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To some Tunisians, returning ISIS fighters are a threat. To others, family.

May 15, 2017 at 6:30 PM EDT
As the Islamic State group faces serious losses in Syria and Iraq, some foreign fighters are returning home. Many come from Tunisia, which has a fragile democracy and very real security concerns. What fate do they face, and what does their return mean for the country and their families? Jeffrey Brown reports from Tunis.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: But first: As the Islamic State group faces serious losses in Syria and Iraq, some of the group’s foreign fighters are fleeing the region and returning to their home countries. This has had an impact across the region, including in Tunisia, a country that has sent more fighters to join the group than any other.

Jeffrey Brown reports on what kind of welcome they will be receiving.

JEFFREY BROWN: A protest earlier this year on the streets of Tunis, a sign of democracy in the new Tunisia, where past demonstrations would have been brutally suppressed, but also a sign of lingering political crisis.

Citizens rallied against the return of thousands of fellow Tunisians who have fought abroad for the Islamic State and other jihadi groups, and now want to return home.

DR. NAZIHA GOUIDER, Citizens Collective of Tunisia: These people are not Tunisian. They are monsters.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Naziha Gouider helped organize the protests. She’s a neurologist in a well-off suburb of Tunis and fears the impact the returnees will have.

DR. NAZIHA GOUIDER: They are people who have no nationality. They decided to go to a place where — to have another nationality, because this place is called a state.

JEFFREY BROWN: ISIS.

DR. NAZIHA GOUIDER: Yes.

JEFFREY BROWN: But family members of those accused of fighting for ISIS just want their loved ones home.

WOMAN (through interpreter): My brother is one of Tunisia’s young people who were marginalized, who got lost.

JEFFREY BROWN: Before dawn on a recent morning, this woman — we agreed to conceal her identity — was on her way to a local jail to visit her brother, a young man, she said, who’d misled his family and left to fight in Syria in 2012.

WOMAN (through interpreter): I took him to the airport myself. And that’s what hurts me. He contacted me and he told me: “I’m in Syria and I’m OK.”

You can imagine our situation. We went mad. I was crying while walking in the street like a fool

JEFFREY BROWN: Soon enough, she says, her brother realized he’d made a terrible mistake. Eventually, he turned himself into the Tunisian Embassy in Turkey. Returned to Tunis, he now faces a lengthy prison sentence.

WOMAN (through interpreter): Now he has the title of terrorist. His life is destroyed. He is not the only one.

JEFFREY BROWN: The U.N. estimates that between 5,000 to 6,000 Tunisians joined ISIS to fight in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, more than from any other country.

The response to the returning fighters is a complicated one, in a country with a very fragile democracy and very real security concerns. Protests in 2011 in Tunisia peacefully overthrew longtime dictator Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the wider Arab Spring uprisings.

Later, a democratically elected coalition government included Tunisian secularists and Islamists. This is a country widely seen as the region’s success story, but one with enormous challenges, including a stagnant economy and large numbers of homegrown terrorists.

In 2015, 20 tourists were killed by Islamist gunmen at Tunis’ Bardo Museum, a cultural treasure. And a lone gunman killed 38, mostly Brits on holiday, at a coastal beach resort. ISIS claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Tunisian-born radicals have also carried out attacks abroad, including those in Nice and Berlin in 2016. Authorities here say about 800 Tunisian fighters have returned and are now sitting in jails. But hundreds more may have snuck into the country through neighboring Libya.

MOHAMED IQBAL, Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (through interpreter): If you ask any Tunisian family, do you know of a Tunisian who has gone to Syria or tried to go, they will say, yes, of course we do.

JEFFREY BROWN: Mohamed Iqbal has spent the last several years tracking those who left, and in 2013 formed an organization to help them return.

A young boy.

MOHAMED IQBAL: Yes, a young boy, about 16 years old.

JEFFREY BROWN: He was 16 when he went to Libya?

MOHAMED IQBAL: Yes, 16 to Libya and to Syria.

JEFFREY BROWN: Iqbal sees a lost generation, many of them poor and vulnerable Tunisians, succumbing to economic hardship and a sophisticated network of hard-line Islamists recruiting them for jihad.

MOHAMED IQBAL (through interpreter): The lion knows how to choose its prey. There are recruitment networks hunting for young people.

JEFFREY BROWN: The 2011 revolution unleashed many disparate forces, including an Islamist revival. This video from that time shows an imam who would later become minister of religious affairs during Friday prayers.

MAN (through interpreter): It is the duty of every Muslim to help our brothers fight in Syria.

JEFFREY BROWN: Many accepted that call, including Mohamed Iqbal’s younger brother. We agreed not use his name or show his face.

MAN (through interpreter): I thought, by going, that I would be helping to send a message to the world: Enough killings of the Syrian people and the Muslim people. We have been told that, in Syria, they will employ us, provide us a house. If you want to get married, you can do it there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Despite being wheelchair-bound, the younger Iqbal managed to make it to the Syrian border in 2013, before his brother convinced him to come home. He’s now in a legal limbo and regularly visited and watched by police.

Mohamed Iqbal acknowledges that there are hardcore terrorists among those who left. He wants distinctions drawn and efforts made to incorporate as many as possible back into society.

MOHAMED IQBAL (through interpreter): Tunisian law can’t prevent a citizens from coming back to his home country. These fighters must return to their countries, get arrested, and be rehabilitated. This is better than they’re remaining free in areas of conflicts. We want them to come back to society and live normally, not just as ex-convicts. They must be producing something to the society, not only consuming.

JEFFREY BROWN: But to what kind of society? Tied up in Tunisia’s debates, the role of religion in public life.

The former dictatorship ruthlessly enforced secularism and closely monitored religious activity. One result, people like Imam Omar Mighri spent years in prison. Today, though, he is a moderate who works with the government to oppose radical Islamists whose influence grew after the revolution.

At his home in a suburb of Tunis, Imam Mighri told us that forgiveness is one part of the equation, along with extensive re-education programs.

OMAR MIGHRI, Imam (through interpreter): Many of them do not have a proper understanding of Islam and jihad. They’re a danger to society and to our social fabric.

JEFFREY BROWN: The government, he says, must do more to reach radicals in prisons and schools.

OMAR MIGHRI (through interpreter): We asked the government to give us the opportunity to speak to people who have been jailed and try to change their path. We were refused.

JEFFREY BROWN: Does the government have a plan? Yes, says Colonel Mohktar Ben Nasr, a retired military officer who now runs a think tank, to jail the worst and monitor others, through tight security and the rule of law.

COL. MOHKTAR BEN NASR (RET.), Former Tunisian Military Official (through interpreter): ISIS is a beaten force, so they will come back in search of safe places. The real difficulty lies in identifying them, because many don’t return through the airports with official documents.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tunisia is still a young democracy, finding its way between the security and these kinds of new freedoms. Is it a difficult balance even today?

COL. MOHKTAR BEN NASR (through interpreter): Yes, absolutely. Today, the guaranteed thing is that there is real freedom, there is freedom of expression. But this freedom has limits. And when people overstep those limits, there is chaos.

JEFFREY BROWN: After human rights groups issued reports on abuses by Tunisian security forces, civil liberties advocates responded with a campaign called No to Terrorism, Yes to Human Rights, featuring prominent Tunisian celebrities.

Six years after its revolution, Tunisia faces numerous challenges. It falls to citizens, says Dr. Naziha Gouider, to push the country forward.

DR. NAZIHA GOUIDER: Tunisia is full of competence, of very competent people, and of people who love their country, and people who think that progress and changing this bad image is absolutely possible.

If you try to draw a new dream for the Tunisians, all the Tunisians, this is the solution.

JEFFREY BROWN: A new dream, that is, for a new Tunisia.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown in Tunis.

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