Tunisiaʹs bid to rehabilitate its returnees

Andrew McDonnell 01.10.2018
Building more community networks to combat violent extremism may help Tunisian authorities develop a holistic, long-term strategy to rehabilitate returning fighters.

Since 2011, as many as 7000 Tunisians have travelled abroad to fight in conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Libya, representing one of the largest national contingents of foreign fighters. While many of these fighters remain abroad, a significant number have returned to their home country – one official estimate from April 2017 placed the number of Tunisian returnees at 800.
With the potential for thousands more to return, Tunisia faces the difficult challenge of crafting a large-scale response to prevent the spread of violence and radicalism domestically. Recognising the grave and criminal actions of extremist groups abroad, there is much disagreement as to whether some returnees should be offered an opportunity to peacefully reintegrate back into society.
While many Tunisian citizens are understandably fearful that returnees pose an immediate threat to public safety, others argue that imprisonment represents an imperfect and potentially counter-productive solution, especially as returneesʹ motivations for going to the conflict zone vary wildly, as do their experiences while there.
While some actively participated in terrorist acts or other atrocities, others only completed basic training or served in a non-violent supporting role. Similarly, their motivations for returning range from disillusionment with extremist ideology to a desire to recruit others to the cause.
Security-oriented approach faces legal obstacles
In 2014, during the early stages of this crisis, former President Moncef Marzouki proposed legislation that would provide some returnees with a path to re-enter society. Under the weight of considerable social pressure, however, this approach gained little traction and was side-lined in favour of policies that enhanced law enforcementʹs mandate to arrest and prosecute returnees.
Imprisonment not always the best solution: despite the understandable determination of the Tunisian public not to welcome back the countryʹs jihadist contingent with open arms, a security-oriented approach presents its own difficulties. As one civil society activist and researcher put it: “In my personal experience, for every one [extremist] sent to prison, ten emerge”
The Ministry of Interior restricted foreign travel for certain individuals and, in July 2015, parliament passed a counterterrorism law that enabled law enforcement to prosecute anyone who engaged in terrorist acts outside the country. Many political leaders have repeatedly and publicly called for returnees to be prosecuted to the full extent of this law.
In practice, however, the security-oriented approach has faced major legal obstacles. Authorities often lack clear evidenceregarding suspectsʹ activities abroad and, according to several civil society activists, law enforcement officials often arrest returnees without sufficient evidence for judges to convict them. These arrests sometimes serve solely to stigmatise and harass people who were already sympathetic to extremist narratives and deepen personal grievances and existing negative perceptions of the state.
One local activist, for example, shared his experience of assisting a returnee who was trying to keep his job as a teacher, but was regularly forced to miss work to report to the police station for interrogation. For returnees making a sincere effort to re-integrate, such harassment may impact their ability to establish normalcy in their life, which could significantly increase their chances of recidivism.
At the same time, Tunisian prisons already far exceed their intended capacity and the influx of hundreds of inmates convicted on long-term sentences would strain the system and facilitate the spread of extremist ideologies to non-ideological criminals. As expressed by one civil society activist and researcher, “in my personal experience, for every one [extremist] sent to prison, ten emerge; especially when they are held together with those in prison for crimes against the state.”
More differentiation needed
Recognising these obstacles, the government seems to have adopted some degree of flexibility. Returnees who had not engaged in violence while abroad are kept under house arrest and are only required to check in with local authorities periodically. This recognition of the need for a differentiated approach has also been reflected by some working groups of government officials, including the National Commission for the Fight Against Terrorism.
Given the consistent lack of political will, however, leaders have been hesitant to push for a more constructive and open debate on rehabilitation. At present, the overarching strategy of the government remains unclear to many within civil society and lacks sufficient consideration of the importance of co-ordination with the communities to which these individuals return.
Establishing a local support system for returneesʹ social, economic, or psychological needs is an essential component in the prevention of recidivism. Conversely, returnees who are met with antipathy and social isolation may be far more likely to turn back to the extremist community that had once accepted them.
Survey of fundamentalists provides insight
Data from a recent study collected by the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) offers some insight into how this issue can be approached at a local level. Researchers surveyed 139 fundamentalist religious actors (such as imams, students and volunteers with religious associations) from Tunis, Sousse, Bizerte, Kasserine and Ben Guerdane.
Questions covered a wide range of issues related to countering violent extremism (CVE), including the re-integration of foreign fighters. These respondents represent one section of the community that could bring to bear valuable expertise and credibility to support the rehabilitation of these returnees and thus offer some insight into how this issue should be approached at a local level.
Very few of these fundamentalist religious actors (only about 10 percent) were familiar with any existing programmes to rehabilitate those tied to extremist groups. However, a majority (79 percent) felt that there is a need for rehabilitation programmes and 91 percent indicated they would support such a programme if it were implemented in their community. While this sentiment is not necessarily representative of the entire community, given the studyʹs focus on religious actors only, it does suggest that rehabilitative programmes could find a niche of support among the religious sector.
Only 44 percent of respondents, however, felt that this type of work would be supported by other leaders in their community. Certainly, there have been vocal opponents to reintegration within civil society, but which voices represent general public sentiment is still unclear.
Community networks are key
Building more community networks to combat violent extremism may help Tunisian authorities develop a holistic, long-term strategy to rehabilitate returning fighters. Significantly, only 46 percent of respondents believed that a potential rehabilitation programme should be run by state actors, whether the federal government or security forces.
Instead, a slim majority favoured an approach led by the community, whether by religious actors (34 percent), civil society organisations (15 percent), or others (5 percent). While the preference for religious actors may be a factor of the profile of respondents, religious actors could have a critical role to play in providing counselling, cultivating public support within their sphere of influence, or serving as a nexus between a rehabilitation programme and the local community. These latter roles would be particularly critical within the often self-isolated fundamentalist communities from which respondents were chosen.
Embedded in the community: to enable returnees to find their place in society, programmes are needed that provide specialist support tailored to the individual – psychological care, employment training and religious counselling. These need to work at a grassroots level in the affected communities, backed up by local imams as mediators where necessary
Moreover, the responses suggest that although the state currently holds a monopoly over issues related to extremism, there is limited confidence in its ability to lead rehabilitation efforts. While public security dictates that the Tunisian government should play a leading role in overseeing the reintegration of foreign fighters, it is important that non-governmental actors are empowered to assist in rehabilitation efforts for those who cannot or should not be immediately convicted on terrorist charges.
Reconciliation within the community vital
Regardless of the overarching leadership of any programme, returnees require a diverse array of specialised and individualised support – including psychological care, jobs training and religious counselling – that extends beyond security forcesʹ capacity or mandate. Such support could be best provided by organisations and activists that are embedded within affected communities, with government support.
Religious leaders, in particular, have an invaluable role in helping communities reconcile with returnees – an important step to ensuring that they do not encounter the same marginalisation and limited opportunities that drove them to travel abroad in the first place. This includes engagement with returneesʹ family and friends, who can be a critical resource in their rehabilitation or a radicalising influence that needs to be accounted for.
Of course, Tunisian political and civil society leaders should be careful not to further inflame social tensions through their public speech or messaging. However, only once the state has set clear national priorities will it be possible to build the co-operative partnerships necessary for a successful reintegration strategy.