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Ed Webb

Exporting Jihad - The New Yorker - 0 views

  • A friend of Mohamed’s, an unemployed telecommunications engineer named Nabil Selliti, left Douar Hicher to fight in Syria. Oussama Romdhani, who edits the Arab Weekly in Tunis, told me that in the Arab world the most likely radicals are people in technical or scientific fields who lack the kind of humanities education that fosters critical thought. Before Selliti left, Mohamed asked him why he was going off to fight. Selliti replied, “I can’t build anything in this country. But the Islamic State gives us the chance to create, to build bombs, to use technology.” In July, 2013, Selliti blew himself up in a suicide bombing in Iraq.
  • Tourism, one of Tunisia’s major industries, dropped by nearly fifty per cent after June 26th last year, when, on a beach near the resort town of Sousse, a twenty-three-year-old student and break-dancing enthusiast pulled an automatic weapon out of his umbrella and began shooting foreigners; he spared Tunisian workers, who tried to stop him. The terrorist, who had trained at an Islamic State camp in Libya, killed thirty-eight people, thirty of them British tourists, before being shot dead by police.
  • he condemned the Sousse massacre and a terrorist attack in March, 2015, at Tunisia’s national museum, the Bardo, where three gunmen killed two dozen people. The victims were innocents, he said. Kamal still entertained a fantasy of joining a reformed police force. His knowledge of Islam was crude, and his allegiance to isis seemed confused and provisional—an expression of rage, not of ideology. But in Douar Hicher anger was often enough to send young people off to fight
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  • “The youth are lost,” Kamal told me. “There’s no justice.” Douar Hicher, he said, “is the key to Tunisia.” He continued, “If you want to stop terrorism, then bring good schools, bring transportation—because the roads are terrible—and bring jobs for young people, so that Douar Hicher becomes like the parts of Tunisia where you Westerners come to have fun.”
  • revolution opened up a space that Salafis rushed to fill. There were a lot more of them than anyone had realized—eventually, tens of thousands. In February, 2011, Tunisia’s interim government declared an amnesty and freed thousands of prisoners, including many jihadis. Among them was Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the co-founder of the Tunisian Combat Group. Within two months, he had started Ansar al-Sharia.
  • “The radical narrative tells you that whatever you’ve learned about Islam is wrong, you have to discard it—we have the new stuff. The old, traditional, moderate Islam doesn’t offer you the adventure of the isis narrative. It doesn’t offer you the temptation to enjoy, maybe, your inner savagery. isis offers a false heaven for sick minds.”
  • Democracy didn’t turn Tunisian youths into jihadis, but it gave them the freedom to act on their unhappiness. By raising and then frustrating expectations, the revolution created conditions for radicalization to thrive. New liberties clashed with the old habits of a police state—young Tunisians were suddenly permitted to join civic and political groups, but the cops harassed them for expressing dissent. Educated Tunisians are twice as likely to be unemployed as uneducated ones, because the economy creates so few professional jobs. A third of recent college graduates can’t find work. Frustration led young people to take to the streets in 2011; a similar desperate impulse is now driving other young people toward jihad.
  • the factors that drive young men and women to adopt Salafi jihadism are diverse and hard to parse: militants reach an overwhelmingly reductive idea by complex and twisted paths. A son of Riyadh grows up hearing Salafi preaching in a state-sanctioned mosque and goes to Syria with the financial aid of a Saudi businessman. A young Sunni in Falluja joins his neighbors in fighting American occupation and “Persian”—Shiite—domination. A Muslim teen-ager in a Paris banlieue finds an antidote to her sense of exclusion and spiritual emptiness in a jihadi online community. Part of the success of isis consists in its ability to attract a wide array of people and make them all look, sound, and think alike.
  • Souli wasn’t sure what should be done with returned jihadis, but, like nearly everyone I met, he spoke of the need for a program of rehabilitation for those who come back. No such program exists
  • In its eagerness to modernize, the Ben Ali regime encouraged widespread access to satellite television and the Internet. The sermons of Islamist firebrands from the Gulf, such as the Egyptian-born cleric Yusuf al-Qaradawi, entered the homes of Tunisians who felt smothered by official secularism. Oussama Romdhani, who was a senior official under Ben Ali—he was referred to as the “propaganda minister”—told me, “Radicals were able to use these tools of communication to recruit and disseminate the narrative, and they did it quite efficiently.”
  • Around 2000, the Tunisian Combat Group, an Al Qaeda affiliate, emerged in Afghanistan, dedicating itself to the overthrow of the Tunisian government. One of its founders, Tarek Maaroufi, provided false passports to two Tunisians who, allegedly on instructions from Osama bin Laden, travelled to northern Afghanistan posing as television journalists and assassinated Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Afghan mujahideen commander, on September 9, 2001. The Combat Group’s other leader, known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, was an Al Qaeda commander; when the Americans overthrew the Taliban, in late 2001, he escaped from Tora Bora with bin Laden, only to be arrested in Turkey, in 2003, and extradited to Tunisia. (Sentenced to forty-three years in prison, he seized the chance to radicalize his fellow-prisoners.)
  • Why can’t the police do their job and stop the terrorists but let the smugglers go with a bribe?
  • “Maybe it’s the Tunisian nature—we like risk,” a former jihadi told me. A million Tunisians live and work in Europe. “A lot of drug dealers are Tunisian; many smugglers of goods between Turkey and Greece are Tunisian; a lot of human traffickers in Belgrade are Tunisian. Online hackers—be careful of the Tunisians, there’s a whole network of them.”
  • Walid was vague about his reasons for returning to Tunisia. He mentioned a traumatic incident in which he had seen scores of comrades mowed down by regime soldiers outside Aleppo. He also pointed to the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, in April, 2013, which soon engaged in bitter infighting with the Nusra Front. Walid spoke of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the caliph of the Islamic State, with the personal hatred that Trotskyists once expressed for Stalin. He accused isis of destroying the Syrian resistance and helping the Assad regime. He believed that isis was created by Western powers to undermine Al Qaeda and other true jihadi groups.
  • these aged men from the two Tunisias—Essebsi a haughty remnant of the Francophile élite, Ghannouchi the son of a devout farmer from the provinces—began a series of largely secret conversations, and set Tunisia on a new path. In January, 2014, Ennahdha voluntarily handed over the government to a regime of technocrats. Ghannouchi had put his party’s long-term interests ahead of immediate power. A peaceful compromise like this had never happened in the region. Both old men had to talk their followers back from the brink of confrontation, and some Ennahdha activists regarded Ghannouchi’s strategy as a betrayal.
  • To many Tunisians, Nidaa Tounes feels like the return of the old regime: some of the same politicians, the same business cronies, the same police practices. The Interior Ministry is a hideous seven-story concrete structure that squats in the middle of downtown Tunis, its roof bristling with antennas and satellite dishes, coils of barbed wire barring access from the street. The ministry employs eighty thousand people. There is much talk of reforming Tunisia’s security sector, with the help of Western money and training. (The U.S., seeing a glimmer of hope in a dark region, recently doubled its aid to Tunisia.) But the old habits of a police state persist—during my time in Tunis, I was watched at my hotel, and my interpreter was interrogated on the street.
  • The inhabitants of Kasserine, however neglected by the state, were passionate advocates for their own rights. They had played a central role in the overthrow of the dictatorship, staging some of the earliest protests after Bouazizi’s self-immolation. In every coffee shop, I was told, half the conversations were about politics. Although Kasserine is a recruiting area for jihadis, Tunisia’s wealthy areas are so remote that the town felt less alienated than Douar Hicher and Ben Gardane.
  • “You feel no interest from the post-revolutionary governments in us here. People feel that the coastal areas, with twenty per cent of the people, are still getting eighty per cent of the wealth. That brings a lot of psychological pressure, to feel that you’re left alone, that there’s no horizon, no hope.”
  • The old methods of surveillance are returning. In the center of Kasserine, I met an imam named Mahfoud Ben Deraa behind the counter of the hardware store he owns. He had just come back from afternoon prayers, but he was dressed like a man who sold paint. “I might get kicked out of the mosque, because last Friday’s sermon was something the government might not like,” the imam told me. He had preached that, since the government had closed mosques after terror attacks, “why, after an alcoholic killed two people, didn’t they close all the bars?” To some, this sounded like a call for Sharia, and after informers reported him to the police the governor’s office sent him a warning: “In the course of monitoring the religious activities and the religious institutions of the region, I hereby inform you that several violations have been reported.” The imam was ordered to open the mosque only during hours of prayer and to change the locks on the main doors to prevent unsupervised use. The warning seemed like overreach on the part of the state—the twitching of an old impulse from the Ben Ali years.
  • “I never thought I would repeat the same demands as five years ago. The old regime has robbed our dreams.”
  • According to the Tunisian Interior Ministry, a hundred thousand Tunisians—one per cent of the population—were arrested in the first half of 2015. Jihadi groups intend their atrocities to provoke an overreaction, and very few governments can resist falling into the trap.
  • New democracies in Latin America and Eastern Europe and Asia have had to struggle with fragile institutions, corruption, and social inequity. Tunisia has all this, plus terrorism and a failed state next door.
  • Ahmed told himself, “If I pray and ask for divine intervention, maybe things will get better.” Praying did not lead him to the moderate democratic Islam of Ennahdha. His thoughts turned more and more extreme, and he became a Salafi. He quit smoking marijuana and grew his beard long and adopted the ankle-length robe called a qamis. He un-friended all his female friends on Facebook, stopped listening to music, and thought about jihad. On Internet forums, he met jihadis who had been in Iraq and gave him suggestions for reading. Ahmed downloaded a book with instructions for making bombs. In the period of lax security under Ennahdha, he fell in with a radical mosque in Tunis. He was corresponding with so many friends who’d gone to Syria that Facebook deactivated his account. Some of them became leaders in the Islamic State, and they wrote of making thirty-five thousand dollars a year and having a gorgeous European wife or two. Ahmed couldn’t get a girlfriend or buy a pack of cigarettes.
  • “Dude, don’t go!” Walid said when they met on the street. “It’s just a trap for young people to die.” To Walid, Ahmed was exactly the type of young person isis exploited—naïve, lost, looking for the shortest path to Heaven. Al Qaeda had comparatively higher standards: some of its recruits had to fill out lengthy application forms in which they were asked to name their favorite Islamic scholars. Walid could answer such questions, but they would stump Ahmed and most other Tunisian jihadis.
  • “We need to reform our country and learn how to make it civilized,” he said. “In Tunisia, when you finish your pack of cigarettes, you’ll throw it on the ground. What we need is an intellectual revolution, a revolution of minds, and that will take not one, not two, but three generations.”
Ed Webb

Divine rights: the problem of Egypt's Islamists - 0 views

  • at present the wind is not blowing the Islamists' way.  Despite some electoral successes since the outbreak of the Arab Spring, Islamist movements are now clearly on the defensive – and not just because of their confrontation with the military in Egypt. Arab (and Muslim) opponents of Islamism, whose voices were often marginalised in the past, are speaking out as never before.
  • In Egypt’s most recent parliamentary election (2011-12) the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, together with allied parties, won 37.5% of the popular vote – well short of an overall majority. Given that the 2011-12 poll was probably as good an electoral opportunity as the Brotherhood is likely to get, this result ought to have prompted some deep reflection within the movement about its future strategy – though its subsequent behaviour suggests the voters’ warning went unheeded.
  • In lower-class neighbourhoods, the Salafis were also quick to denounce the Brotherhood as composed of bourgeois elites disconnected from the street. As a local Nour party leader in a poor Tanta suburb argued, “we are from the people, we were on their side constantly during the Mubarak days, we have developed intimate knowledge of their problems… while the Brotherhood were wasting their time [with] useless institutional politics.”
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  • Around 40% of Egyptians who voted for Islamist parties did not choose the Muslim Brotherhood, preferring an alliance of Salafist parties instead.
  • there are fundamental questions about how far a reconciliation process can go unless the Brotherhood (and the Salafis too) change their approach towards working in a democracy. They are happy to accept electoral politics but still tend to view it as a tool for gaining power rather than a means for determining and implementing the will of the people
  • winning is not the only consequence of being free to contest elections. They may also lose or, as seems likely in Egypt for the forseeable future, have to share power with others. This, however, strikes at the ideological core of Islamism and it’s difficult to see how it can be resolved without changing the ideology.
  • the Nour Party now explicitly defends democratic mechanisms (i.e. elections at all levels, separation of powers, freedom of speech, etc.). They are keen, however, to stress that they distinguish between the “procedures of democracy,” which they accept, and the “philosophy of democracy,” which they reject. For them, ultimate sovereignty cannot be held by the people, but only by God, meaning that there can be no discussion as to whether sharia, understood as an all-encompassing corpus of law, should be enforced
Ed Webb

A Chance for Moderation - Sada - 0 views

  • Non-jihadi Salafis, particularly those who have shown a real inclination toward moderation, can play a key role in minimizing the jihadi threat
  • Apart from Salafi jihadis, two other major currents of Salafism exist in Tunisia: Salafiyya ‘Almiyya, often translated as "scientific Salafism," and political Salafism.  Members of the Salafiyya ‘Almiyya current are apolitical, preferring to immerse themselves in religious devotion. Their movement dates back to the eighth century AD. Until the last century, they remained an elitist and almost forgotten sect. Although their profile has risen since the revolution, scientific Salafism’s imprint on religious life remains limited—only around 24 of Tunisia’s mosques are under their control. Nonetheless, some scientific Salafi sheikhs, such as Bashir bin Hassan, are well-known religious figures, with impressive followings and media platforms.
  • political Salafis aspire to use political avenues to influence Tunisian society. Some have formed parties such as Jabhat al-Islah and Hizb ut-Tahrir. Although they were unsuccessful, Jabhat al-Islah members contested six seats in the Constituent Assembly as independents (the party did not receive an official license until March 2012) in the October 2011 elections. Enacting sharia law is their foremost policy priority,  and they have also called for cutting ties with the IMF and World Bank and for Tunisia to stop repaying foreign debts. Hizb ut-Tahrir also advocates an agro-industrial economy that is less reliant on tourism
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  • Although Salafism might seem extreme by definition, the term is still helpfully vague. Some high-profile Islamists have shown a capacity to use the ambiguity of the term to their advantage. For example, last year Ennahda’s co-founder, Rachid Ghannouchi, claimed—in an attempt to pacify and woo young Salafis—that he himself is a Salafi in the sense that Salafism means a “return to the noble values of Islam founded on the Koran and the Sunna.”
  • Mohamed Khoja, who leads Jabhat al-Islah, was one of the founders of the Tunisian Islamic Front, which had suspected ties to terrorism. Now he rejects violence in Tunisia and insists that, if elected, members of his party would not outlaw alcohol or ban bikinis.
  • Ansar al-Sharia is eager to cultivate a peaceful image not just because it fears government reprisals, but also to avoid alienating members who are against violence in Tunisia. It is, after all, a disconnected movement that relies on dozens of charismatic leaders to exploit everyday discontent at the grassroots level of Tunisian society. 
  • Salafi political parties have a much harder task than groups like Ansar al-Sharia. They must prove their ability to shape political decisions, rather than simply blasting more energy into street politics
  • political parties’ youth activities are much less visible. Jabhat al-Islah’s Facebook page is dominated by pictures of middle-aged men. Similarly, older “wise men” are the face of scientific Salafism. As a result, these movements hold limited appeal for youth.
Ed Webb

Mass Arrests Signal Policy Change Towards Religious Extremists - Tunisia Live : Tunisia... - 1 views

  • The Ministry of Interior then outlawed Ansar al-Sharia yesterday and banned all its activities. The arrests and the ban of Ansar al-Sharia  represent a major policy shift for the coalition government led by the Islamist Ennahda party. This administration had been seen by critics as too lenient on extremist religious groups involved in a number of violent incidents since the January 2011 revolution.
Ed Webb

A crisis in Tunisia: Murder most foul | The Economist - 0 views

  • Tunisia’s worst crisis since the revolution that toppled the country’s long-serving, secular-minded dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who fled into exile in January 2011
  • In the past few months Islamist thugs have been taking the law into their own hands. Neighbourhood “committees to defend the revolution”, often including Nahda members who were political prisoners under Mr Ben Ali, have been accused of trying to intimidate opposition parties and have incurred growing hostility from more secular types. In December they violently broke up a trade-union rally.
  • The veneration of local saints across north Africa harks back to pre-Islamic Berber and sub-Saharan cultures. Muslim reformists in 19th-century Tunisia dismissed such traditions as demeaning and superstitious. Under Habib Bourguiba, the country’s first president after its independence from France in 1956, many shrines were turned into museums, cultural centres or even cafés. Others were officially tolerated for giving succour to people with medical or psychological worries. Nahda, which is close to the Muslim Brotherhood, has proclaimed an “Arab and Islamic identity”, implying distaste for shrine worship. But the desecrations obliged them to declare their respect for Tunisia’s diverse cultural and ethnic heritage.
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