pro-gov­ern­ment forces re­took in early De­cem­ber.

These set­backs have sparked con­cern that tens of thou­sands of ji­hadists could head back to their home coun­tries, in­clud­ing to Tu­nisia. Last week in­te­rior min­is­ter Hedi Ma­j­doub told par­lia­ment that 800 ji­hadists have al­ready re­turned from the front­lines, stress­ing how­ever that the au­thor­i­ties have them on their radar. His words failed to ap­pease politi­cians, se­cu­rity forces and citizens who over the past few days have pub­licly voiced their fears and warned against re­turn­ing ji­hadists.

On Satur­day, hun­dreds of demon­stra­tors gath­ered out­side par­lia­ment in Tunis to protest against al­low­ing ji­hadists back into the coun­try. They also chanted slo­gans hos­tile to Rached Ghan­nouchi, leader of the Is­lamist En­nahdha party, who had in the past backed the idea of “re­pen­tance” in ex­change for re­nun­ci­a­tion of vi­o­lence.

Ac­cord­ing to con­tem­po­rary his­tory pro­fes­sor Ab­de­latif Han­nachi, Tu­nisia has the ca­pac­ity to deal with re­turn­ing fight­ers, “but it is nec­es­sary to work in stages”. “First in­ves­ti­gate, then re­fer them to the courts and iso­late them if nec­es­sary, then fi­nally be­gin their re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion,” he told AFP. On Sun­day, Ghan­nouchi said he op­posed a ban on re­turn­ing Tu­nisian ji­hadists and that the coun­try should “as­sume its re­spon­si­bil­i­ties”.

“This dis­ease has to be dealt with se­ri­ously,” he told a pub­lic meet­ing, say­ing his “treat­ment” was “jus­tice, po­lice, ed­u­ca­tion and ther­apy”. But Tu­nisia’s se­cu­rity forces warned in a state­ment that the pos­si­bil­ity of bat­tle-hard­ened ji­hadists re­turn­ing was “wor­ry­ing and could lead to the So­mali-isa­tion of the coun­try.” Ex­pe­ri­enced fight­ers “have re­ceived mil­i­tary train­ing and have learnt to use all sorts of so­phis­ti­cated weapons,” they said. The se­cu­rity forces urged the gov­ern­ment to take “ex­cep­tional mea­sures” to com­bat the re­turn of ji­hadists and strip them of their na­tion­al­ity.

Ar­ti­cle 25 of Tu­nisia’s new con­sti­tu­tion specif­i­cally states that no cit­i­zen shall be de­prived of their na­tion­al­ity, ex­iled, ex­tra­dited or pre­vented from re­turn­ing to their home coun­try. Pres­i­dent Beji Caid Essebsi said in early De­cem­ber that his coun­try was “tak­ing all the nec­es­sary mea­sures” to en­sure that ji­hadists re­turn­ing from Syria and Iraq are “neu­tral­ized”.

Cit­ing the con­sti­tu­tion he said “we can’t pre­vent a Tu­nisian from re­turn­ing to his coun­try”. “We will not put them all in prison be­cause we would not have enough pris­ons... but we will mon­i­tor them,” he added. Fol­low­ing a storm of crit­i­cism in the press and on social media, Essebsi later told Tu­nisian tele­vi­sion that “we will not be in­dul­gent with the ter­ror­ists”.

On Mon­day his for­mer cam­paign man­ager Mohsen Mar­zouk warned in a state­ment posted on Face­book that “ev­ery re­turn­ing ji­hadist” was like a “time bomb”. In Novem­ber Tu­nisia’s na­tional Se­cu­rity Coun­cil an­nounced the adop­tion of a strat­egy to fight ex­trem­ist vi­o­lence. The an­a­lyst Med­deb said the plan re­mains “po­lar­iz­ing” be­cause au­thor­i­ties have not re­leased de­tails. — AFP

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