By George Packer
March 28, 2016
A few miles northwest of Tunis, with its sidewalk cafés and streets lined by rows of manicured ficus trees and its avenues named after European cities, there is a poor suburb of eighty thousand people called Douar Hicher. The streets are narrow and rutted, with drains cut through the middle, and the houses cluster close together, as if to keep out strangers. In the first days of 2011, thousands of young people from Douar Hicher and other suburbs poured into downtown Tunis to demand the ouster of the country’s corrupt and autocratic leader, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. Within two weeks, he had been overthrown, in what became known as the Jasmine Revolution. This sudden change was soon celebrated around the world as the first sprout of the Arab Spring.
In the new Tunisia, freedom brought tumult as well as joy. Douar Hicher became the scene of preaching, protesting, and, at times, violence by Islamists. Before the revolution, Tunisia had been kept rigidly secular. Now the black flag of radical Islam flew over many buildings, and hard-liners known as Salafis—the word refers to the original followers of the Prophet Muhammad—took advantage of the new openness and tried to impose Sharia in their neighbourhoods. Some of the Salafis belonged to an organization called Ansar al-Sharia, the Defenders of Sharia, which opposed electoral democracy and wanted to set off an Islamist insurrection. The group began attacking Tunisian security forces, and in October, 2012, a Salafi imam was killed when he joined an ambush of a national-guard post in Douar Hicher. In 2013, faced with a state crackdown, the Salafis went underground, and young men and women began disappearing from neighbourhoods like Douar Hicher.
In November, I was shown around Douar Hicher by Mohamed, a local engineer in his late twenties. Mohamed, who grew up there, said, “The friends I was studying with in high school and boxing with—ninety per cent have gone, and not to Italy. They went to Syria and Iraq. There are no longer any young people.” Small children were picking discarded clothes from a garbage pile, but there were few of the idle young men who gather so conspicuously in the streets of working-class Arab neighborhoods. Thirteen residents of a single block had been killed fighting in Syria and Iraq, Mohamed said. He pointed to a small side street: “Two weeks ago, thirty people disappeared from here.” They were on the run from the police, and were believed to have joined the Islamic State, or ISIS, in Libya—an increasingly common destination for Tunisian Jihadis. The families of Salafis seldom report these departures, fearing harassment by the authorities. “It’s a surprise when they leave, but we know who’s contemplating it,” Mohamed said. The main reasons for leaving, he added, were “marginalization and joblessness.”
A friend of Mohamed’s, an unemployed telecommunications engineer named Nabil Selliti, left Douar Hicher to fight in Syria. Oussama Romdhani, who edits the Arab Weekly in Tunis, told me that in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought. Before Selliti left, Mohamed asked him why he was going off to fight. Selliti replied, “I can’t build anything in this country. But the Islamic State gives us the chance to create, to build bombs, to use technology.” In July, 2013, Selliti blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq.
Mohamed and I passed a hole-in-the-wall café where middle-aged men were smoking water pipes and drinking coffee. It had been the hangout of a young local named Hamza Maghraoui, who went to Syria and joined the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda’s affiliate there. In 2013, he returned to Douar Hicher, where he told war stories at his favorite café (and violated the anti-smoking strictures of Al Qaeda). Maghraoui went back to the front, and joined ISIS. Last February, he became famous in Douar Hicher when a video was posted to YouTube showing him help capture Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian Air Force pilot, who was then burned alive. Maghraoui was killed in September, in an American air strike.
At a garden café on the outskirts of Douar Hicher, I met another friend of Mohamed’s, whom I’ll call Kamal. He was in his mid-twenties, with scruffy jeans, hair that was gelled upward, and a look of hurt in his eyes. He had once worked in tourism, acting as a freelance guide for foreigners and as a d.j. in Tunisia. Now he was jobless. Tourism, one of Tunisia’s major industries, dropped by nearly fifty per cent after June 26th last year, when, on a beach near the resort town of Sousse, a twenty-three-year-old student and break-dancing enthusiast pulled an automatic weapon out of his umbrella and began shooting foreigners; he spared Tunisian workers, who tried to stop him. The terrorist, who had trained at an Islamic State camp in Libya, killed thirty-eight people, thirty of them British tourists, before being shot dead by police.
Kamal had joined the Jasmine Revolution, but he was angry that it had not improved the prospects of young Tunisians like him. For a few months, he worked at an Airbus plant in the south of Tunis, but the salary was so low that he decided he was better off trying to make a living in Tunisia’s informal economy. Most of the men in his family worked in the police force, but Kamal had been rejected at the recruitment office, without explanation. He glanced at the other tables in the garden café, lowered his voice, and outlined what he called “the project.” He said, “The Islamic State will rule the world. There will be no flag other than the flag of Allah, and there will be justice and peace all over the world. Those who have done wrong, who have killed people, will be killed under the Quran. Some will die in public trials, in front of everybody.” He went on, “In Tunisia, the President and all his officials will be removed. They’ll get what they deserve. They are infidels.”
In 2013, Kamal joined demonstrations organized by Ansar al-Sharia. He had known the imam, who was killed in Douar Hicher, and many of Kamal’s friends had died abroad after becoming Jihadis; those who had returned to Tunisia were jailed for supporting terrorism. He wasn’t ready to fight in Syria, but he dreaded the thought of remaining in Tunisia. Less than an hour away from Douar Hicher, along the Mediterranean, were the upscale restaurants of La Marsa, home to wealthy Tunisians and expatriates, and the ancient Roman waterways of Carthage, which were lined with sprawling villas still occupied by the corrupt relatives of Ben Ali. “The rich in Tunisia get richer, and the poor get poorer,” Kamal said.
At the table, another young Tunisian, Aslam Souli, was interpreting for us. Souli was a member of the élite—his father was a well-known professor of Arabic literature, and he was studying to be a radiologist. After the Sousse massacre, he and some friends formed an organization called the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism. The group provides poor youths with activities at recreation centres and offers counselling sessions against jihad. When Souli described this effort, Kamal was dismissive—Souli and his friends, he said, were just wealthy kids seeking yet more money and attention.
“The youth are lost,” Kamal told me. “There’s no justice.” Douar Hicher, he said, “is the key to Tunisia.” He continued, “If you want to stop terrorism, then bring good schools, bring transportation—because the roads are terrible—and bring jobs for young people, so that Douar Hicher becomes like the parts of Tunisia where you Westerners come to have fun.”
For all his talk about jihad, Kamal seemed like a young man who would jump at a chance to party at a techno club. He was eager to mention European friends with whom he discusses religion (but not the project). To my surprise, he condemned the Sousse massacre and a terrorist attack in March, 2015, at Tunisia’s national museum, the Bardo, where three gunmen killed two dozen people. The victims were innocents, he said. Kamal still entertained a fantasy of joining a reformed police force. His knowledge of Islam was crude, and his allegiance to ISIS seemed confused and provisional—an expression of rage, not of ideology. But in Douar Hicher anger was often enough to send young people off to fight.
I asked Kamal how he saw his own future. He had been speaking in Tunisian Arabic, but he switched to English. “Dark,” he said.
According to a recent report by the Soufan Group, a firm that provides security-intelligence consulting, between six and seven thousand Tunisians have waged jihad in Syria and Iraq. (The Tunisian Interior Ministry acknowledges only half that amount.) At least fifteen hundred more have crossed the Libyan border; by some accounts, Tunisians constitute half the Jihadis in that failed state. As many as seven hundred have returned home, and the government claims to have prevented sixteen thousand from embarking on jihad. These estimates make Tunisia, a country of eleven million people, the leading producer of Jihadism, far ahead of its nearest competitors, Saudi Arabia and Russia, which have much larger populations but half as many fighters in Syria and Iraq.
“Maybe it’s the Tunisian nature—we like risk,” a former jihadi told me. A million Tunisians live and work in Europe. “A lot of drug dealers are Tunisian; many smugglers of goods between Turkey and Greece are Tunisian; a lot of human traffickers in Belgrade are Tunisian. Online hackers—be careful of the Tunisians, there’s a whole network of them.”
Tunisian Jihadis have developed a reputation for being involved in extreme violence. In Iraq, they, along with other North Africans, have been known for volunteering to become suicide bombers. A Syrian escapee from Deir Ezzor province recently told the Daily Beast that the worst ISIS police officers were Tunisians, adding, “They are immoral, irreligious, corrupt, and they treat people badly, whereas those from the Gulf countries are not as bad.” In Tunis, Ons Ben Abdelkarim, a twenty-six-year-old woman who leads a civic organization named Al Bawsala, said, “Tunisians who go abroad are the bloodiest—they show such an inhuman face when they go to the zones of jihad.” She explained, “Injustice contributes a lot to this—when one feels that one doesn’t belong to Tunisia, when one feels that Tunisia brings you nothing.” The Jasmine Revolution, she said, had been stolen from the young.
Religious education in Tunisia is mandatory but rote and shallow, so there’s little theological substance to keep a young person from going to extremes. Romdhani, the Arab Weekly editor, said, “The radical narrative tells you that whatever you’ve learned about Islam is wrong, you have to discard it—we have the new stuff. The old, traditional, moderate Islam doesn’t offer you the adventure of the ISIS narrative. It doesn’t offer you the temptation to enjoy, maybe, your inner savagery. ISIS offers a false heaven for sick minds.”
Tunisia’s revolution began in the provincial town of Sidi Bouzid, on December 17, 2010, when Mohamed Bouazizi, a twenty-six-year-old produce vender, refused to pay a petty bribe. Municipal inspectors tried to confiscate his crates of fruit and his electronic scale, and when he resisted a policewoman slapped him in front of a crowd. “It got to him deep inside,” Bouazizi’s mother said later. “It hurt his pride.” Bouazizi walked to a government building, poured paint thinner over his body, and set himself on fire. He died eighteen days later. A dramatic act of protest by a simple, apolitical man in an obscure place: the story could have been written by Silone or Malraux. It provoked the demonstrations that swept away Ben Ali just days after Bouazizi’s death, and spread to Tahrir Square, in Cairo, and then across the Arab world. Bouazizi’s fire is still burning today.
Tunisia is the only country to emerge from the Arab revolutions of 2011 as a functioning democracy. Egypt, Libya, Yemen, Bahrain, and Syria have returned to dictatorship, descended into chaos, or both. But in Tunisia a democratically chosen assembly passed a progressive constitution in 2014, and three rounds of free and fair elections have taken place. Sweeping bills—on economic liberalization, on justice for members of the old regime—are debated in parliament, and power struggles are hashed out in hard-won compromises. Post-revolutionary Tunisia added the word karama—“dignity”—to the national motto, and put Bouazizi’s face on a postage stamp.
Tunisia has many advantages over other Arab states: no deep ethnic or sectarian divisions; no oil wealth that distorts the economy and draws foreign interference; a tradition of moderate Islam; widespread literacy; a small, apolitical army. Last year, Tunisia became the first Arab country to receive the rating of “Free” from the organization Freedom House. In December, four Tunisian civil-society organizations, known as the National Dialogue Quartet, received the Nobel Peace Prize for promoting negotiations between political parties and citizens and for helping the country avoid the fate of its neighbours. Tunisia, the Arab world’s leading producer of foreign fighters, is also its best hope for freedom.
Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into Jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive. New liberties clashed with the old habits of a police state—young Tunisians were suddenly permitted to join civic and political groups, but the cops harassed them for expressing dissent. Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad. “You have a lot of people who have aspirations and can’t meet them,” Monica Marks, an American doctoral candidate who studies Islamist movements in the Middle East, said.
Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have championed democracy as the best way to stop the Arab world’s destructive oscillation between secular dictatorship and Islamist radicalism. Tom Malinowski, the Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, said, “One of our articles of faith here—backed up by evidence, I hope—is that open societies are a bulwark against extremism, and that repression tends to make our task in fighting this menace harder.” There are almost no test cases in the Arab world other than Tunisia, and, at the very least, Tunisia complicates the idea. The country is not so much a model to be emulated as a problem to be solved.
The ideology of Salafi Jihadism is static and “incredibly simple,” Bernard Haykel, an expert on Islam and the Middle East at Princeton, said. “You can learn it in an afternoon.” Salafis follow literalist interpretations of the Quran and maintain that all spheres of society must be ruled according to strict Sharia law (which, for example, promotes the removal of women from the public sphere). Those who support jihad make selective theological and legal arguments to justify violence against the perceived enemies of Islam. The targets do not change: the West, Jews, Shiites, the secular governments and security forces of Islamic countries, and Sunni Muslims who are deemed apostates. But the factors that drive young men and women to adopt Salafi Jihadism are diverse and hard to parse: militants reach an overwhelmingly reductive idea by complex and twisted paths. A son of Riyadh grows up hearing Salafi preaching in a state-sanctioned mosque and goes to Syria with the financial aid of a Saudi businessman. A young Sunni in Falluja joins his neighbours in fighting American occupation and “Persian”—Shiite—domination. A Muslim teen-ager in a Paris banlieue finds an antidote to her sense of exclusion and spiritual emptiness in a Jihadi online community. Part of the success of ISIS consists in its ability to attract a wide array of people and make them all look, sound, and think alike.
In Tunisia, leaving to wage jihad has become a social phenomenon. Recruitment spreads like a contagion through informal networks of friends and family members, and the country is small enough so that everyone knows of someone who has disappeared. In Djerba, a resort island on the southeastern coast, I met Fady Ben Youness, a teen-ager who watches “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” aspires to study at an American university, and professed to be “feeling the Bern.” He told me, with dismay, that some of his high-school classmates had written pro-ISIS graffiti on the school’s walls and then dropped out. His father, a schoolteacher and journalist, had published an article about an entire family that had left. The family’s father, an accountant, sold his four-by-four vehicle and his colony of honeybees, then used the cover story of a vacation to fly with his mother, his wife, their three small children, and a cousin to Istanbul, before being driven into Syria. Aslam Souli, the radiology student in Tunis, knew a young man in a wheelchair who joined the Nusra Front, then returned home and ended up in prison. Souli wasn’t sure what should be done with returned Jihadis, but, like nearly everyone I met, he spoke of the need for a program of rehabilitation for those who come back. No such program exists.
Tunisia has a history of secularism from above and Islamism from below—the two play off each other. Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s first President after independence from France, in 1956, styled his regime after Kemal Atatürk’s secular state, in Turkey. Bourguiba instituted universal education and advanced women’s rights beyond those in other Arab countries. Tunisia banned head scarves in schools and government offices, placed the country’s historic centre of Islamic learning, Ez-Zitouna University, under government control, and installed state-approved imams and monitored mosques. Haim Malka, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington, said, “Mosques were locked except at prayer times, and imams had their sermon topics handed to them.” The imams, many of whom lacked theology degrees, were forbidden to talk about anything people cared about—“corruption, unemployment, the fact that a young man can’t afford to get married.” According to Kamal, “We didn’t learn anything about Islam—only how to wash our hands and say our prayers.”
Ben Ali, who pushed Bourguiba aside in 1987, ruled with an even tighter grip, jailing thousands of suspected Islamists, including members of the country’s leading Islamic political party, Ennahdha, or the Awakening, a more liberal cousin of the Muslim Brotherhood. Rached Ghannouchi, who has led Ennahdha since its founding, in 1981, was forced into exile in London in 1989.
“This radicalization is inherited from the Ben Ali regime—it is not the fruit of the revolution,” Ghannouchi, who returned to Tunisia immediately after the Jasmine Revolution, told me at Ennahdha’s headquarters, in Tunis. He is now seventy-four, with a trim gray beard. He has a low croak of a voice, sloping eyes, and a patient smile, which radiates restraint. Some secular Tunisians accuse Ennahdha of using democracy as a long-term strategy to impose an Islamic code on Tunisian life. If so, Ennahdha is playing this double game with more forbearance than any other Islamist party in the region. “I absolutely think Ennahdha would like to Islamize society,” Monica Marks, the American doctoral candidate, said. “But Ennahdha is a pragmatic political actor,” and “it talks about wanting to convince people, not coerce them.”
“There was a vacuum of religion during the Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes,” Ghannouchi went on. “Ennahdha tried to fill this gap, but Bourguiba and Ben Ali tried to eradicate the movement. The government action was violence, the reaction was the same nature, and some Tunisian young people have been attracted to Al Qaeda and so on.”
In its eagerness to modernize, the Ben Ali regime encouraged widespread access to satellite television and the Internet. The sermons of Islamist firebrands from the Gulf, such as the Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, entered the homes of Tunisians who felt smothered by official secularism. Oussama Romdhani, who was a senior official under Ben Ali—he was referred to as the “propaganda minister”—told me, “Radicals were able to use these tools of communication to recruit and disseminate the narrative, and they did it quite efficiently.”
Young Tunisians assumed important positions in three generations of jihad. They fought against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the eighties and the Serbs in Bosnia in the nineties. Ben Ali regarded the Jihadis as a problem exported and therefore solved. Around 2000, the Tunisian Combat Group, an Al Qaeda affiliate, emerged in Afghanistan, dedicating itself to the overthrow of the Tunisian government. One of its founders, Tarek Maaroufi, provided false passports to two Tunisians who, allegedly on instructions from Osama bin Laden, travelled to northern Afghanistan posing as television journalists and assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan mujahideen commander, on September 9, 2001. The Combat Group’s other leader, known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, was an Al Qaeda commander; when the Americans overthrew the Taliban, in late 2001, he escaped from Tora Bora with bin Laden, only to be arrested in Turkey, in 2003, and extradited to Tunisia. (Sentenced to forty-three years in prison, he seized the chance to radicalize his fellow-prisoners.) Abubakr al-Hakim, a French-Tunisian, helped to form a network that sent French Jihadis to Iraq, including one of the Kouachi brothers, who carried out last year’s massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo, in Paris. In Iraq, there were so many Tunisian Jihadis from just one town—Ben Gardane, on the desert coastline near the Libyan border—that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the founder of Al Qaeda in Iraq, reportedly said, “If Ben Gardane had been next to Falluja, we would have liberated Iraq.”
Ben Gardane is a gritty town of low concrete houses, olive trees, trash piles, orange sand, and eighty thousand people. It hosts an annual dromedary festival. The beards are longer than in Tunis, the hijabs more concealing, and the faces tenser. Libya is twenty miles to the east, and the town is almost entirely dependent on smuggling. As we drove toward the Libyan border, trucks loaded with carpets, air-conditioners, and toaster ovens crept up the coast road in the other direction. Men sold black-market fuel on the roadside. Many Libyan goods are heavily subsidized by the state, and that has created a thriving black market in Tunisia and made Ben Gardane a shopping mecca for Tunisians—a gallon of gas, three dollars and twenty cents at the pump, costs a little more than a dollar from a jerrican. Tunisia’s official economy depends heavily on agriculture, mining, and tourism; more than a third of the economy is informal.
My driver, Alaa, a twenty-two-year-old from Ben Gardane, usually earned a living smuggling shoes to Tunis, seven hours away, in the trunk of his car. He made the trip twenty-seven times a month, but, with the cost of fuel, food, and police bribes, some runs left him with a net loss.
Jihadis use the border traffic as cover to ferry weapons from Libya into Tunisia and fighters back and forth. The smuggling has continued despite the fact that, in 2014, the Tunisian government started closing the Ben Gardane crossing to prevent terrorists trained in Libya from entering the country. The military, with American help, is building a desert wall: a sand berm about ten feet high, backed by a saltwater moat and electronic surveillance equipment, that extends a hundred miles southward from the sea. A dirt track that meanders from the coast road into the desert, normally humming with trucks, was empty when we drove on it: a smugglers’ gap in the wall had been closed three days earlier, outraging locals. The day before my visit, townspeople had gathered outside Ben Gardane’s police station, throwing rocks and burning tires.
“We’re suffocating,” Alaa said. “Why can’t the police do their job and stop the terrorists but let the smugglers go with a bribe? Aren’t we part of Tunisia? The revolution fucked us over.”
I had come to the area to meet a man I’ll call Walid, a Ben Gardane native who was under police surveillance. With the Islamic State gaining strength in Libya, Ben Gardane was becoming a dangerous outpost, and it wasn’t safe for us to be seen together there. (In early March, a sleeper cell of Tunisian Jihadis, trained in Libya by the Islamic State, attacked Ben Gardane’s police station and other sites, killing twelve members of the Tunisian security forces and seven civilians, while losing forty-three of their own.) Instead, we met up the highway, at a pizza joint in a once popular resort town called Zarzis. Other than a couple of sunburned Europeans wading in the surf and a few Tunisian motorcyclists popping wheelies on the ocean road, the place was deserted.
Walid was a broad-faced, good-looking, guarded man of twenty-eight, with a goatee and wire-rim sunglasses. A former jihadi who used to wear his hair and beard long—“like Che Guevara”—he was trying to figure out his place in Tunisia. He was the son of a middle-class merchant whose business kept the family moving around Tunisia, and, as a child, he noticed the vast difference between the prosperous northern coast near Tunis and poor southern towns like Ben Gardane. Walid wanted to change himself, and the world, for the better. If he had been born thirty years earlier, he probably would have become a leftist, but that ideology had failed in the Arab world. He looked for answers anywhere he could find them—on the Internet, in movies, in banned books and newspapers. Unlike Kamal, Walid was driven more by idealism than by desperation. At the age of fourteen, not long after the September 11th attacks, he discovered the incendiary writing of Abu Mohamed al-Maqdisi, the Palestinian-Jordanian theorist of Salafi Jihadism, who had been Zarqawi’s mentor when they shared time in a Jordanian prison. Walid read a tract from 1984, “The Creed of Abraham,” in which Maqdisi drew from Islamic texts the obligation to oppose regimes that follow man-made laws rather than the true religion. Walid felt that the secular élites of Tunisia’s north were concealing authentic Islam from the people.
Maqdisi was an intellectual godfather of Al Qaeda, and Walid came under the group’s influence. He was impressed by its long-term strategy: instead of directly confronting Arab regimes, it aimed at weakening their Western backers first, by pulling them into fights in Muslim lands—Afghanistan, Iraq—and exhausting their will until the true believers could establish their own emirates. He followed Zarqawi’s exploits in creating Al Qaeda in Iraq, and its transformation, after his death, into the Islamic State of Iraq. The slaughter of Iraqi Shiites didn’t offend Walid, for he saw them as enemies of Islam. But he spent little time on theological niceties—he was a political being. Tunisia’s top-down secularism starved underground radicals of local religious influences, giving their Islamism, with its burning social resentments, the feel of revolutionary leftism.
When he was about twenty, Walid was arrested for his political associations (a fellow-traveller had been careless on e-mail), and was sent to prison for almost two years. He was hanged by his wrists until his shoulder was dislocated, and confined to a small cell with as many as fifteen other prisoners; they were denied books but allowed to pray. The regime was unknowingly building its own tomb. “It was like a really scared animal that’s about to die,” Walid said. “We knew the revolution was coming, and we were the ones who created it.”
One morning not long after his release, he overslept, and his mother woke him up to tell him that people were out protesting in Ben Gardane.
The revolution opened up a space that Salafis rushed to fill. There were a lot more of them than anyone had realized—eventually, tens of thousands. In February, 2011, Tunisia’s interim government declared an amnesty and freed thousands of prisoners, including many Jihadis. Among them was Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the co-founder of the Tunisian Combat Group. Within two months, he had started Ansar al-Sharia.
At first, it presented itself as a social-service group. Idealistic young members went into marginal neighbourhoods and acted as health-care workers and religious teachers. Ansar al-Sharia was a movement more than an organization; there was no clear leadership structure. According to Monica Marks, Tunisians could join by attending one of the group’s events—or simply by liking its Facebook page. Tunisian Salafis are identified either as scripturalists, who pursue a quiet, non-political devotion to their creed, or as Jihadis, who support armed action. Ansar al-Sharia was oriented toward Jihadism, but, according to reports, Abu Iyadh repeatedly declared that Tunisia was a land for Dawa—preaching and recruitment—not violence, because the state was too strong to be overthrown. Activists set up tents where they told women how to dress, and, according to Marks, they promoted chastity by handing out pamphlets that featured a picture of a clamshell with a stop sign inside its half-open mouth. Amid the euphoria of the Jasmine Revolution, the repressive apparatus of Tunisia’s police state temporarily fell apart, and young men could grow their beards without being harassed; young women began appearing in public wearing conservative head scarves or even the full-face Niqab.
Marks spent two years talking with young Ansar al-Sharia followers. She joined a group of girls in a Quran study group, and they reminded her of the fundamentalists of her childhood; she grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness in eastern Kentucky. She said of the girls, “They don’t read in front of or behind the words, they just read the words.” There was an element of generational rebellion. Many of the girls’ parents had been members of the previously banned Ennahdha Party, and to the young Salafis the moderate Islamists seemed too tame. A Salafi girl named Marwa told Marks that Ennahdha members “play it safe” and “don’t have Islamic principles.”
In the first round of elections, held in October, 2011, Ennahdha won more than a third of the seats in the constituent assembly, which made it the strongest party in Tunisia’s first freely elected government. It ruled in coalition with two other parties, but secular Tunisians remained deeply suspicious of Ennahdha’s intentions, fearing that, like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, it was consolidating power to pursue a radical agenda. Some of Ennahdha’s early signals were ambiguous. Ghannouchi and other leaders affirmed their commitment to democratic rights and excluded references to Sharia law in the new constitution. At the same time, Ghannouchi received a group of young Salafis in his office and told them that they reminded him of his younger self. “Why are you in a rush?” he asked. “Why don’t you take your time to digest all these things that you have been granted? Do you think that what you achieved cannot be undone?” He told them to think of neighbouring Algeria, whose leaders vanquished an Islamist rebellion in the nineteen-nineties. “The mosques there fell under the control of the secularists again, and Islamists were chased down. Do you think this cannot happen in our country?” He told them, “The wise man is he who, when he wins something, secures it, puts it in his pocket, puts it in the closet, and locks it there.” When a video of the meeting leaked, secularists took it as proof that Ennahdha was playing a double game.
Most worrying was Ennahdha’s accommodating posture toward Ansar al-Sharia. Marks said that Ennahdha’s approach echoed an idea that is popular in political-science circles, the “inclusion moderation hypothesis.” If radicals can be brought into electoral politics, the theory goes, their demands and desires will become manageable. The notion that radical Islamists could be made moderate by giving them a seat at the table turned out to be tragically wrong.
In 2012, Tunisia began spinning out of control. Salafi hard-liners took over mosques, assaulted liquor-store owners, enforced dress codes, attacked cultural events that they deemed blasphemous, desecrated Sufi tombs, and threatened secular activists. The Ennahdha-led government took a passive position, as if to say, “No enemies among Islamists.” That May, Ansar al-Sharia held a convention in the ancient religious city of Kairouan. Up to ten thousand activists called for Sharia. (At its height, the group had at least twenty thousand members.) One day in June, Tarek Kahlaoui, a member of a center-left party in Ennahdha’s ruling coalition, was on a highway outside Tunis and saw a convoy of trucks heading from the poor suburbs toward La Marsa. Salafis were storming the town to shut down an exhibition of contemporary Tunisian art. The next day, Salafis attacked police stations and courthouses. It looked like the start of a general uprising.
Kahlaoui tried to contact Abu Iyadh, the Ansar al-Sharia leader, and was told that he was in hiding. Instead, Kahlaoui was allowed to see the group’s spokesman, a man in his mid-twenties named Bilal Chaouachi. They met, with seven or eight others, in a mosque in a poor Tunis suburb. The area had been taken over by Salafis—red-and-white Tunisian flags had been replaced by black flags with Quranic verses. “They were so confident that they were frank with me,” Kahlaoui recalled. “They told me they were collecting weapons from Libya and hiding them.” Kahlaoui asked them what for. “For another day,” he was told. “We as Muslims have a duty to arm ourselves.” (Security forces later discovered caches of weapons, mostly near the Libyan border.)
The young Jihadis, Chaouachi said, were pursuing the “revolutionary” path to power, by establishing control of areas where they were popular. He used the phrase “like fish swimming in the sea,” and when Kahlaoui noted that Mao had coined the phrase Chaouachi replied, “We are willing to learn from any source.” If urban insurrection failed, he said, the Salafis would go to the mountains and start an armed insurgency.
Other radicals described to Kahlaoui their method of creating new Salafis. They approached acquaintances late at night, when they were drinking alcohol on the streets, and, probing for weakness, told them, “This is the wrong way to react to your situation. You have to change your life.” The drinkers usually became so overcome with remorse that they wept. The recruiters were violating the Islamic injunction against associating with drinkers. “But they don’t care about these restrictions,” Kahlaoui told me. “What they care about is to get you to the action—to jihad. This is about praxis. At this level, it’s not about religion.”
Within a few days, the uprising dissipated. Kahlaoui said that Abu Iyadh, continuing to believe that the Tunisian state could not yet be confronted with force, “played a major role in quieting things down.”
Three months later, in September, a crude YouTube video mocking the Prophet Muhammad, made by a man in California, sparked protests across the region. In Benghazi, members of Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia attacked the U.S. consulate and killed four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens. In Tunis, hundreds of protesters, many of them Salafis, jumped the wall around the U.S. Embassy and tried to ransack the compound; the Tunisian police fought them off, killing two rioters. The mob also torched an American school. Tunisian opinion was strongly against the attacks, and, for the first time, Ennahdha leaders publicly criticized Salafi Jihadis. But the violence didn’t stop.
Toward the end of 2012, Kahlaoui told me, Abu Iyadh and a few of his comrades from prison held a meeting in the southern suburbs of Tunis. They decided to turn away from the “revolutionary” strategy and form an armed wing. Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb had long been active in the Chaambi Mountains, on the Algerian border. That December, a new group appeared in the area: the Uqba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, named for the seventh-century Arab commander who conquered and Islamized Tunisia. Soon, the insurgents, in coördination with the leaders of Ansar al-Sharia, were laying mines and ambushing Tunisian security forces. In February, 2013, a secular political activist named Chokri Belaid was shot dead outside his house, in Tunis. Five months later, another politician, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated in front of his family. The gunmen were Salafi Jihadis. (Abubakr al-Hakim, the veteran Tunisian jihadi, later claimed in an ISIS video that he orchestrated the killing of both men.) Nevertheless, the thousands of Tunisians who took to the streets in protest held Ennahdha responsible for allowing radical Islamism to flourish.
That August, Ennahdha declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization. The Ministry of Religious Affairs clamped down on Salafi mosques. Ansar al-Sharia’s foot soldiers were arrested or went underground. Abu Iyadh is believed to have fled to Libya. Others went to the Chaambi Mountains. And others still, including Chaouachi and Hakim, joined the growing number of Tunisians in Syria.
For Walid, the two years after the revolution passed in an ecstasy of youth. He joined the small Tunisian chapter of a group that became a rival to Ansar al-Sharia, the Ummah Conference, founded in 2004 as a network of chapters across the Arab countries. Walid said that it rejected targeting civilians and, unlike Ansar al-Sharia, wasn’t opposed to elections, but it shared the Salafi goal of establishing Sharia law in Muslim lands. The Tunisian revolution had simply created a new opportunity to achieve it. Walid told me, “We wanted to be the alternative to everything that exists—the Muslim Brotherhood, the leftists, the secularists. We judged that Ennahdha was kind of subservient, bowing down, while the ISIS guys were too crazy.”
In the early stage of the war in Syria, going there to fight jihad was considered respectable—even some Ennahdha politicians expressed approval of it. Walid found it unbearable to sit at home while Muslims were being exterminated by Bashar al-Assad’s regime. In the summer of 2012, he flew to Turkey, then crossed into Syria. “I went there without thinking,” he said. “Youthful passion took me there.” In Aleppo, Walid said, he helped form the Ummah Conference’s armed unit, the Fighting Brigade. (It took its name from the first insurgent group that opposed Assad’s father, Hafez, in the nineteen-seventies.) The Fighting Brigade was allied with the much larger rebel group Ahrar al-Sham and had friendly relations with the Nusra Front. Walid made friends with Syrians, Moroccans, and Chechens. He fought in battles. He saw Assad’s warplanes drop bombs on civilians lined up for bread. He held the shattered bodies of children.
As Walid recalled his time in Syria, he thumbed through photographs on his phone. At one point, he came across the picture of a friend he had buried. It was a group shot of Fighting Brigade recruits posing with their blue flag and their Kalashnikovs. Walid’s eyes got wet, and he cleared his throat: “Sorry.” Syria was a holy fight and a shared noble cause, but it turned into a furnace for Muslim youth. After six months in Aleppo, Walid no longer saw any purpose in staying in Syria, and he went home. “Maybe the fight was not the solution,” he said.
Walid was vague about his reasons for returning to Tunisia. He mentioned a traumatic incident in which he had seen scores of comrades mowed down by regime soldiers outside Aleppo. He also pointed to the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in April, 2013, which soon engaged in bitter infighting with the Nusra Front. Walid spoke of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, with the personal hatred that Trotskyists once expressed for Stalin. He accused ISIS of destroying the Syrian resistance and helping the Assad regime. He believed that ISIS was created by Western powers to undermine Al Qaeda and other true Jihadi groups.
Upon arriving in Tunis, Walid was detained for four days. He told the police that he had gone to Istanbul as a tourist. (More recently, the Tunisian government has barred citizens under the age of thirty-five from travelling abroad without parental consent.) Walid was released but placed under surveillance. He was twenty-five years old. He wanted to delete Syria from his mind.
By August, 2013, Tunisia seemed to be headed toward civil war. The streets were full of anti-Ennahdha protesters calling for the military to step in. The economy was in a slump. The previous month, in Egypt, mass demonstrations and a military coup had bloodily ended the Presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi. Tunisia appeared to be going down a parallel path. Ghannouchi, Ennahdha’s party leader, had warned Morsi to share power with secularists, saying, “Either we accept democracy within the form of Islam or we will end up dismissing Islam from the political process, because Islam will become a cause of fragmentation, not unity.” Morsi hadn’t listened, and now he was under arrest. On August 3rd, Ghannouchi addressed a rally of angry, chanting Ennahdha activists. He urged them to work for national unity, having concluded that Ennahdha could be viable in Tunisia only if the country remained intact. In order for that to happen over the long haul, Ennahdha needed to relinquish power in the short term.
Ghannouchi’s rival was the dean of Tunisian secularists, eighty-six-year-old Béji Caïd Essebsi. He had been interior minister under Bourguiba, had held various posts under Ben Ali, and had served as interim Prime Minister after the revolution. Following Ennahdha’s victory in the October, 2011, elections, Essebsi formed an opposition front called Nidaa Tounes, which represented leftists, businessmen, and trade unionists, united only by their antipathy to the Islamists. As Robert F. Worth relates in his forthcoming book, “A Rage for Order: The Middle East in Turmoil, from Tahrir Square to ISIS,” these aged men from the two Tunisias—Essebsi a haughty remnant of the Francophile élite, Ghannouchi the son of a devout farmer from the provinces—began a series of largely secret conversations, and set Tunisia on a new path. In January, 2014, Ennahdha voluntarily handed over the government to a regime of technocrats. Ghannouchi had put his party’s long-term interests ahead of immediate power. A peaceful compromise like this had never happened in the region. Both old men had to talk their followers back from the brink of confrontation, and some Ennahdha activists regarded Ghannouchi’s strategy as a betrayal. But Tunisia was fortunate in its elder statesmen.
In late 2014, Nidaa Tounes won a plurality in the parliamentary elections. In a runoff, Essebsi was elected President. Ghannouchi cast his vote for his rival and new friend, and Ennahdha entered a coalition government as Nidaa’s junior partner.
Reconciliation at the top has not given ordinary Tunisians, especially younger ones, a sense of ownership of their new democracy. Politics remains an opaque game played by insiders. When I arrived, a factional fight was pitting President Essebsi’s son, who stood to turn Nidaa Tounes into a family dynasty, against Mohsen Marzouk, the Party’s secretary-general. I was scheduled to interview Marzouk at the Nidaa Tounes offices, but at the last minute his aides redirected me to a whitewashed villa in an upscale neighbourhood. Marzouk left Nidaa Tounes and was planning to form a new party. He explained the dispute as a struggle between democracy and “Mafiatization.”
To many Tunisians, Nidaa Tounes feels like the return of the old regime: some of the same politicians, the same business cronies, the same police practices. The Interior Ministry is a hideous seven-story concrete structure that squats in the middle of downtown Tunis, its roof bristling with antennas and satellite dishes, coils of barbed wire barring access from the street. The ministry employs eighty thousand people. There is much talk of reforming Tunisia’s security sector, with the help of Western money and training. (The U.S., seeing a glimmer of hope in a dark region, recently doubled its aid to Tunisia.) But the old habits of a police state persist—during my time in Tunis, I was watched at my hotel, and my interpreter was interrogated on the street.
One afternoon, I stood on the balcony of an aging office building in downtown Tunis with Ons Ben Abdelkarim, the head of Al Bawsala, the civic organization. She pointed toward the Interior Ministry building. “They should have turned it into a museum,” she said. “Instead, they’re still using it.” Al Bawsala monitors activity in parliament and, according to its Web site, tries to promote “good governance practices and political ethics.” She went on, “In Arabic, we call everyone with power by the same word—al-hakim, ‘ruler’—from the President of the republic to a policeman. This reveals the position between the citizen and the state. The citizen doesn’t consider the state there at his service. The state is there to profit from the citizen. This provokes a complete dissociation in the notion of citizenship.”
Ben Abdelkarim mentioned a debate that Al Bawsala activists recently held among the residents and elected representatives of a village near the Chaambi Mountains. The villagers had never laid eyes on the representatives before. There wasn’t a hospital for miles around. “They said, ‘I don’t feel I belong to Tunisia,’ ” she recalled. “ ‘What has the revolution brought me? You deputies, what have you done for me?’ ”
Al Bawsala plans to hire a community organizer for many of Tunisia’s two hundred and sixty-four municipalities. The average age of its staff is twenty-seven. Its offices were the one place in Tunisia where I felt the lingering optimism and energy of the revolutionary period. Ben Abdelkarim described her delight in watching Tunisian deputies debate legislation under the dome of the parliament building, instead of fighting in the streets. “Everyone who works here still believes,” she said. “We don’t have the right to lose hope. If we lose hope, what will the others say? We’re the proof that something has changed.” She went on, “What Tunisia has is not change but a chance to make a change. We have a chance to say that, as an Arab and Muslim country, we’re not condemned to choose between dictatorship and violence.”
The next morning, I drove four hours southwest of Tunis to Kasserine, at the foot of the stony brown Chaambi Mountains, the tail end of the Atlas range. The landscape along the highway was desolate—mile after mile with nothing but dusty olive orchards and national-guard posts. In 1943, Kasserine Pass was the site of the U.S. Army’s first, disastrous encounter with Rommel’s Panzer divisions, but no one I met was aware of the region’s military past. Around Kasserine, Jihadis are fighting an insurgency against the security forces. Locals complained of the constant noise of helicopters by day and artillery bombardments by night. Shortly before my visit, a young shepherd, suspected of passing information to the police, had been beheaded in the hills.
The inhabitants of Kasserine, however neglected by the state, were passionate advocates for their own rights. They had played a central role in the overthrow of the dictatorship, staging some of the earliest protests after Bouazizi’s self-immolation. In every coffee shop, I was told, half the conversations were about politics. Although Kasserine is a recruiting area for Jihadis, Tunisia’s wealthy areas are so remote that the town felt less alienated than Douar Hicher and Ben Gardane.
Taher Khadraoui, a local activist in his forties, met me at a café under a pavilion on the edge of town. Before the Jasmine Revolution, he explained, “I thought Tunisians were very intelligent and civilized.” He now saw things more clearly. “We have a lot of violence inside us, a lot of corruption in the system,” he said. “We look civilized, but it’s just a lot of illusion and mirage. The revolution was a good thing, because it revealed what was hidden. It gave me a clearer picture of how to do the diagnosis—what works, what doesn’t work.” Khadraoui felt optimistic: “We’re now discovering new talent, new people who can lead the development of the country.”
Two younger men joined our table. One of them, Chokri Slougui, a government worker, said, “Nothing has changed. Space for discussion and criticism opened, the floor got bigger, but nothing changed in society or the economy.”
Khadraoui pointed out that public pressure had forced members of parliament to revise controversial legislation that, if passed, would grant amnesty to officials and businessmen who had been found guilty of corruption under Ben Ali.
The second young man, Hamza Hizi, an unemployed business-school graduate who was surviving by tutoring and petty commerce, said, “But it’s going to pass in the end.”
“Over my dead body it’s going to pass!” Khadraoui said.
“It’s going to pass.”
“Any movement begins small,” Khadraoui said.
“Let’s get to the point,” Slougui said. “There was a revolution in Tunisia and Kasserine, and it got stolen by political parties that didn’t know what they were doing—first Ennahdha, then Nidaa Tounes.” He went on, “You feel no interest from the post-revolutionary governments in us here. People feel that the coastal areas, with twenty per cent of the people, are still getting eighty per cent of the wealth. That brings a lot of psychological pressure, to feel that you’re left alone, that there’s no horizon, no hope.”
Khadraoui became angry. “You’re making it seem like Kasserine didn’t make a revolution.”
The subject of Jihadism came up. In Kasserine, which had lost countless youths to Syria and also suffered from the fighting in the nearby mountains, jihad felt anything but theoretical.
“We have two kinds of terrorism,” Khadraoui said. “One in the mountains. And the other on the coastline, the terrorism of the lobbies that run the economy. As a Tunisian young person, you live between these two terrorisms.”
The old methods of surveillance are returning. In the center of Kasserine, I met an imam named Mahfoud Ben Deraa behind the counter of the hardware store he owns. He had just come back from afternoon prayers, but he was dressed like a man who sold paint.
“I might get kicked out of the mosque, because last Friday’s sermon was something the government might not like,” the imam told me. He had preached that, since the government had closed mosques after terror attacks, “why, after an alcoholic killed two people, didn’t they close all the bars?” To some, this sounded like a call for Sharia, and after informers reported him to the police the governor’s office sent him a warning: “In the course of monitoring the religious activities and the religious institutions of the region, I hereby inform you that several violations have been reported.” The imam was ordered to open the mosque only during hours of prayer and to change the locks on the main doors to prevent unsupervised use. The warning seemed like overreach on the part of the state—the twitching of an old impulse from the Ben Ali years.
“I won’t change,” Ben Deraa said. “I have a message to deliver.” He looked at me with one eye—his right eye, I noticed, was glass. “It’s not the extreme version of Islam, and it’s not Islam Lite. One group is about bloodshed, and the other is about ‘You can drink and smoke, it’s all right.’ This is the real version.”
Kasserine remains an active laboratory of revolution. In January, five years after the Arab Spring began an unemployed twenty-eight-year-old in Kasserine named Ridha Yahyaoui, who had just been turned down for a job, electrocuted himself on a utility pole. Immediately, several other young men imitated the act—if Jihadism is one form of revolt in Tunisia, suicide is another. Protests against unemployment started in Kasserine and spread quickly across Tunisia. The men I had spoken with at the café in Kasserine all took to the street. Hamza Hizi was quoted by Reuters: “I never thought I would repeat the same demands as five years ago. The old regime has robbed our dreams.”
On November 24th, a street vender from Douar Hicher blew up a busload of Presidential guards, and himself, in downtown Tunis. The Islamic State claimed credit, just as it did after the massacres at the Bardo museum and the Sousse resort. ISIS trains Tunisian terrorists at a camp outside the Libyan coastal town of Sabratha, two hours east of Ben Gardane. In February, American warplanes bombed the camp, targeting a Tunisian jihadi believed to have helped plot the Bardo and Sousse attacks. (It is unclear if he was killed.)
The official line in Tunisia is that the Islamic State has little presence in the country. “Terrorism is not a Tunisian phenomenon—it’s coming from outside,” Khemaies Jhinaoui, President Essebsi’s foreign minister, told me at the ornate Presidential palace, in Carthage. Nonetheless, after the Sousse massacre a sweeping antiterrorism law allowed the police to round up suspects and hold them for as long as two weeks without charge. According to the Tunisian Interior Ministry, a hundred thousand Tunisians—one per cent of the population—were arrested in the first half of 2015. Jihadi groups intend their atrocities to provoke an overreaction, and very few governments can resist falling into the trap.
Sergio Altuna, a Spanish security consultant living in Tunis, said that the Islamic State is “not as organized as Al Qaeda here.” But, he added, “we have a very uncomfortable neighbor in Libya, where Islamic State members can exist, train, fight. And it’s very easy to come back.” Tom Malinowski, the State Department official, said that the Islamic State has every reason to want to destabilize Tunisia’s democracy, “the only other new model of governance that has emerged in the Arab world since all the upheaval of the Arab Spring.” New democracies in Latin America and Eastern Europe and Asia have had to struggle with fragile institutions, corruption, and social inequity. Tunisia has all this, plus terrorism and a failed state next door. “It’s an unfair break,” Malinowski said.
For a foreigner, or for a local with money and papers to come and go, Tunisia is still a delightful place: excellent restaurants in La Marsa, classical ruins in Carthage, the shops and alleys of the old medina, a vibrant film industry. Tunis has the shabby Mediterranean charm of a southern-Italian city. “Whoever likes to go to mosque goes to mosque, whoever would like to go to pubs goes,” Ghannouchi explained. Even “sex is accepted.” So it’s a mystery, at first, why young Tunisians so often use the word makhnouk. It means “suffocated,” and it suggests a sense of being trapped, bored, and enraged, with no alternative but to explode. I heard it from Walid, and from Alaa, the driver in Ben Gardane, and I heard it from a twenty-two-year-old I’ll call Ahmed, whom I met one night in a suburb southeast of the capital.
Ahmed is from a working-class family. He dropped out of high school and became an apprentice electrician, but jobs were almost impossible to find. He got high with his friends and became a soccer fanatic—an Ultra—following his favourite team around the country. It was a way to relieve the stress of being jobless, but wherever he went he and the others in his group were insulted or beat up by the local cops, until he began to hate the life of an Ultra and gave it up. When the revolution came, he participated in the protests that drove out Ben Ali.
“There was a boom after the revolution—in religion, in drugs, in everything—because of the new freedom,” Ahmed said. There was even a boom in emigration, and in the first three months after the revolution twenty-five thousand Tunisians took to the Mediterranean on boats bound for Sicily. On New Year’s Eve, 2011, Ahmed tried to become a refugee. But by then the police had cracked down on stowaways, and he wasn’t able to get near the container ship he’d scoped out at the port in La Goulette.
Ahmed told himself, “If I pray and ask for divine intervention, maybe things will get better.” Praying did not lead him to the moderate democratic Islam of Ennahdha. His thoughts turned more and more extreme, and he became a Salafi. He quit smoking marijuana and grew his beard long and adopted the ankle-length robe called a Qamis. He un-friended all his female friends on Facebook, stopped listening to music, and thought about jihad. On Internet forums, he met Jihadis who had been in Iraq and gave him suggestions for reading. Ahmed downloaded a book with instructions for making bombs. In the period of lax security under Ennahdha, he fell in with a radical mosque in Tunis. He was corresponding with so many friends who’d gone to Syria that Facebook deactivated his account. Some of them became leaders in the Islamic State, and they wrote of making thirty-five thousand dollars a year and having a gorgeous European wife or two. Ahmed couldn’t get a girlfriend or buy a pack of cigarettes.
“It was part of my thought at that moment to leave,” Ahmed said. I asked if the impulse came from his poverty. “Not really,” he said. “It was because it was the right path.”
We were sitting at a table outside a nearly empty café, along a dark highway between an industrial zone and a poor residential district. Ahmed wore jeans and a leather jacket. He chain-smoked Tunisian cigarettes and kept rubbing his eyes, which had a fragile shine.
“It’s a sense of revenge for the injustice in this country,” he went on. “You can be walking and a policeman will insult you, insult your mother, call you over, pull you into the police van, hit you, then throw you out.” This had happened to him once, before the revolution, when he was an Ultra heading home from a soccer match. It was humiliation—the opposite of karama. Part of karama was not using poverty as a reason to join the jihad.
In the spring of 2013, Ahmed tried to leave Tunisia again—this time for Syria, by way of Libya. His father, a taxi-driver, had confiscated his passport to prevent precisely this from happening, so Ahmed decided to get himself smuggled across the border. The best way was through a network of Jihadis at his mosque, but some of them had been arrested. So he went to Ben Gardane alone.
Ahmed had a friend in Ben Gardane—Walid. They used to hang out together in Tunis. When he got to Ben Gardane, he called Walid to ask for help crossing the border. But Walid, who had just returned from Syria, tried to discourage him.
“Dude, don’t go!” Walid said when they met on the street. “It’s just a trap for young people to die.” To Walid, Ahmed was exactly the type of young person ISIS exploited—naïve, lost, looking for the shortest path to Heaven. Al Qaeda had comparatively higher standards: some of its recruits had to fill out lengthy application forms in which they were asked to name their favourite Islamic scholars. Walid could answer such questions, but they would stump Ahmed and most other Tunisian Jihadis.
“Dying as a martyr is a beautiful thing,” Walid told Ahmed. “But dying as a martyr at the expense of a people and a nation isn’t the right thing to do. If you can help your own nation, it’s better than dying to make a hell for other people.”
The two friends spoke for an hour, and by the end Walid thought he’d persuaded Ahmed to turn around. Instead, Ahmed went off to meet a smuggler and tried to negotiate a price to cross the border. But the smuggler wanted more money than Ahmed could afford. There was no way for him to get into Libya. Having failed at his second effort to leave Tunisia, Ahmed searched for a minivan back to Tunis. Someone tipped off the Ben Gardane police—maybe it was Ahmed’s long beard, or the fact that he was a stranger in town—and he was brought in for a beating. Back in Tunis, the cops called him in and gave him another beating and kept him overnight. “Fuck your mother—you should stop praying!” they screamed. “Who got you to Libya? Who are they?”
“Would you release me if I stopped praying?” Ahmed asked. The police agreed, and Ahmed signed a document saying that he would go home to his parents, shave his beard, and never return to Ben Gardane.
Ahmed’s desire to wage jihad faded, and he resumed smoking weed. His faith was weakening and, with it, his ambition.
One night in July, at the end of Ramadan, Ahmed drank and got high on Equanil—an anti-anxiety drug that’s popular in the poor suburbs—and punched out an acquaintance who’d refused to lend him a cigarette. He spent a week in a jail cell so overcrowded that there was nowhere to sleep. Shit from the toilet flowed across the floor. Among the drug users, homosexuals, and Salafis in the cell, the Salafis held complete control, and they beat up anyone who challenged them.
The police wanted to pin a marijuana charge on Ahmed. In Tunisia, such a charge carries a minimum sentence of one year, and as much as a third of Tunisia’s prison population is locked up on drug charges. (Reformers are trying to amend the law.) The cops tortured a confession out of Ahmed, but when they tried to get a urine sample he refused for two days, until they poured cold water on him, forcing him to piss—the final indignity. But the results took so long to come back from the lab that the police had to release him. He returned to his parents’ house, where he went into hiding. He didn’t show up on the day of his sentencing.
“I’ve tried all kinds of things, and nothing is working,” Ahmed said. He was still looking for a way to escape, perhaps to Canada or Australia. “It’s not only me. All of Tunisia wants to leave.”
Walid, whose passport was taken by the police upon his return from Syria, has no choice but to stay. “It’s not a nice thing to say you detest your country, but I detest Tunisia,” he said. “It’s a place where they just want the youth to be banal, like little babies, and have fun, so the businessmen can make more money. This country doesn’t deserve its rebels. I’ve lost, what, twelve or fourteen years trying to find a better way? Maybe I’m just one of the losers—the silent majority who lower their heads and work and have a family and stay out of trouble.”
Walid hadn’t lost his faith that Sharia would one day save the world, but at present Muslims were doomed to fitna—discord and fighting among themselves, their destiny written in blood. The Prophet had predicted it. The jihadi groups, including Al Qaeda, no longer had relevant answers for the situation of young people in Tunisia. The Jihadis wanted all or nothing, and that would never work. Walid no longer believed in that life. He was accommodating himself to slow, ambiguous change—and, after all, the revolution had achieved some things to build on.
“We need to reform our country and learn how to make it civilized,” he said. “In Tunisia, when you finish your pack of cigarettes, you’ll throw it on the ground. What we need is an intellectual revolution, a revolution of minds, and that will take not one, not two, but three generations.”