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How young Tunisians went from Arab Spring to Islamic State

September 1, 2015 at 6:25 PM EDT
In the wake of the Arab Spring, Tunisians hoped that jobs and prosperity would follow the rise of democracy in their country. But persistent unemployment and poverty have disenchanted many young people, sending waves of former protesters to fight for the Islamic State. Special correspondent Yasmeen Qureshi reports from Tunisia.
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Editor’s Note: We incorrectly stated in the introduction that the overthrow of Tunisia’s former dictator happened in 2001. It was actually 2011. We regret the error.

GWEN IFILL: We turn now to Tunisia, the birthplace of the Arab spring.

The country earned high marks for its constitutional and political reforms following the overthrow of its dictator in 2011. But it also has a much less flattering distinction, as the leading exporter of extremist fighters to Iraq and Syria, and more recently as the site of high-profile terror attacks.

NewsHour special correspondent Yasmeen Qureshi traveled there to find out what’s driving the uptick in violence.

A warning: Some of the images may be disturbing.

(MUSIC)

YASMEEN QURESHI: Popular Tunisian rapper D.J. Costa wrote this song when the Arab spring began in 2011. He joined thousands of young Tunisians in calling for more freedom and economic opportunity. Four years later, what D.J. Costa didn’t anticipate is that many of the generation who joined him in demanding democracy are now fleeing the country to join Islamic State.

What was his name?

MEHDI “D.J. COSTA” AKKARI, Deejay; Youssef.

YASMEEN QURESHI: D.J. Costa’s brother is one of over 3,000 Tunisians who have left to fight in Syria.

How was he recruited?

MEHDI “D.J. COSTA” AKKARI (through interpreter): He was lonely and depressed after two of his friends died. During Ramadan, he spent a lot time at the mosque praying with a group of people, sometimes 15 days in a row without going out. They became like family to him. He was vulnerable, and it was easy for them to manipulate him.

YASMEEN QURESHI: His younger brother, Youssef, traveled to Syria twice, and on his second time joined Islamic State. He was killed last November while fighting.

MEHDI “D.J. COSTA” AKKARI (through interpreter): You know, the man who goes to Syria is not the problem. The one who gives him the means to get there is the problem. My brother was a soccer player. He loved clubbing and partying, so he always felt guilty. He felt that he had to redeem his sins, so he turned to religion.

YASMEEN QURESHI: After losing his brother, D.J. Costa made it his mission to try and prevent more young men from joining Islamic State. He works with Mohamed Rejeb, whose brother also fought with ISIS. His brother returned alive, but was psychologically scarred and refuses to discuss his experience.

Picture after picture shows Tunisians as young as 10 years old who have left to fight in Syria.

MOHAMED REJEB, Tunisia (through interpreter): As you can see, he looks like any other teenager of his age. He was a normal guy. Can you imagine such a teenager? They manipulated him and convinced him that he has to join ISIS to fight for their ideology.

YASMEEN QURESHI: The two men work with the families of the fighters to try and convince their sons to return to Tunisia.

Videos like this one are used by ISIS recruiters to attract young men to fight. Once they arrive in Syria, it’s believed they give them a drug called Captagon, an amphetamine that gives fighters energy and helps them cope with pain.

This year, Tunisia’s growing terrorism problem wasn’t only exported. On the 18th of March, 2015, three gunmen stormed the iconic Bardo Museum in Tunisia, killing over 20 people and injuring dozens more. Four months later, a gunman walked onto a beach in the popular tourist area of Sousse and opened fire; 39 people were killed, and 36 more injured, almost all tourists, making it the deadliest attack in Tunisia’s recent history.

Most of the gunmen were Tunisian citizens who are believed to have trained in neighboring Libya, a country with which Tunisia shares a 300-mile border. In Libya, lawlessness and civil war have allowed Islamic State to gain territory, and created a hotbed for recruitment and training.

Youssef Cherif is a Tunisian political analyst who has studied the Arab spring and Tunisia’s terrorism problem.

What do you think would drive a young Tunisian boy to go to Libya and train with an Islamic State organization?

YOUSSEF CHERIF, Tunisian Political Analyst: You have people who are really fed up with their lives in Tunisia, fed up with the economic situation, fed up with the political situation. The propaganda of ISIS portrays the self-proclaimed state of ISIS as paradise on earth, where you get jobs, money, wives.

Sadly, this is now the representation of freedom-fighting in the region. Maybe 30 or 40 years ago, it was Marxist guerrillas with at least more progressive opinions and views. But now the representative of freedom-fighting is ISIS.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Tunisia is a country of just 11 million people. Yet estimates suggest that it has sent more Islamic fighters to Syria than any other country.

YOUSSEF CHERIF: Many people expect Tunisia to be this secular, quasi-European country that supposedly is very different from the Arab world. Indeed, Tunisia is different, but not that different.

Tunisia is a Muslim Arab country that went through dictatorship for decades, that has a lot of anger among its population, and especially among its youth, the same youth of the Arab region, the same ones who demonstrated and who created the Arab spring and who now still do not see the fruits of the revolution.

YASMEEN QURESHI: They don’t see the fruits of their struggle and many still can’t find any work.

Youth unemployment is a big problem across the Middle East, and in Tunisia, the rate is as high as 40 percent. We have come to the suburbs of Tunis to speak with some youngsters about the problems that they face finding jobs.

El Omran is a poor neighborhood in the suburbs of Tunis. Many young Tunisians in this area protested during the Arab spring, hoping that democracy would bring jobs.

Mohamed Mansour is one of them. Four years later, he and most of friends remain out of work.

When the revolution happened, what were you hoping would change?

MOHAMED BEN MANSOUR, Tunisia (through interprter): We thought that we would develop the country, that we would benefit from the revolution, and that the government would at least provide jobs for people. But, as you can see, half of the people are unemployed. We didn’t get anything.

YASMEEN QURESHI: Do you have any friends from the neighborhood who have gone to fight in Syria?

MOHAMED BEN MANSOUR (through interpreter): Yes, I have a friend who went to Syria. We were in the same high school. Each one of us chose his path. If he is right, then God bless him. If not, I hope he will come back to Tunisia, because his parents are in pain.

We are all Muslims. We both love Islam, but our understanding of it is different. I don’t think that Islam means death and violence.

YASMEEN QURESHI: As Tunisians grapple with life four years after the Arab spring, the country clings to a tenuous grip on democracy. And in the wake of the new terrorist attacks, the government is cracking down in the name of security, causing some Tunisians to worry that the democracy they once fought so hard for could crumble like others across the Arab world.

YOUSSEF CHERIF: We have now people who are fighting freedom in Tunisia and waging wars against the liberty of press that we are having against the democratization of the country in the name of fighting ISIS and fighting terrorism.

And this is very dangerous, because this is what we had in the beginning of the era of Ben Ali, one of the worst eras we had in Tunisia in terms of freedoms and human rights. In the name of security, we crush liberty.

YASMEEN QURESHI: For decades, Tunisia’s picturesque coastlines and old world charm have attracted millions of tourists each year, many of them from Europe. But now the loss of tourism dollars and the jobs that go with them will cause even more economic hardship, and that could frustrate many more young Tunisians.

Meanwhile, D.J. Costa uses the only tool he has, his music, to counter the messages of ISIS.

MEHDI “D.J. COSTA” AKKARI (through interpreter): What we are doing is dangerous. I have already received death threats, but that doesn’t frighten me, because we are on the right path, and I believe we have to make sacrifices for the common good.

YASMEEN QURESHI: He hopes it will be enough.

For the PBS NewsHour, I am Yasmeen Qureshi in Tunis.



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