Tunisia is the Arab Spring’s success story, the one country that’s turned into a stable democracy after replacing its leader in a wave of popular protests. But it’s also the world’s single biggest exporter of violent jihadists.
Over 3,000 Tunisians have traveled to fight in Iraq and Syria — nearly a thousand more than the number of people making the short trek from the third-biggest source: Jordan, Syria’s neighbour. It’s 500 more than the number that have traveled from Saudi Arabia, a traditional jihadist hotbed with three times Tunisia’s population.
A report in The New York Times looks at possible answers for why a country which navigated the challenges of the Arab Spring with such apparent success is now a source of so many jihadists.
Dozens of interviews with Tunisian youth in one of the capital’s suburbs, Ettadhamen, point to motivations that range from seeking a higher standard of living to ideological motivations, like erasing the arbitrary borders that European imperialists drew in the region a century ago.
The jihadist problem is fuelled by low youth employment. The African Development Bank, which is headquartered in Tunis, puts unemployment among young graduates at “a particularly worrisome level” of 34 per cent. According to the Times, “education is inexpensive but jobs remain scarce,” making young people “prime candidates for jihad.”
“It seems that everyone under 30 knew someone who had traveled to fight in Syria or Iraq, or someone who had died there,” the Times reports.
But fresh recruits are not limited to a group of frustrated youth, and economic explanations are unsatisfying. After all, Tunisia isn’t the only country in the region that’s fallen on hard times.
New freedoms in the country during its democratization process have allowed more vocal praise for ISIS and open recruitment. It’s also possible that the security services are just less organised and less capable of identifying and stopping would-be jihadists — though Tunisian officials say that many of the roughly 400 fighters who have returned to Syria have been arrested.
Notably, dozens of the Times’ interviewees said they didn’t believe news reports of the Islamic State’s atrocious crimes, which include mass killings and beheadings. Tunisian youth may be exposed to a distorted view of ISIS, in an environment of political openness and economic desperation.
And the result is that one of the most promising countries in the Middle East is a major source of jihadist recruitment.
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