Foreign jihad lures Tunisian youth
By Yasmine Najjar in Tunis for Magharebia – 05/03/13
Young Tunisian men have been dying in Syria for months. Now women are responding to what they perceive as their own call for jihad. Magharebia met with Tunisian League for Human Rights (LTDH) Vice- President Balkis Mechri-Allagui in Tunis to learn more about the new phenomenon.
Magharebia: The Al Nusrah Front for the People of the Levant is fighting Bashir al Assad's regime. How is this al-Qaeda-linked jihadist group getting Tunisians to Syria?
Balkis Mechri-Allagui: We were the first to warn of the growing phenomenon of religious extremism after we conducted an investigation on the topic. As for the phenomenon of attracting young men and women to answering the call to join the jihad in Syria, we often receive families of those young people asking for help to bring their children back from the hell of war.
Magharebia: A Wahhabi cleric in Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Mohamed al-Arifi, issued a fatwa that permits fighters to marry few hours with girls as young as 14. In Tunisia, the parents of a 16-year-old girl released a video accusing al-Nusra of abducting her and taking her to Syria. How widespread is this problem?
Balkis Mechri-Allagui: Although the number of young girls involved is small, we are not concerned by numbers as much as we are concerned with the presence of this case in our society.
What we know is that there are girls being attracted to go to Syria for jihad, and therefore we must stand up against this problem. When news first emerged about young people going to Syria for jihad, many slandered the media and the figures who called for attention to this point, and accused them of lying.
We are now facing a scary ogre snatching our youth because we did not address the topic from the beginning.
Magharebia: Where do these Tunisians in Syria come from?
Balkis Mechri-Allagui: We have received solid information that groups of young people, particularly in the south of Tunisia who used to be drug addicts, switched overnight to become jihadists. Now they have money and big cars equipped to cross the desert and are able even to obtain forged passports.
They are attracting unemployed youth and brainwashing them in order to ship them to Syria in the name of jihad. All this is done for money that they receive from outside.
Magharebia: So how does this process begin?
Balkis Mechri-Allagui: The starting point is the sprawling primary schools that adopt radical educational approaches. This phenomenon would help in the development of the young militant. Then there are mosques, where some sheikhs are teaching messages that encourage jihad. Then there is the most important factor: the lack of will or inability of the Tunisian government to confront this phenomenon, which threatens Tunisian youth.
Let's also not forget the calls made by some in front of high schools, which is a dangerous phenomenon, especially since the minister of education has not opened an investigation into it, but is investigating youth dancing inside their schools. This is considered a scary silence by the concerned authorities. There are also associations with Islamist backgrounds that encourage young people to go to Syria.
Magharebia: How can we get them back home?
Balkis Mechri-Allagui: Frankly, the process of bringing back these young people who end up regretting the ordeal of going to Syria after their arrival on the scene is complex. It is difficult for us as civil society, and even for the authorities, because Tunisia does not have diplomatic representation in Syria and this makes matters worse. Besides, Tunisian authorities have not shown a clear will to prevent the extraction of young people wanting to fight.
Magharebia: Do you have any plan to confront the problem?
Balkis Mechri-Allagui: On February 10th, we organised a national conference against violence. All participants confirmed the need to safeguard the democratic transition. They called for finding a new security policy in order to provide safety and to depoliticise the houses of worship that have become instrumental for political propaganda.
Death threats made against political figures opposing the Islamist government are coming from there. It was one of the factors that led to the assassination of Chokri Belaid and this is what the interior ministry confirmed during the investigation. We also came out with recommendations to protect secondary schools from calls for jihad. We noted the same for primary schools.
In addition, there is the need to prevent Gulf and Levant sheikhs from inviting Tunisians to fight in Syria.
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