Tunisia's Double-Edged Revolution

Tunisia may be the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring, but it has also gained a reputation as a major source of Islamic State recruits.

Ben Gardane, TUNISIA –Mabrouk Muaffak gazes at a photograph of his daughter Sarah as he leafs through drawings she left behind after she was caught in the crossfire when Islamic State attacked.

"She's not the only one who died. She is a martyr," Muaffak says, alluding to the other seven civilians killed in the March 7 assault carried out by members of the extremist group on Ben Gardane. "They are the symbol not only of Ben Gardane, but of all of Tunisia."

Residents of the southeastern desert town recall their battle with Islamic State (IS) militants with pride, but the attack was a wake-up call for Tunisia. The country is at once is the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring and the most prolific exporter of foreign fighters to IS and other radical groups in Syria and Iraq. At least 6,000 Tunisian fighters have joined their ranks, and about 15 percent of Tunisian recruits come from Ben Gardane, according to the Soufan Group, a firm that provides intelligence assessments to governments and organizations.

Some of them, including the Ben Gardane attackers, trained in Libya -- where vast territory, absence of government, and large stockpiles of weapons have allowed Islamic State to thrive -- and returned to pursue targets in Tunisia.

Now, as the Tunisian government works to step up security and reduce the attraction to IS, citizens are struggling with the fallout.


Sins Of The Children

Muaffak had the privilege of knowing that his 16-year-old daughter was innocent.

But Olfa Hamrouni, a single mother of five from a town in Tunisia's northeast, met news of a deadly mass shooting at a tourist resort near Sousse in June of last year with trepidation, knowing that her two eldest daughters had slipped away to join IS in Libya.

"I could breathe easier once I saw the list of attackers," Hamrouni says. Seeing one of her daughters on it, especially the younger Rahma, would have been heartrending. "I hoped and prayed that -- if God loved me -- if she carried out an attack it would be abroad -- in Libya or Syria, not in Tunisia. Because I would suffer a lot if I saw my daughter cut to pieces after the attack."

"I hoped and prayed that if she carried out an attack it would be abroad."

Olfa Hamrouni, speaking about her teenage daughter Rahma, an IS recruit

Hamrouni says that four years ago, she was grateful to see Rahma, now 17, and Ghofran, 18, become regulars at an Islamic proselytization tent near their home. They transformed from rebellious teenagers into pious Muslims, wearing black veils and urging their two younger sisters to drop out of school and follow them.

But gradually, Hamrouni realized she was losing her grip on her daughters. In July 2014, Hamrouni crossed into Libya with her children to look for work as a housekeeper. First Ghofran disappeared and joined IS. Hamrouni says she returned to Tunisia and turned Rahma in to police, but she was released and rejoined her sister in Libya. Recently, the two women were captured in Libya by anti-IS forces; Hamrouni says they are able to speak on the phone frequently thanks to a generous guard.

Hamrouni is open about her children's recruitment, and keeps Tunisian newspaper clippings featuring photographs she sent of her daughters clutching automatic weapons. Now she wants to find the recruiters who radicalized her children, and she is keeping a close eye on her other two daughters and son at their modest house in Mornag, a 45-minute drive southeast of Tunis.

"People think they are protecting their daughters by keeping this secret," Hamrouni says. "But it's the opposite. Through my experience I change the minds of lots of others."

She is an exception. Many Tunisian parents of IS fighters are quiet about their children's actions for fear of inviting police scrutiny.

One man says he was a senior member of the Tunisian intelligence services, and learned from a nameless caller that his son had died fighting for IS in Latakia, Syria, in 2014. The father speaks on condition of anonymity for fear of losing his job, and casts furtive glances up and down a busy Tunis road for possible acquaintances while he talks.

His son first traveled to Istanbul before crossing into Syria. He called home once a month, using a different phone number each time. The father is baffled that he was unable to stop his son before he left Tunisia. Now he hopes to find his body. He sums up his situation bitterly: "A man works in the secret services against terrorism, and in the end finds his son is in IS."

He is not alone. Most recently, a senior Tunisian military officer was killed in the deadly June 28 terrorist attack at Istanbul's Ataturk airport. Brigadier-General Fathi Bayoudh, a doctor at a military hospital, had reportedly traveled to Turkey to retrieve his son from IS.

Early Warning Signs

Journalist Zouheir Latif grasped the extent of the Tunisian foreign-fighter phenomenon while reporting in Syria in 2013, a year before the Islamic State group declared its caliphate. He had heard that several Tunisian militants were languishing in Syrian prisons, and successfully applied for permission to visit them. His conversations were aired on his Tunisian television station, Telvza, and in the BBC documentary The Battle For Bizerte. After the footage aired, Latif says he was inundated with calls from parents who wondered if he had seen their sons in prison. He organized a return trip to Damascus with about 20 parents.

Rabea Amar, 58, is one of those parents. She says her son Mohammed left for Libya in 2012 and told her he was looking for work -- then disappeared. She assumed he was dead until she saw him in Latif's Tunisian documentary, in jail for trying to join extremist fighters. She joined Latif to meet with her son in Damascus.

"He was tired, the conditions are difficult. I did my best. I spoke to local media and nothing changed," she says. "I hope to hear his voice. I hope to make a short phone call with him, and that he will tell me he is ok."

On May 29, Tunisian Mother's Day, Amar sits among about 30 parents gathered on the steps of the capital's municipal theater to demand that the government bring their children home. Mohamed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, wearing a tight black T-shirt and black pants, rallies the crowd. He tells them that his brother had traveled to Syria to fight alongside Islamist radicals, and he managed to bring him back. Now Ben Rejeb runs Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, or RATTA, and is lobbying to rehabilitate radicals who return to Tunisia instead of sending them to prison.

Why Join Islamist Radicals?

Latif, the journalist, believes young Tunisians are joining Islamist militants abroad in part because Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution was so serene compared to "the cowboy story" in other countries.

"Thank God we didn't live the same story of what happened in Libya against the Qaddafi regime or what happened in Syria," Latif says. "And I believe that a lot of people, when they saw how young people fought the Qaddafi regime at that time, just after our revolution, they were attracted, [asking]:'Why I didn't get that same possibility?'"

In the first years after the revolution, Latif says, Tunisian fighters easily bypassed lax security. Now, the authorities require notarized parental consent from anyone under age 35 who is traveling to countries like Turkey or Libya, which are often used as conduits for IS fighters.

It's not only adventure driving young Tunisians to battle. It's also, arguably, poor job prospects, coupled with dashed hopes about the changes the 2011 revolution would bring.

In Douar Hicher, a recruiting hotspot located outside Tunis, sheep graze in a cemetery, one of few green spots in an otherwise desolate suburb. A woman there says she misses the days of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, ousted as a result of the revolution, because at least he had helped plant a small garden on a street near her dilapidated home.

Double Menace: Poverty, Islamic State

Ben Gardane -- where IS killed 12 members of Tunisian security forces before they were defeated in the March attack, leaving 52 militants dead -- is an impoverished desert city of 80,000 people with little industry aside from smuggling. Now it's becoming a garrison.

Just prior to the incursion, Tunisia's military had finished building a 200-kilometer dirt barrier along the border with Libya and is using U.S. assistance to equip it with surveillance technology. Tunisia also sealed its border crossing with Libya for two weeks after the attack before reopening it under heavy security. Checkpoints dot the highway leading into Ben Gardane; sandbagged military outposts ring the outside roads.

"It's kind of a new reality for the people there," says Tunis-based security analyst David Santiago, although he predicts radicals living underground in Ben Gardane will likely launch another attack even if the border is sealed again.

In late May, Belgacem Bouchnak, 43, walks by the bullet-ridden white minaret of the Jalal mosque. On the day of the attack, militants fired from the mosque and security forces fired back. Bouchnak, who lives on the same street, says he hunkered down at home during the battle. Through his window he could see the militants -- and recognized several faces.

"Some were barbers. Some sold olives," he recalls. "Maybe there will be another attack by a sleeper cell."

These days he does not let his children walk to school alone.

Many people in Ben Gardane say poverty, not Islamic State, is their main concern. Frustration with border closings has erupted into protests against local government.

In one Internet cafe, three young couples stare at computer monitors together in cramped quarters, a purple curtain behind them.

One 24-year-old customer describes the situation in Ben Gardane as "zero."

He sits with his fiancee reading Facebook. The top post on his page shows a map of Tunisia and a man trying to crawl out. There are no jobs in town, the man says, and even his part-time gig importing carpets has dried up because of the border control. He does not give his name.

As night falls, Saad Jabala, 50, and Hussein Hasheishi, 63, play a local form of checkers with chunks of stone on a board scratched into the sand. They sit on bits of cardboard on the ground, under a shelter made of sheets of corrugated zinc. Behind them stretches a wasteland of trash. A friend watching them play wants to focus on the town's achievements, not its poverty.

Islamic State fighters "will have a cemetery in Ben Gardane," says the friend. "They will die here."


Daniella Cheslow is an American journalist reporting from the Middle East. She has reported on the Middle East for the Associated Press, Public Radio International, and McClatchy Newspapers.

Heidi Levine is an award-winning American photojournalist covering the Middle East. Levine started her career as a professional photojournalist with the Associated Press and is currently represented by the French Photo agency Sipa Press.