From Revolution to Radical Islamism: The Fate of Tunisia’s Young Foreign Fighters

By Laura Zwerling (International Studies major at Dickinson College, Summer 2017 Maghreb Center Intern)


“We had a dream—our dream was called the Arab Spring. And our dream is now turning into a nightmare. But the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the caliphate,” explained Moncef Marzouki,[i] human-rights activist and first president of post-revolution Tunisia, to the Wall Street Journal.[ii] Since protests in the city of Sidi Bouzid ignited the flame of the Arab Spring in 2011, a new Tunisia has taken on the challenge of introducing a whole series of reforms, in addition to a new constitution, in order to build a full democracy. However, elections and the new governments that resulted have not addressed many of the grievances that drove Tunisians to overthrow the autocratic regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali.

Frustration has set in as expectations remain unmet and transitional governments have failed to improve the conditions of the Tunisian people, particularly the youth. While the new Tunisia has failed to effectively implement much needed social and economic reforms, the country’s increasingly discontented youth have responded in large numbers to ISIS’ call to arms. However, as ISIS is losing ground in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, some of the hundreds of young Tunisians that have joined the terrorist organization may soon return home—creating a new national security threat.

The purpose of this article is to identify some of the reasons that lead a substantial number of young Tunisians to join the ranks of the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIS), while examining and analyzing the radicalization process and then the challenges of dealing with returning foreign fighters. Finally, we will offer some recommendations to prevent radicalization and to handle the homecoming of foreign fighters.


 While the definition of radicalization may vary, for the purposes of this article it is defined as “the process of developing extremist ideologies and beliefs.”[iii] Radicalization is often accompanied by action—such as, in this case, joining ISIS and conducting terrorist activities. Tunisian so-called jihadists have been implicated in acts of terror both at home and abroad. However, most of the aspiring jihadists have flocked to Iraq, Syria, and Libya. Just as the profile of radicalized youths vary, so do methods of recruitment. Many recruits are radicalized close to home, through person-to-person contact, whether by relatives, old and new friends, or community members. Messages are tailored to the recruits. On average, the recruitment process of those who end up radicalized is relatively short   —within weeks or months[iv]; and may even occur online. Young Tunisians are targeted by propaganda that talks to them in their own language or dialect, addresses their frustrations, and alludes to their culture.

 Examining push-pull factors allows for identification of some of the reasons why young Tunisians leave their homes to join foreign militant groups.  Push factors consist of motivations for people to leave their place of origin. Pull factors are reasons why a foreign organization compels them to join. While all recruits have their own unique set of reasons for joining, there are certain circumstances that “push” people to leave their homes and “pull” them towards violent extremism. Poor living standards and unemployment can be major push factors.[v] ISIS “pulls” recruits often for reasons not directly related to fighting for a cause, but to the lack of jobs, marriage (many young people can’t marry because they can’t afford it), adventure, and religion.[vi] While recruits may not be initially attracted to the brutality of ISIS, this combination of factors draws them in. Once enmeshed in the so-called caliphate that ISIS pretends to have instituted in the lands it controls, they are led and hard-pressed to engage in violent extremism.

Insecurity, crisis of identity, and unmet post-revolution expectations in Tunisia’s have created space for violent extremist groups to attract significant youth membership, with the promise of personal and spiritual fulfillment as well as a better life.

 While many extremists were driven by their poor socio-economic condition, others were Salafists ideologically driven to engage in violent action to impose an Islamist state. Salafists, who had been forced underground under Ben Ali, were able move and proselytize freely after the collapse of his regime. These religious fundamentalists maximized on the frustrations and anger felt by the youth population.[vii] While there is no uniform profile for the Tunisian ISIS recruits, we can point to certain domestic and external reasons as catalysts of radicalization:

Dissatisfaction with post-revolution governments, and role of Ennahda Islamist party

 While progress has been achieved with regard to the adoption of a formal democratic regime, however, many Tunisians felt frustrated with the various post-revolution governments inability to address the socio-economic grievances that led to the revolution. For Tunisian youth, the hopes for change and a better life raised by the revolution have been largely unfulfilled. Unemployment rates continue to hover around fifteen percent for the general population.[viii] Even university degrees, which once guaranteed relatively well paid government jobs, offer no reprieve. University graduates still face a thirty percent unemployment rate.[ix]  The immediate economic compensation offered by ISIS and Al-Qaeda affiliates attracts young and educated Tunisians.[x]

Sidi Bouzid were the Arab Spring uprisings started, in one of the most neglected region in Tunisia, sends foreign fighters to ISIS at higher rates than many other Tunisian cities.[xi]  ISIS propaganda capitalizes on this discontent. In an interview with Dabiq, French-Tunisian jihadist Abu Muqatil al-Tunisi[xii] calls for Tunisian Islamists “to repent to Allah… and realize that the ideas you hold and the paths you tread, including that of elections, have not brought you any results.”[xiii] By claiming the futility of Tunisia’s elected government, al-Tunisi presents ISIS membership as an alternate path that will effect real change by instituting a truly Islamic state where the population’s needs will be met.

ISIS offers financial rewards and also opens up opportunities for marriage and the ability to live independently and satisfy relationship needs that are often denied in Tunisia.[xiv] By offering marriages and concubines, ISIS provides incentives that fulfill recruits’ desires without the steep cost of marriage at home.[xv]

Many Tunisian observers and analysts consider that the Ennahda Islamist party when it was leading the post-revolution coalition government called the Troika (2011-2014)  has if not facilitated, at least created an enabling environment for the recruitment of young Tunisians to join ISIS in Syria. Moreover, the government banning of the Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia, with Ennahda’s support, has been ineffective, and contributed to the flow of Islamist militants joining ISIS.[xvi]

 Other religious reasons

The desire to help Muslim “brothers” free themselves from Bashar al Assad’s oppressive regime has been a main cause of attraction to joining the violent jihad in the Levant, or in Libya. ISIS leverages emotional appeals of the injustice facing Syrian Muslims as a main recruiting tool. Taking up this ostensibly righteous cause may offer a sense of direction and purpose lacking in a discontented, unfulfilled, and frequently directionless young person’s life. Issue seven of Dabiq magazine features an article showing a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in retaliation for “crusader airstrikes against Muslim lands.” The article also includes two graphic images of children alleged to have died in airstrikes in order to justify the murder of the pilot.[xvii] By employing this disturbing imagery and evoking the historical analogy of the “crusaders,” this ISIS propaganda creates a strong emotional appeal for aiding Muslims against their perceived enemies.

 On an individual level, ISIS promises restless youths camaraderie and excitement as fighters for a noble. Desire for “belonging, purpose, adventure, and friendship” is a powerful motivator, although rarely addressed in counterterrorism efforts.[xviii] The allure of being part of something important and bigger than oneself cannot be ignored. Dabiq frequently refers to ISIS followers as “brothers” and “sisters,” emphasizing a sense of fraternity that may appeal to directionless youth.[xix]

Dealing with the return of foreign fighters

According to many estimates, Tunisia should expect eighty percent of foreign fighters to return. This means that the country must find an effective way to handle the homecoming of 4,800 to 5,600 fighters, and the security challenges associated with their return. Tunisia has yet to develop a comprehensive and effective strategy for handling those who have returned so far and the security threat they pose. While one-third of 500 returnees (as of February 2015) were imprisoned, the rest are monitored and kept track of through a database of dubious legal standing.[xx] Tunisia has established relationships with the Syrian government and Interpol in hopes of better tracking foreign fighters.[xxi]

In addition to these initiatives, more soft policies must be initiated to reconcile communities with former foreign fighters and prevent radicalization at the start. It is important to balance the security threats posed by returnees with the necessity of reintegration back into society.

Existing prevention efforts

Prevention efforts may include soft or hard policies. In 2013, the so-called Troika government instituted a blanket ban on rural men under the age of 35 from leaving the country.[xxii] The Tunisian government has also instituted terrorism laws that imprison returnees from Syria. While these are effective hard policy approaches, they only deal with the immediate—real or perceived—security threat. The government has yet to develop a comprehensive and coherent strategy for preventing radicalization, what can be referred to as soft policies. The “caretaker technocrat government” that gained power in 2014 took a punitive, or “hard,” approach by doubling terrorism arrests and strengthening counterterrorism relations with Algeria.[xxiii] In addition, a July 2015 counterterrorism law permits and facilitates prosecution of those who join foreign terrorist groups.[xxiv] This punitive strategy has indicated that the government will only continue to focus on “hard” prevention measures.

Some Recommendations

According to experts, there is no simple cure to the contagion of terrorism. When examining the issue of radicalized youth becoming foreign fighters, a holistic response must be developed. Most recruits are radicalized by friends and community members.[xxv] Therefore, many effective methods of preventing radicalization will begin at a local level, put into effect by trusted actors, i.e. members of the community. However, while community initiatives are essential, there are certain institutional issues that must be also dealt with on a national level. Hard policies have been predominant so far, but it is essential that they be used in conjunction with soft policies, such as the need to:

Support home-grown community initiatives and youth political participation: Non-governmental and community-driven programs are essential to work on the issue from the ground up. To provide alternatives to extremism, programs should be created for Tunisian youth to develop the camaraderie that makes ISIS attractive while focusing on more positive objectives. Aslam Souli and several friends created one such group, the National Youth Initiative Against Terrorism (NYAT), aimed at preventing the radicalization of youth in Tunisia. Souli’s organization, in which he serves as vice president, aims to counter violent extremism through organizing activities for youth, counselling young people against terrorism, and conducting research on why youth turn to terrorism. According to Souli, the government is “still afraid of engaging civil society NGOs in this [effort] with them” because they believe such groups may overstep their bounds. Despite this, some of the local communities they work with “perceive [NYAT] as the Allies of the ‘Tyrants,’” i.e. law enforcement and those in power.[xxvi] This exemplifies the necessity of the trust that non-governmental organizations must build in order to prove their legitimacy to both the government and the community.

Increasing youth political participation is essential for the empowerment of young people. While major players in the revolution, young Tunisians have had little voice in politics after the transition. Most political players are far older—President Essebsi[xxvii] is 90 years old. In order to bridge this generational gap, positions for youth delegates in government and political parties should be instituted at the local and national levels. In order to be effective, these positions must carry real weight. Without legitimacy, this could only serve to further politically marginalize youth. Not only will the Tunisian political system benefit from fresh ideas, youth will also become more invested in the democratic process they originally helped achieve.

Re-integrate returnees and use their experiences for intelligence purposes or to dissuade youth from joining ISIS:  Tunisian government must address the potential security threat or re-integration of these returnees. The Tunisian government should take steps to establish a rehabilitation facility for the purposes of temporarily detaining foreign fighters upon re-entry to the country. At this facility, professionals including law enforcement, counselors, and religious leaders would evaluate each returnee in order to determine how much of a risk they may pose to Tunisian society. While those foreign fighters who are known to have committed egregious acts, including murder, should answer for their crimes, incarceration should be used sparingly. It is said radicalization in prison is rampant, which may only further exacerbate the issue of violent extremism.

Each returnee should meet with trusted counselors and religious leaders in order to re-integrate them back into daily life and reconsider their understanding of Islam. The returnees should then be offered options for repaying their debt to society. They may be able to offer the government useful information about ISIS. For those returnees who have returned disaffected with ISIS, one such option could include returning to their hometown to speak to vulnerable youth about their experiences. Returnees have a credibility that other actors may lack and they are ideally positioned to dispel any romantic notions about ISIS that at-risk youth may have. Through involvement in such a program, returnees can come to terms with their involvement and be welcomed back into the community as part of the solution.

– Combat unemployment through a new economic development model that is inclusive and participatory, as well as incentivizing entrepreneurship at the very local level: Economic reforms must be put into effect in order to bolster the Tunisian economy. The government must amend the current economic development model, and effectively combat corruption, prevent overregulation and reduce government spending. Such reforms will allow –among others–  for the development of the private sector and job creation. Through restructuring of the banking structure, access to credit will allow businesses to expand. However, the government must be cautious when developing new economic reforms. Unpopular policies have led to protests which could threaten the country’s tenuous political stability.[xxviii] The burdens of economic reform are often borne by the urban middle class and the poor—which could lead to social instability. The government must take steps to ensure that reforms are created through negotiation and by ensuring that the burdens of economic restructuring are shared among the population as a whole.


Drawing on the revolutionary fervor that engulfed Tunisia in 2011, ISIS has recruited thousands of young Tunisians. While the youths’ motives range from dissatisfaction with the post-revolution government, to poverty, to the desire for adventure, they all share one similar attribute: the need for something more than what is available to them in Tunisia. ISIS and its operatives have used personal connections on- and off-line to radicalize vulnerable youth. Under the guise of religious obligation, an estimated 6,000 to 7,000 Tunisians have migrated to ISIS. As the so-called caliphate’s hold on its territory has become increasingly precarious, Tunisia must prepare for the homecoming of as many as 5,600 fighters. The dual challenge of preventing radicalization and mitigating the security threat of foreign fighters’ return has no simple solution. What has become clear is that the use of hard policies alone, e.g. imprisonment, will not effectively solve the long-term problem. A well-rounded counter-extremism strategy will combine soft and hard policies, using both top-down and bottom-up strategies, including the adoption of a new economic development model that is inclusive and that creates jobs for the youth to allow allow them to lead a normal life. Certainly, there are no easy answers to the multi-faceted issues of radicalization or returnees, Implementation of these or other proposals may be challenging due to bureaucracy, funding, time, or political will, among other reasons. However, this country has defied the odds before. In 2011, unlike most other Arab Spring nations, Tunisia successfully set itself down the path to democracy. Post-revolution disappointments have sunk the youths’ revolutionary spirit and driven some to ISIS. Ultimately, Tunisia must recapture the “dream” of the Arab Spring by empowering and integrating youth in order to win

[i] Marzouki served as president from 2011 to 2014. Party: Congress for the Republic.

[ii] Yaroslav Trofimov, “How Tunisia Became a Top Source of ISIS Recruits,” The Wall Street Journal, February 25, 2016,

[iii] Alpaslan Özerdem and Sukanya Podder, “Disarming Youth Combatants: Mitigating Youth Radicalization and Violent Extremism,” Journal of Strategic Security 4, no. 4 (2011): 67.

[iv] Moussa Bourekba, “Countering Violent Extremism in the MENA Region: Time to Rethink Approaches and Strategies,” EuroMesco Brief 63 (2016): 8.

[v] Bourekba, “Countering Violent Extremism in the MENA Region,” 8.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Haim Malka and Margo Balboni, “Domestic Context: After the Revolution,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, (accessed November 1, 2016).

[viii] Oussama Romdhani, “NORTH AFRICA Beyond Jihadist Radicalization,” World Affairs 177, no. 5, (2015): 63.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] Haim Malka and Margo Balboni, “The Puzzle: Radicalization” Center for Strategic and International Studies, (accessed November 1, 2016).

[xi] Nate Rosenblatt, All Jihad is Local: What ISIS’ Files Tell Us About Its Fighters. Washington: New America, 2016, 12.

[xii] Al-Tunisi is linked to the assassination of a Tunisian political leader and the 2015 Charlie Hebdo attacks. Al-Tunisi was killed in airstrikes in Raqqa, Syria on November 26, 2016.

[xiii] “Interview with Abu Muqatil,” Dabiq, March 30, 2015, 62.

[xiv] Ibid.

[xv] Ibid.

[xvi] Al-Amin, Hazem. “Tunisia’s ‘Road to Jihad’ in Syria Paved by Muslim Brotherhood.” Al-Monitor. November 17, 2013.

[xvii] “The Burning of the Murtadd Pilot,” Dabiq, February 12, 2015, 5-6.

[xviii] Richard Barrett, Foreign Fighters: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq. New York: The Soufan Group, 2015, 6.

[xix] Dabiq, March 30, 2015.

[xx] Watanabe, Foreign fighters and their return, 9.

[xxi] Ibid.

[xxii] Watanabe, Foreign fighters and their return, 8.

[xxiii] Malka and Balboni, “The Puzzle: Radicalization.”

[xxiv] Watanabe, Foreign fighters and their return, 8.

[xxv] Bourekba, “Countering Violent Extremism in the MENA Region,” 6.

[xxvi] Aslam Souli, email message to author, December 16, 2016.

[xxvii] Party: Nidaa Tounes.

[xxviii] Amly, Amr, and Hamza Meddeb. “Why Painful Economic Reforms Are Less Risky in Tunisia Than Egypt.” Carnegie Middle East Center. March 31, 2017. Accessed August 10, 2017.

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