TUNIS, Tunisia — It’s considered the star performer of the ill-fated Arab Spring, the one country in the region where representative democracy has made major strides. But even here, the fight against radical Islamic violence requires an unceasing vigil.
The head of a secretive U.S.-backed counterterrorism Fusion Center based in the capital says Tunisian government authorities are keeping at least 1,000 people under surveillance in the nation on suspicion that they are clandestine operatives of the Islamic State group.
“Some have come back from Libya and some from Syria and Iraq,” said Karim Ammar, who heads the center at the heart of a growing struggle to prevent the Islamic State terrorist group, also known as ISIS and ISIL, from undermining Tunisia’s tenuous democratic rule.
There is little question that tiny Tunisia — sandwiched between the chaos in Libya and an authoritarian regime in Algeria — remains the lone beacon of hope left from the revolutions that began here in 2011 and rapidly spread across much of the rest of the Middle East.
But this sun-drenched patch of North Africa, just 62 miles across the Mediterranean from Italy, is also gripped by a difficult and dirty secret. It’s by far the No. 1 source country for foreign fighters for the Islamic State, with as many as 7,000 — more than twice the total from any other nation — having traveled to join the terrorist group’s purported “caliphate” in Syria and Iraq.
Tunisian officials, analysts and ordinary citizens say their nation is on a knife’s edge, setting a precedent for freedom in the Arab world while scrambling to establish a post-dictatorship security state that can contain the threat of attacks by hardened Islamic State fighters who have returned — all without falling back into traditional patterns of authoritarian rule.
AUDIO: The Hidden Front: Why So Tunisian Men Join the Islamic State
“It’s tearing at the seams of the very youth population that drove the revolution to begin with,” one high-level Tunisian official said in an interview as part of a special series of articles examining hot spots in the war against terrorism — a war whose end has eluded the Obama administration and will soon be inherited as a major foreign policy challenge for whoever wins the U.S. presidency in November.
U.S. officials say the Islamic State is on the defensive, losing territory in its Syrian and Iraqi strongholds. But there are also places — including Tunisia — where jihadi movements remain very much on the offensive.
“What you have to understand,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, “is that Tunisia right now is becoming a prized target for the Islamic State and other Islamic extremists precisely because they don’t want to see a pro-Western democracy succeed here in the Arab world the way that it has been succeeding.”
That dark reality surfaced last year when Islamic State-aligned fanatics killed 57 mostly European tourists in two grisly attacks, one at the nation’s historic Bardo National Museum in downtown Tunis and the other on a beach in the resort city of Sousse.
Things got worse in March, when the Islamic State suddenly attempted to establish a permanent outpost in the Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane, near the border with Libya. Tunisian military forces crushed the effort, but many say the attacks — especially the strike that killed 30 British tourists on the beach in Sousse — created an ominous strategic opening for the Islamic State.
Tourism revenue has plummeted over the past year. The already struggling economy has lost as much as $2 billion, and, with few jobs in sight, hopelessness is spreading among the nation’s youths, presenting fertile ground for Islamic State recruiters.
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The recruiters are known to use cash as a lure, a reality not lost on Mr. Ammar. Tunisian authorities, he said, are scrambling to crack down on hawala houses, part of a vast network of underground brokers moving cash around the Middle East.
“We have a big focus on going after ISIS recruiters,” he said.
That includes a significant effort to gather and analyze intelligence on thousands of Tunisians operating in Libya, Syria and Iraq.
Over the past year alone, authorities have raided more than three dozen suspected Islamic State cells inside Tunisia and detained some 1,400 people on terrorism charges.
Although human rights advocates warn of an unwieldy government crackdown rounding up hundreds of innocent people, Mr. Ammar said, he fears that scores of Islamic State operatives remain on the loose.
The situation is strained by severe overcrowding in Tunisian prisons. Government critics say authorities are torturing terrorist suspects and have failed to address the deeper issue of why so many have joined the Islamic State and other jihadi groups to begin with — let alone develop an effective strategy for dealing with those who return.
“The prisons are full of people; there’s no place to put more. Lots of people are coming back from Syria, Libya and Iraq, and the government is trying to monitor them, but it’s extremely difficult,” said Badra Gaaloul, an analyst with the Tunis-based International Center of Strategic, Security and Military Studies, a private think tank.
“The government has talked about laws for rehabilitating and reintegrating returning fighters, but it’s just talk,” Ms. Gaaloul said in an interview. “There is no action with regard to where these centers will be, who will run them or how.”
But Mr. Ammar said the Fusion Center is focused on more fundamental questions.
“Why did they join? We’re studying this very closely. Once we know it, we can stop it,” he said. “What pushed them? We have to think about the reasons, really, rather than just do military operations. Terrorism is an ideology, a mentality, a spirit. The counternarrative is of great importance.”
‘Deep kind of brainwashing’
Among the most famous Tunisian Islamic State fighters was Abu Bilal al-Tunisi, a man in his 20s whose wide, sinister grin graced jihadi websites in late 2014 when he was photographed near Raqqa, Syria. The photo shows al-Tunisi with his arm locked around the neck of a captured Jordanian fighter pilot whose jet had crashed in the area.
Al-Tunisi has been widely credited with concocting the horrific method by which the pilot, 1st Lt. Moaz al-Kasasbeh, was burned alive in a cage — a macabre execution that shocked the world when it was featured in one of the Islamic State’s many graphic propaganda videos.
Although al-Tunisi was later killed by an airstrike near Raqqa, his atrocities hang like a sick memory over his hometown, an economically downtrodden corner of Tunis known as Ettadhamen. A local taxi driver said the Ettadhamen residents who have joined the Islamic State did so “not for religious beliefs, but for money — because they are in poverty here.”
“They say, ‘I’m dying anyway, so why not go with these people and make some money?’” said the 44-year-old driver.
Shops sell clothes and food along Ettadhamen’s main avenues, but large groups of listless young men loiter along its back streets, where trash rots in high piles and a city park lies in decrepit ruins — neglected for years despite the 2011 revolution.
Economic disenfranchisement may well drive some to the Islamic State, but for others, material hardship was not the motive.
“Everyone knows someone who’s joined,” said Mohamed, a 23-year-old graduate student who struck up a conversation on a hot summer evening along the rows of French-style cafes that line Avenue Habib Bourguiba in downtown Tunis.
“A close friend of mine joined, and he died in Syria. We used to go to [soccer] games together, but then I didn’t see him for a couple of years and then I found out on Facebook he’d gone,” said Mohamed, who preferred not to give his last name. “I felt sick when I found out. But I also felt pity. I thought he was a victim. They used him.
“It wasn’t about money. He came from a family that had enough money,” Mohamed said. “ISIS brainwashed him. It’s a deep, deep kind of brainwashing.”
For brainwashing to work, the target has to be receptive to the message. Another young man, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, observed that “Tunisia is not a very religious country. There really aren’t very many mosques here compared to other places.
“I think that’s why so many young people get pulled in,” the young man said. “They know they are Muslims, but they grew up mostly without Islam, so they have a curiosity to learn about the religion.
“Extremist recruiters prey on this. They trick these young people into believing the only true way to repent and win favor with God for the sin of having grown up in a place like this is to join ISIS and wage jihad.”
Such dynamics are playing out amid a landscape of fractious national politics that has been the norm since the 2011 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
The revolution brought an explosion of freedom of expression and political activity that extremists exploited. The moderate Islamist political party Ennahda, long-banned by the Ben Ali regime, won the nation’s first democratic election and held power through 2014, a period many Tunisians now say coincided with a wave of jihadi recruitment that the government made little effort to stop.
Some blame the Obama administration for making the situation worse by embracing the Ennahda government. But as a political and security crisis mounted anew in Tunisia in 2014, the party was pushed from power by popular vote.
Its leaders have since tried to distance themselves from political Islam, saying they don’t want to be associated with groups like the Islamic State or al Qaeda.
Key Ennahda members, meanwhile, say a mix of factors was to blame for the high number of Tunisians who joined the Islamic State — not least of which was an explosion of Islamic extremist media after the Arab Spring.
“Under Ben Ali, people were banned from even praying. Religious books were confiscated, and lots of Islamic people — not just extremists — were arrested and jailed,” said Monia Brahim, who holds one of 69 seats that Ennahda still occupies in Tunisia’s parliament.
The result was a religious vacuum similar to what gripped Egypt after dictator Hosni Mubarak was overthrown in 2011. “When the revolutions happened, the vacuum was quickly filled,” Ms. Brahim told The Times. “Suddenly, young people here in Tunisia were watching Salafist satellite television shows from Egypt. This is what really opened the way for many young people to be radicalized.”
The ‘new Camp Buka’
Despite the shift toward democracy, Tunisia’s political unrest has complicated U.S. efforts to find a reliable counterterrorism partner here.
American officials say the relationship began to deepen dramatically after the rise of the Islamic State and the creation of the Fusion Center in late 2014.
By mid-2015, when it became clear that the Islamic State had established a viable foothold in neighboring Libya, the White House tripled security assistance to Tunisia, channeling some $100 million toward military equipment and counterterrorism training programs for 2016.
But the effort remains delicate because of anti-American sentiment lurking in the Tunisian public.
“The Fusion Center is an achievement,” said Youssef Cherif, a national security analyst and private consultant based in Tunis, “but it requires more focus and money, and it has to be run by Tunisians or the public will see it as some kind of neocolonialism from Washington.”
Mr. Ammar, who heads the center, seemed unfazed by such concerns. The center is the “fruit of strategic dialogue between Tunisia and the USA,” he said, adding that its focus on cross-pollinating intelligence and officials from across the Tunisian government is resulting in a single, coherent counterterrorism strategy to get ahead of threats.
The most immediate threat stems from the flow of weapons and jihadis across the border with Libya. “There is no clear Libyan government, so we’re having difficulty controlling the border,” he said, adding that a major push is underway for American and German-made drones to monitor the border.
“A significant withdrawal by the U.S. at this point would be a disaster,” Mr. Ammar said. “We have to be careful.”
He pointed to expanding cooperation with Washington to deal with Tunisia’s overcrowded prisons, with a focus on improving conditions and preventing havens of radicalization and jihadi recruitment. American officials say they are pushing for suspected extremists to be separated from other criminals in the system.
Mr. Ammar said he agrees with the push but that the issue is politically charged in Tunis, where Muslim leaders say segregated prisons will make it easier for authorities to isolate and torture suspects, including political opposition activists who may be wrongly labeled as jihadis.
But many security analysts say there is little question that U.S. officials must keep the focus on Tunisia’s volatile prison situation if they are serious about halting Islamic State activity here. Mr. Cherif, for instance, cited the notoriously overcrowded Mornaguia prison on the outskirts of Tunis.
Extremist indoctrination has become so rampant among inmates, he said, that it could be called the new Camp Buka — a reference to the former U.S. military prison in Iraq where Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi was once held and formed alliances that later undergirded the terrorist group’s meteoric rise.
“This is something,” said Mr. Cherif, “that needs to be dealt with urgently.”