24. Januar 2017

Calm before the storm? Tunisia and the debate about returning foreign fighters

After the attack on a Berlin Christmas market, Tunisia has entered the fray of Western media as a potential homeland security risk. Given that a Tunisian as responsible for the attack, this cannot come as a surprise. Tunisia, however, also faces a significant internal security challenge that merits attention. No country accounts for more foreign fighters in Syria than Tunisia. With the self-proclaimed caliphate on the backfoot, experts argue that several thousand of them might soon come be heading home again. Shortly before the Berlin attack, a fierce debate had broken out about how to deal with their return and it is not resolved yet.

The igniting spark came from Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, often termed BCE in the local media. In early December 2016, he told journalists that Tunisia had the obligation to “welcome all its children back into the fold”, even those who fought with ISIL in Syria. He continued that, despite judicial measures, it would be impossible to put them all into prison as there is simply not enough space in them. Nevertheless, according to BCE the state has already put measures in place to control and monitor all jihadists walking free and will therefore be able to “neutralize” the threat emanating from them.

The reaction to these comments was hostile and negative. The newspaper Achourouk asked what the point of the whole struggle against terrorism was if terrorists would just walk free. Assabah talked about the government turning a blind eye to terrorism. Tunisian civil society organizations held public proteststo advocate closing the border for returning jihadists. As a result, the Tunisian president had to soften his stanceand publicly distance himself from his original comments.

When Essebsi admitted the extent to which Tunisia was unable to deal with returning foreign fighters through legal measures and very feebly tried to make this look as a non-problem, he either underestimated the potential effect of his comments or deliberately wanted to provoke a public reaction to them. Whichever it was, he started of a debate that is quite revealing when it comes to the nature of counterterrorism in the country that sparked the Arab spring.

First of all, it shows how security-centered anti-terror efforts in Tunisia are. All the alternatives mentioned in the debate (prison, surveillance, border security) rely on police, army or intelligence services. Tunisia responded to terrorist attacks in 2015 such as in Sousse with the declaration of a state of emergency, which has since been upheld. In addition, a new counterterrorism law was passed despite heavy criticism by human rights organizations.It defines terrorism very broadly (including damages on public property) and extends pretrial detention. With more police on the street, hardly a day goes by that they do not use their extended authority.

Consequently, and here BCE is correct, the prison system is overloaded. With an estimated capacity for 18.000 prisoners, Tunisian prisons are currently thought to hold around 24.000 prisoners.Moreover, the majority of prisoners have not been convicted and are still in pre-trial detention– some of them for years.

Secondly, what is almost completely lacking in this securitized atmosphere is a response to the underlying causes for violence. While amongst academics, too, no consensus exists on the single one cause for the extent of violent extremism in Tunisia, several aspects are named time and again: discrimination and a neglect of human rights, regional inequalities, corruption or a lack of educational and religious reform. Of course, these are huge issues, but there is not only not enough activity on them, but hardly any at all. Again, prisons serve as a case in point. While there has been talk for quite a while on the need for prison reform, efforts to date are not sufficient to address the sudden influx of a large number of returning foreign fighters. And while the government has been announcing the formulation of a holistic counter-terrorism reform for a while, no document has been published and presented to the public so far.

Thirdly, the current debate also shows the extent to which Tunisia is currently not prepared to deal with a large-scale return of foreign fighters. It is just as illusionary to believe that one can simply keep them under surveillance at all times as it is to think that one could effectively lock them out of the country. And this does not even address the legal and normative questions linked to these plans. Prisons are already full and the country’s legal system unable to deal with the current terrorism cases. What remains is the possibility that foreign fighters do not return after all, which is conceivable for a number of reasons, but unlikely in the long term and, in any case, an unreliable policy strategy.

And, again, none of these ideas do anything to address to root-causes of violence. What is lacking in the current debate is a serious consideration for penitentiary reform, a reform of the penal code or preventive measures. In regard to Tunisia, there is not only the question of why there is extremism but why there is so much of it. The latter point is linked to the political circumstances in post-revolutionary Tunisia, where young people feel abandoned by the political class. So, political reform is necessary, stressing inclusion, participation, and justice; not instead, but in addition to security measures. The introduction of the state of emergency might have provided some calm for the moment, but more might be necessary to prevent a storm from breaking out in the medium term.

Note: During my year as Mercator Fellow, I am dealing with the issue of Preventing Violent Extremism, with work placements in the Middle East, North Africa and Europe. This text was compiled during one of those placements. This is a personal blog. Any views or opinions represented in this blog are personal and do not represent those of people, institutions or organizations that the owner may or may not be associated with in professional or personal capacity, unless explicitly stated.