Radical imams and online salafists are pushing Tunisian young people to answer the call for jihad. Now they're dying by the hundreds in Syria.
By Monia Ghanmi and Yasmine Najjar in Tunis for Magharebia - 22/02/13
Young Tunisian Abdelkarim Jdirine is among the missing.
"One day, he went to the mosque but never returned," his sister Izdihar says. "A few days later, we found a message under our house door telling us that he went to seek martyrdom in Syria."
It is a growing phenomenon: Tunisian jihadists who embrace al-Qaeda ideology and travel abroad to Mali and Syria. And it is starting to kill off a generation.
"My brother doesn't belong to any political parties or groups," Izdihar tells Magharebia at the family's Sayada home. "He got to know someone who convinced him of the idea of jihad."
As many as 132 Tunisian nationals died in and around Aleppo on Thursday (February 14th). According to Express FM, most of those who died in the northern Syria city were from Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution.
"Tunisian youth leaving their country to fight is not a new phenomenon," former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said last June. "Young people have gone to Iraq, Afghanistan and Somalia". Jebali said.
Following the Arab Spring events, jihadists started going to Libya, Syria and Mali.
Maghreb fighters in Syria have linked up with groups seeking to topple the regime of Bashar al-Assad, including al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb fighters are reportedly among the latest arrivals to the Syria battle.
University student Omaya Ben Mohamed Noureddine, 25, is another young Tunisian who left home for jihad in Syria.
On December 12th, he told his family that he would be staying overnight with a friend to prepare for exams. He never came home.
"Two days later, an unknown Tunisian called and told us that our son reached Turkey," his father said.
The family learned that Omaya had departed Tunisia legally on December 14th, something that confirmed fears that an organised network was getting young people to Syria.
Handlers for extremist networks use travel agencies to get the recruits to Turkey, says journalist Ali Garboussi, who spent time in Syria. The young jihadists cross onto Syrian soil through the Turkish city of Antakya.
For many of these Tunisian fighters, the process begins when they see online videos calling for jihad, Garboussi adds.
"Recruiters target less educated and unemployed young people through financial incentives and religious fatwas," says Naceur Khechini, a professor of Islamic Sharia.
Radical groups are happy to use these Tunisians as cannon fodder, he adds.
The recruits are reportedly subjected to systematic brainwashing and encouraged to become martyrs.
Mosques in Tunisia have also been cited as having a hand in the crisis.
At some of the country's 6,000 mosques, imams and khatibs are calling for jihad in Syria. But as Ahmed Bergaoui, an advisor to the religious affairs minister readily admits, the ministry cannot control all the mosques in the country.
Slim Briga, a young man who frequents his local mosque, confirms that the jihad message is indeed being delivered to young Muslims.
"Many mosques are now under the control of salafist imams who control them by force," he tells Magharebia.
"In their sermons, they use takfirist speech that calls for jihad and fighting for the cause of God. There are many worshippers who quit these mosques, but unfortunately, many have fallen in the trap that was set up by those people," he says.
His father Abdelmajid Briga chimes in: "They try to wash the brains of our young people and drag them to extremism under the pretext of spreading Islam."
"This is a serious thing that takes place in our country and can sow strife and violence in society. Therefore, we urge the government today to take the necessary measures against those people and to control mosques," he adds.
Incitement at mosques is only part of the picture. Social networking websites use extremist religious speech to indoctrinate young people.
"There are several pages on Facebook that are known to us, and they have several supporters, such as 'Sheikhs of Salafism' in Tunisia," Khaled Yazidi tells Magharebia.
"These pages promote Syria's Jabhat al-Nusra and try to convince us that jihad for the cause of God is the only way to spread Islam and apply the Sharia," he adds.
But Abou Iyadh (Seif Allah Ben Hassine), the leader of Tunisia's Ansar al-Sharia movement and a suspect in the September 14th assault on the US Embassy in Tunis, spoke out earlier this month against the involvement of young Tunisians in the Syria conflict.
Abou Iyadh called on young people, especially members of the Islamist current, not to go to Syria for jihad. Instead, he suggested Tunisian youths begin their extremist struggle at home.
"Tunisia needs its young people and cadres more than any other country," the salafist leader said in a video posted to YouTube on February 5th.
Mouhamed Bou Oud, a journalist specialising in jihadist groups, estimates that there are between 3,500 and 5,000 young people now fighting in Syria.
"There is no certain organisation or group in Tunisia that recruits those jihadists for fighting in Syria," he tells Magharebia. "In fact, recruitment in Tunisia is done through calls at mosques. Deceived Tunisian young people usually go there out of their own volition believing that this is jihad for the cause of God."
But before young Tunisians can begin jihad in Syria, they need training. This is often done in Mali or, to an increasing extent, in Libya.
"Young people go in the first stage to the Libyan city of Ghadames just 70km from the Tunisian border," he explains. "They receive some military training there, then train in Zawiya for another 20 days. After that, they travel from Brega to Istanbul, and then to the Syrian border, where they are handed over to the Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaeda's branch in Syria."
"Scores die but their families will never know," he adds, "because their faces are disfigured or because they don't carry ID documents".
The young Tunisian jihadists may be getting some help from surprising sources.
Rights group "Freedom and Fairness" sends fighters to Syria, a recruit told Tunisia's africanmanager.com last year.
In a separate interview, Marwen Essadki told machhad.com that "with help from Tunisian activists, including members of Freedom and Fairness", he had travelled to Syria via Turkey to fight against al-Assad regime.
Freedom and Fairness Association head Imen Triki, however, denied the allegations.
"Some of the families of the young people who go to Syria for jihad come to us to help them recover their sons," she told Magharebia.
"In addition, we try to bring home some of those who were on their way to Syria through Libya or Turkey after they regretted what they did," she said.