Why are so many Tunisians joining the Islamic State?

An Islamic State fighter in Raqqa, Syria, on June 29, 2014. (Reuters)

Tunisia has been in the news recently — but not for any of the reasons the government wants.

Just last month, a 24-year-old Tunisian who had migrated to Germany after the 2011 revolution drove a truck through a crowded Berlin Christmas market, killing 12 and wounding 50. His nephew and two others suspected of collusion were later arrested in Tunisia.

In Julyof 2016, Bastille Day celebrations in France were brought to a violent end by a 31-year-old Tunisian man who drove a truck through the crowd, killing 86 people. While these recent attacks in Europe have attracted widespread news coverage, perhaps more concerning are the estimated 7,000 Tunisian men and women who have actually joined the Islamic State’s ranks abroad.

Yet unlike neighboring Arab Spring states that have been consumed by violent extremism, civil war and resurgent authoritarianism, Tunisia actually managed to build a vibrant democracy. The country held successful elections in 2011 and 2014, and according to a 2016 Arab Barometer poll, a remarkable 86 percent of Tunisians expressed support for democracy. A new poll from the International Republican Institute reveals that Tunisians prefer democracy to a non-democratic government by two-to-one.

Despite these positive indicators, the fact remains: Tunisians constitute the single largest group of foreign terrorist fighters in Syria, Iraq and Libya. So why are Tunisians leaving their young democracy for the Islamic State’s theocratic pseudo-state?

Recent investigations into this question have focused on a complex mix of newly unleashed conservatism, socioeconomic marginalization and political exclusion. While providing persuasive insights, these studies and others are mostly speculative: They lack empirical data on the lives of Tunisians who left for the Islamic State.

To fill this gap, we led a research project analyzing how and why Tunisians are joining the Islamic State. Our Tunisian research team conducted a mix-method study that included interviews with the family and friends of 13 of the Islamic State fighters, all of whom hailed from a small city in northwest Tunisia — a region whose marginalized residents have increasingly embraced violent extremism. (To protect the identities of the researchers and participants, we are omitting the name of the city.) Our findings move the discussion beyond conjecture, contributing firsthand nuanced detail on the radicalization process.

The terrorist profile: Bored, disillusioned with government and often unemployed

Echoing other findings, our research found no uniform profile among these extremists. But they did share a few characteristics. Their family and friends commonly noted long bouts of unemployment or underemployment, sometimes after graduating from college, as well as primary or secondary school truancy. Once out of school, there was little to do in the city and few opportunities to advance. According to interviews, the foreign fighters spent their free time online, at the mosque, or idle around town. “He would spend his entire day at the cafe then come back for dinner before going out,” said one foreign fighter’s mother.

The interviews also illuminated deep disillusionment with the Tunisian state among many of the foreign fighters and their friends and family. Several said that the government should “provide employment opportunities for youth … so that they do not fall victim to extremist groups” and “fight unemployment,” which they described as the “main reason young men go to conflict areas.”

Sudden-onset extremism

In many cases, friends and family members noticed a distinct, sudden shift toward extreme religious ideology. Many interviewees described previously “moderate” or “ordinary” men and women going from praying occasionally and wearing jeans to suddenly glorifying martyrdom.

This behavior was conspicuous in the city where this research was conducted, which was described as conservative but not overly religious. It was also considered to be unusual behavior within the foreign fighters’ families and friend groups, which were often secular or moderately religious.

Varying paths to extremism

Our research exposed varying routes to extremism, which bolsters those who argue the path to radicalization is nonlinear. One interviewee said her cousin was expelled from college and met an Egyptian man who proposed to her and wanted to take her to Syria. She eloped after her parents refused to give her permission to marry the man. Another foreign fighter’s friend said he began to spend his free time at the mosque or cafe with “bearded religious men,” after which he grew a beard, donned religious garb and left for Syria.

Little social support

As others note, terrorists are often emboldened by community support. However, our data doesn’t show this. The family and friends of foreign fighters we interviewed uniformly condemned their actions. This finding is perhaps unsurprising as public support for the Islamic State could draw unwanted attention from the Tunisian state, but the interviewees often used forceful and emotionally-charged language when rejecting violent extremism. 

The poor governance-radicalization nexus

Many interviewees said their family member’s or friend’s transformation to religious fundamentalist and ultimately foreign jihadist occurred after the 2011 revolution. IRI’s research in Tunisia indicates that certain governance-related expectations — improved service delivery, security sector reform, substantial anti-corruption efforts — have not materialized at the rate or in the manner many marginalized Tunisians had hoped. Our evidence elucidates the importance of a key “push” factor for extremism: Disillusionment and discontent with the nature and pace of democratic progress has caused some Tunisians to embrace violent, nondemocratic change.

There are limitations to these preliminary findings presented here. Interviews with the associates of 13 foreign fighters cannot account for the many facets of the phenomenon of violent extremism. Nevertheless, the insights of the people who knew these foreign fighters better than anyone else contribute important empirical evidence on the dynamics of recruitment and drivers of violent extremism.

We are currently expanding this research across Tunisia, using surveys, focus groups and in-depth interviews with family and friends of foreign fighters as well as returned fighters, in the hopes that improved understanding will lead to more effective prevention efforts.

Geoffrey Macdonald is a postdoctoral fellow at the International Republican Institute.
Luke Waggoner is a senior governance specialist at the International Republican Institute.

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