Is protest a safety valve against ISIS in Tunisia?

Tunisian army troops patrol the streets of the town of Sbiba in the province of Kasserine, known to be an important recruiting area for the Islamic State. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)
Tunisian army troops patrol the streets of the town of Sbiba in the province of Kasserine, known to be an important recruiting area for the Islamic State. (Lorenzo Tugnoli for The Washington Post)

Tunisia ranks among the top countries of origin for foreign recruits of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. Leaked membership lists and details obtained from the profiles of recruits killed in battle provide an important data set of fighters’ biographical information to help determine factors contributing to their recruitment. We matched a list of 636 Tunisian Islamic State fighters derived from leaked border documents with information from the 2014 census, as well as other data. We found that fighters came from 128 of Tunisia’s 264 delegations.

But why would citizens of the only Arab democracy travel thousands of miles to participate in a violent insurgency? A closer look at the areas in Tunisia more likely to produce ISIS fighters provides some answers.

More than economic marginalization

Some stress that economic marginalization is a key driver of the Islamic State’s success in Tunisia, while others point to the relatively high levels of educated individuals among the militant ranks as a contributing factor.

Country-level analyses, however, have thus far yielded uncertain conclusions as to the relative weight of each of these factors. In 2017, 23 percent of male Tunisians enrolled in some form of tertiary education. Unemployed graduates are cited as being particularly at risk of Islamic State recruitment. These same individuals were a key constituency in the wave of mass mobilization witnessed in the country from 2010-2011. In the post-revolutionary period, analysts argue, the educated unemployed have become “prime candidates for jihad.” In fact, a close look at court proceedings against suspected Islamist terrorists in Tunisia revealed that 40 percent of the accused hold university degrees. Indeed, within our sample, including recruits who dropped out of university to join the Islamic State, 34 percent have gone through some kind of university or postsecondary education.

We tested these explanations using a range of variables to see which best predicted recruitment into the Islamic State. We included a measure of the rate of unemployment among male university graduates in a delegation. We wondered if the availability of protest as a form of political participation moderated the radicalizing effect of economic marginalization, and so we entered the number of protests in a delegation during the Tunisian Revolution and the following year. Our intuition here is that while a lack of opportunity for educated Tunisians may explain some of the Islamic State’s appeal, it may be that the existence of alternative means for channeling discontent could insulate against this.

We also accounted for levels of educational attainment (percent with higher education) and urbanization (population density) in each delegation. Previous studies have suggested that the Islamic State took advantage of the chaos that followed the fall of Moammar Gaddafi in 2011 to recruit in delegations neighboring Libya, and so we measured the distance between a delegation and the border. To account for the potential pool of recruits, we entered the number of males aged over 15 years. Figure 1 shows the rate of Islamic State recruits per 10,000 members of the population and the number of protest events in a delegation between 2010 and 2012.

Is protest a safety valve against ISIS in Tunisia?
Figure 1

Unemployed male graduates

Our results suggest that Islamic State fighters were significantly more likely to come from delegations with more unemployed male graduates. To give an illustration: a delegation with 7 percent male graduate unemployment typically produced no more than a single Islamic State recruit. By comparison, a delegation where 30 percent of male graduates were unemployed produced nearly four times as many fighters.

However, in areas with both high levels of graduate unemployment and high levels of protest this effect is reversed. In a delegation where 30 percent of male graduates are unemployed, but where there is a high level of protest (in the top quartile), the predicted rate of Islamic State recruits drops to 1. One interpretation of this result is that where discontent stemming from economic marginalization can be channeled into protest, the Islamic State saw less success at attracting recruits. This reading finds support in recent studies demonstrating that deprived towns of Tunisia with prehistories of union activism saw little Islamic State activity. When we repeated the analysis above using a restricted protest measure that captures only protests led by the Tunisian General Labour Union (UGTT), the national trade union federation, we came to the same conclusion. None of our other measures were statistically significant predictors of Islamic State recruitment.

We can repeat our analysis on a separate list of Tunisian fighters killed in Syria. Note that this list records the home delegation of 133 individuals, and so information is more sparse. We find a similar pattern. However, fighters who died in Syria were also significantly more likely to come from delegations located closer to the Libyan border. This might suggest that Tunisians recruited from those areas were placed in front-line combat roles, and so were at greater risk of being killed.

Our analysis has the great advantage of being able to compare individual fighters to the underlying population from which they are drawn. The results provide suggestive evidence that grievances arising from economic marginalization have played a role in the Islamic State’s ability to recruit so many educated Tunisians. But where Tunisians could channel their disaffection into protest, we see the opposite trend emerge. If protest was able to drive Tunisia’s democratic breakthrough, it may well also help defend against the threat of the Islamic State in the aftermath.

Christopher Barrie is a doctoral candidate in sociology at Nuffield College at the University of Oxford. Neil Ketchley is a lecturer in Middle East politics in the department of political economy at King’s College in London. We are grateful to Aaron Zelin for generously sharing data on Islamic State recruits.

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