Tunisia wrestles with return of jihadist fighters | Middle East | News and analysis of events in the Arab world | DW | 27.12.2016

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Middle East

Tunisia wrestles with return of jihadist fighters

As Tunisia confronts the possibility of jihadists returning home, the country is divided. Some believe that the returning fighters should be rehabilitated, others argue they should be stripped of their citizenship.

The Tunisian authorities are in an unenviable position. On the one hand, there is a lot of internal pressure that returning fighters from terrorist groups should not be allowed back into the country. On the other, the country is facing a new setback in its attempts to improve its image abroad, after Tunisian jihadist Anis Amri drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12 people. This was the second major attack in Europe by a Tunisian national in recent months, after a Tunisian drove a truck into a crowd in the French city of Nice in July, resulting in 84 deaths.

The attack in Berlin re-opened the debate on accelerating deportation of North African migrants to their countries of origin. Many in the German media accused Tunisia of dragging its feet when it comes to processing deportation requests. But what should Tunisia do with jihadists returning from hotbeds of extremism?

There are two opposing answers to this question. The first is to flatly refuse these fighters re-entry into Tunisia and strip them of their citizenship. The second is to accept the fighters back, while holding them accountable for their actions and making another attempt to integrate them. 

Withdrawing citizenship: a viable solution?

Tunisia is one of the largest exporters of jihadists. The government estimates that since 2011, over 3,000 people have left the country for Syria to join the ranks of the "Islamic State." International reports, such as one issued by the United Nations in July, suggest the number is as high as 5,500 people. According to Tunisian Interior Minister Hedi Majdoub, around 800 have returned to Tunisia, with some still being tried judicially and others now under house arrest. 

Controversy over fighters returning to Tunisia began in 2014 when a bill of repentence was proposed by the former government of President Moncef Marzouki and supported by Rachid Ghannouchi, the head of the Islamist Ennahda party. But it's still unclear to what extent a bill like this would hold fighters accountable for terrorist activities abroad.

09.10.2014 DW Doku_Bildbeschreibung Rachid Ghannouchi

Rachid Ghannouchi sees dealing with returning fighters as a problem that all levels of Tunisian society should tackle

In this context, the Tunisian security union warned of the possible "Somalization” of the country as fighters return from abroad. The union demanded a stop to their return and for their citizenship to be stripped, pointing out that there was "a large movement of lawyers and organizations that stand behind and support terrorist groups" in Tunisia.

Some civil society groups demonstrated outside the Tunisian parliament against "repentance" for the returning fighters. Meanwhile, Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahda party, said that Tunisia can't force other countries to keep its fighters. The fighters will have to return to Tunisia.

Professor Abdul Latif Hanachi, a professor of contemporary political science at the University of Manouba in Tunis and an expert on terrorism, believes that the demand to withdraw the citizenship of terrorists is unrealistic, as it interferes with Article 25 of the Tunisian constitution. Article 25 states that no Tunisian citizen can be deprived of their nationality or be prevented from returning to the country.

"The solution lies in allowing the fighters to return to Tunisia and by holding the returning fighters accountable," he told DW. "If the judiciary proves that they are jihadists, then they could be given a jail sentence of no less than 20 years in prison. After they serve their sentence, there will be an attempt to reintegrate these individuals into Tunisian society."

Fahndungsfoto Anis Amri

Anis Amri, the perpetrator behind the Berlin attacks


Endless controversy

Hanachi also criticized the lack of explanation hampering the bill of repentence. He says there are not enough means to rehabilitate and reintegrate these fighters, as Tunisia faces an economic crisis, and sees the aid that Western countries have provided for the purpose as insufficient. 

"There are 28 prisons in Tunisia, most of which are very crowded. Where will we put these fighters when they come back? And what are the chances that they can escape from these prisons?" he said.

"We have to deal with this matter very seriously as it is our responsibility," said Ghannouchi in an Ennahda party meeting on Sunday. "The judiciary, police, schools, media and psychologists will all deal with this disease."

London-based writer and political analyst Camille Tawil believes that the debate over the returning fighters isn't going to end anytime soon, and pointed out that this is a question that many countries are tackling, even Britain.

The problem that the authorities face is that they can't be sure if the returning fighters are sincere about renouncing their extremist beliefs. They could, argues Tawil, take advantage of such an initiative to start a new base of operations when they return home to countries like Tunisia. That's why Tawil believes that Tunisia's national security should take top priority, even if it means restricting the freedom of individuals with extremist ideas.

But neither did he believe that stripping fighters of their citizenship to be an optimal way of handling the situation: "Only if they said that they prefer the nationality of the 'IS' caliphate over their own," he told DW.

Proteste in Tunis

Young people are leaving Tunisia in droves, frustrated by high unemployment

Heavy burden

Tawil offered some suggestions for how fighters who have confessed to terrorist activities can be contained. They could be coerced into giving information on other terrorists or that might help thwart future attacks being planned. He said that some of the fighters have realized their terrorist activities were wrong and now have gone on to assist research centers in combating extremism.

Pressure on Tunisia is increasing from abroad as well, especially after the attack by Anis Amri in Berlin. The Tunisian Foreign Ministry on Monday denied the existence of any failures, even after the papers to finally deport Amri from Tunisia were only received by the German government two days after the attack.

There are other reasons why Tunisia is reluctant to take back its citizens: 30 percent of young people are unemployed, which is already driving a large number of them to leave the country, and returning fighters would aggravate this economic situation. Countries like Tunisia would also have to spend resources to keep tabs on the fighters - another burden on Tunisian society.

Tunisia is also preoccupied with fighting terrorism within the country and protecting its borders, especially with troubled Libya next door.

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