How could they? Why Tunisia is sending fighters to join IS

Tunisia’s revolution, still hailed as a rare success story of the Arab Spring, also happens to be  a major source of extremists joining IS, the self-proclaimed Islamic State. At least 3000 Tunisians, men and women, have travelled to Syria and Iraq, more than from any other country.

Last night, at a conference here in SF, I met a participant in Tunisia’s so called Jasmine

Revolution, now a member in the country’s new parliament, and asked her about that paradox. (She was visiting SF under National Democratic Institute sponsorship along with a few dozen other politicians from around the world to meet with tech leaders and talk about women and leadership.)

Sabrine Ghoubantini, 27, was one of the first to use her blog and facebook account to spread the word of a fruit seller whose frustration and self-immolation are widely believed to have triggered the Arab Spring in Tunisia and elsewhere. She was recently elected to the Tunisian parliament. Ghoubantini speculated on how her coujntry, at once liberal and secular, could also be producing so many extremists, pointing to the unusual repressiveness of the old regime towards conservative Islam and, interestingly, the same internet and social media that had served to bring down that regime.

“We went from zero to everything nearly overnight,” she said.” Suddenly we had huge access to extremist discourse– from Bin Laden and others. It was like an explosion: there was 100% freedom of expression.”

Tunisia is often held up as the darling of social media revolutions and those who believe facebook can change the world. The use of facebook did help break the old regime’s grip on state media and spread the word that set the region alight. In 2011, I was working with UNHCR on Tunisia’s border with Libya and it was hard not to be impressed by Tunisians’ response towards those fleeing the civil war. They had just been through their own revolution, throwing off 23 years of dictatorship, and many were anxious to safeguard what they had won. I met teachers taking up brooms to clean the camps, mothers working at the soup kitchen, families donating winter clothes.

But those same forces appear to have provided the disaffected in Tunisia with the promise of a new kind of liberation.

 “We have 21st C tools but 20th C issues,”  said Ghoubantini. “Politically, we don’t yet know how to keep pace with the technology.”

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Ghoubantini speaking in San Francisco.

Tunisia was a source of militants dating back to the 1980s in Afghanistan and they have long contributed, thanks   to the rigid secularization of the old regime, to Islamist movments. The  country’s democratic revolution has not stopped that. Indeed, the lack a strong national identity–another legacy of the old regime– has   left young people lacking a sense of   purpose, says Ghoubantini, while unemployment is stubbornly, painfully high. Addressing the lure of IS is a big issue at home in Tunisia, not least because they continue to  return and directly threaten secular politicians. At least 500 have come back–illegally—from the battlefields of Syria and Iraq. Countering the recruitment, is a priority for Tunisians like Ghoubantini and there may be lessons for the US as well.

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