Ali was a normal Tunisian teenager, or seemed to be. He went to school in his middle-class Tunis suburb, hung out with friends and loved watching soccer, especially Espérance, the feted Tunis team that won the Africa Cup in 2011. But in 2012, his family noticed that his behaviour was changing, and they started to worry.
“At age 18, he began praying a lot,” his uncle, Fathi, told me in late January, his eyes welling up. “He stopped watching TV and didn’t talk to women, only his mother and sister. He went to the mosque every day. He would even sleep at the mosque.” (Fathi asked me not to use his full name or those of Ali and his family).
We were sitting in the nearly empty upper floor of a café near the centre of Tunis, around the corner from Fathi’s cluttered auto repair shop. Friday morning prayers from the mosque directly across the street blared from speakers mounted on the minaret, forcing us to speak loudly, mostly in French, with some help from my Arabic interpreter.
Fathi, 65, is balding, with a mustache and hands blackened with grease. He said that Ali’s mother, Fatima, fearing that Ali was being preyed upon by radical imams or recruiters on the hunt for fighters to send to Syria, Libya or Iraq, hid Ali’s passport.
Those fears were justified. One weekend, Ali begged off joining the family at their retreat in Hammamet, a seaside town an hour’s drive south of Tunis. “When they came home, their son wasn’t there,” Fathi said. “The neighbours saw him leave with a knapsack. He didn’t even say goodbye.”
At that point, Ali became the family’s tragedy and an alarming statistic. He entered the ranks of the 6,000 Tunisian fighters who have joined the extremist groups fighting in Iraq and Syria. (The estimate is from the Soufan Group, a private security and intelligence company, and is disputed by the Tunisian government.)
Hundreds of those Tunisian fighters are now returning home and the police forces of the Tunisian and European governments are scrambling to determine whether some of the most violent Tunisian jihadis will continue their battles on Tunisian and European soil.
Tunisia, the only democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring that blew through North Africa and the Middle East between late 2010 and 2012, has now become, by a wide margin, the top source of foreign fighters in Syria.
The two deadliest terrorist attacks in Europe in the past year were the work of two Tunisian-born assailants, though neither had fought in the Middle East. The first, on July 14, in Nice, France, saw Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel use a truck to mow down and kill 86 people, injuring more than 400 others. On Dec. 19, a young drifter and failed asylum seeker named Anis Amri, who had been in prison in Sicily, used the same method – a truck – to slaughter 12 people and injure 56 at a Berlin Christmas market.
Less widely reported in the Western media is the virtually endless stream of terrorist attacks on Tunisian soil – dozens since 2011 – leaving hundreds of civilians and terrorists dead. Some of those terrorists had been foreign fighters.
Mokhtar Ben Nasr, the president of the Tunisian Centre for Global Security Studies who was a colonel-major in the Tunisian army and the Ministry of Defence spokesman during the Tunisian revolution of 2010-11, told me that he has no doubt that some Tunisian jihadis who fought or were trained in Syria, Iraq and Libya will surface in other countries. “Some will go to the south of Libya or Niger and Mali, but some could infiltrate Europe,” he said. “These terrorists can infiltrate in boats.”
Their motivation to avoid Tunisia increased in 2015, when the government passed a tough anti-terrorist law that calls for the arrest of fighters upon their return. In a recent interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed said that 800 Tunisians who had fought overseas had returned to Tunisia; about 100 of them are in prison awaiting trial while the rest are being monitored. “Many other countries in Europe also fear the return of these well-trained fighters because they could destabilize their countries,” he said (Mr. Chahed declined a Globe and Mail interview request).
Ali is typical of the young Tunisians who have heard the call to jihad. His family discovered he had travelled through Turkey and ended up in Syria, where he was absorbed by al-Nusra Front, the jihadi rebel group that was then openly advertising itself as the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda.
Fathi said that he and Ali’s father, Ridha, an auto mechanic, flew to Ankara, where they went to the Tunisian embassy. The embassy gave the two men the phone number of a Tunisian in Istanbul, who Fathi referred to as the “transportation man” – the man who allegedly arranged Ali’s trip to Antakya, the Turkish city near the Syrian border, not far from Aleppo. Fathi claimed they met the man, who had Ali’s name on a computer flash drive.
Fathi and Ridha paid the Tunisian the equivalent of €800 ($1,100) to try to retrieve Ali. “But we’re not sure he actually went,” Fathi said. “He says he went to the border and couldn’t find him.”
Had Ali turned into a ruthless killer? Will he return to Tunisia or creep into Europe?
Fathi said they don’t know, even though Ali calls home every few months to assure his family that he is alive (Ali’s sister, whom I would meet briefly, confirmed that her brother has made calls home.) “We think he wants to return to Tunisia,” Fathi said. “But we think he’s afraid he would go into prison here.”
Shortly before Christmas, a highly unusual boat left Cap Bon, a peninsula in Tunisia’s extreme northern tip, and headed northeast, crossing the 150 kilometres of open water that forms the Strait of Sicily.
The boat might have travelled at high speed because it was equipped with three, 400-hp marine outboard motors – the most powerful outboards available, normally used only for racing boats. An Italian intelligence source, who did not want to be identified, said a boat with such an extreme power-to-weight ratio might have been capable of short bursts of speed as high as 150 kilometres an hour – far faster than any vessel in the Italian or Tunisian coast guards or navies.
The boat reached the southwest Sicilian coast, between the seaside towns of Marsala and Maraza del Vallo, just before dawn. It stopped just offshore and as many as 10 of its passengers jumped overboard, swam to shore and apparently fled in separate small groups, eyewitnesses told the authorities. In wet clothes, two of them boarded an intercity bus to Palermo. What the duo did not know is that an Arabic speaker – a Tunisian resident of Sicily – was on board and overheard their conversations. He feared that they were not typical illegal migrants and went to the police after the bus reached the Sicilian capital.
The intelligence source says it was obvious that use of the expensive, ultrafast boat meant the passengers did not want to be caught and did not want to be funnelled through a migrant processing centre in Sicily, where they would be photographed and fingerprinted. It meant they, or their sponsors, could afford such a boat and the enormous amounts of fuel it would consume. “It’s possible they were foreign fighters,” he said. “Whoever wants to escape in [boats like these] really wants to get to Italy and really wants to leave Tunisia.”
A state prosecutor in Palermo confirmed that his office was aware that the high-speed boat had reached Sicily at that time. While another prosecutor said there is no official terrorism investigation into the arrival of the boat, Italian prosecutors are investigating the possibility that jihadis who fought in Syria, Iraq and Libya are making their way into Italy. One of them said the Italians are working with the Tunisian authorities, who have visited Palermo.
On the night of Feb. 3-4, another fast boat from Tunisia landed on the southern Sicilian coast, this time near the town of Sciacca. Its arrival was widely reported in the local media. The boat was impounded and four of its passengers – all Tunisian – were taken in for questioning. A fifth passenger escaped, his whereabouts unknown.
While the boat – which appeared to be six or seven metres long and made of fibreglass – was not nearly as fast as the three-motor machine that reached Sicily before Christmas, it was certainly quick and expensive. The Italian coast guard estimated the boat, which may have been stolen, was worth €40,000. The regional prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into the landing.
Unlike the thousands of rubber rafts and small, clapped-out fishing boats that brought 180,000 migrants to Italy from North Africa last year, the use of the high-speed boat suggests its passengers hoped to avoid detection, too.
But while most making the trip across the strait are economic migrants in search of a better life, Tunisian authorities are well aware that there are some who have other intentions.
Speaking in early January on Tunisian TV, Hedi Majdoub, the Tunisian Interior Minister, said the government has the names of 2,929 Tunisian citizens who are currently abroad and suspected of having links to jihadi groups. About half of them are thought to be in Syria, some 500 in Libya and 150 in Iraq. Ominously, he said that “400 more [are] spread across several countries, the majority in Europe.” He did not account for the several hundred others.
On Feb. 1, less than a month after Mr. Majdoub’s TV appearance, German police launched a series of sweeps that snared a 36-year-old Tunisian, whose name was not released. He was suspected of being a recruiter for the Islamic State and planning to carry out an attack in Germany.
The man was also wanted in connection with two big terrorist attacks in Tunisia since the 2010-11 revolution. The first was the attack in which 21 tourists were killed, claimed by the Islamic State, on the Bardo museum in Tunis in March, 2015. The second was an onslaught, launched from Libya, by dozens of terrorists on Ben Gardane, the border town in southern Tunisia that is infamous as a smuggling hub and recruiting centre for Tunisian fighters. Mr. Ben Nasr, the retired colonel-major said 49 terrorists, 11 Tunisian police and seven civilians were killed in that battle.
The German police raids, which involved 1,100 officers, arrested 15 other suspects. Peter Beuth, the Interior Minister for the state of Hesse, where the raids took place, said the arrests “smashed a multibranched Salafist network,” he said referring to an ultraconservative branch of Sunni Islam.
Hedi Yahmed, 42, the Tunisian author of a book on homegrown terrorists called Beneath the Back Flag: Tunisia’s Salafists, said that radical Islam and terrorism in Tunisia is hardly a new phenomenon. Tunisia, he said, developed an Islamist movement in the 1980s and 1990s under the leadership of Rached Ghannouchi, now president of the Islamist party, Ennahda. Suppressed by dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, many of the leaders found exile in Europe. After Mr. Ben Ali was ousted in the 2010-11 revolution, Islamist leaders began trickling back into the country.
Mr. Yahmed said the violent Tunisian jihadi movement started after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. One of the most murderous attacks was the handiwork of Nizar Nawar, who bombed the ancient synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba in April, 2002. The attack had been planned a few months earlier, when he was living in Montreal. The truck bomb, made from containers of cooking gas, killed 14 German tourists, five Tunisians and two French nationals. Just before the attack, Mr. Nawar sent a letter to an Arabic daily newspaper, saying he would kill in the name of al-Qaeda.
That attack, and others, triggered a massive crackdown by Mr. Ben Ali’s ruthless security forces, with thousands of Islamists and jihadis imprisoned. Most of them were released just before the democratically elected Ennahda government came to power in 2011. Mr. Yahmed said the sudden new freedoms – media freedom and freedom of expression at mosques, even from radical imams – triggered an “explosion” of jihadis. At the same time, the dire post-revolution economy, which sent youth unemployment soaring, made many young men easy prey for foreign fighter recruiters.
“A lot of the fighters who went to Syria to join Daesh came from poor neighbourhoods,” Mr. Yahmed said. “Some went there to prove they were real Muslims. … But now Daesh (an alternate name for the Islamic State) is in retreat and the Tunisians are coming back. Some are convinced that jihad is an obligation and will go to Europe with false identities.”
According to Mr. Ben Nasr, there were 64 terrorist attacks in Tunisia between 2011 and 2016, including one on the American embassy compound in Tunis in 2012, which the Ennahda government seemed slow to suppress. The deadliest one happened in June, 2015, when a lone Tunisian gunman used a Kalashnikov assault rifle to kill 38 people, most of them British tourists, at a resort hotel just north of Sousse, Tunisia. The killer, Seifiddine Rezgui Yacoubi, is thought to have been recruited by the Tunisian branch of Ansar al-Sharia, whose Libyan branch was accused of the 2012 murder of Chris Stevens, the U.S. ambassador to Libya.
Fully aware that another terrorist attack could destroy the crucial tourism industry, the Tunisian government, equipped with its new anti-terrorism law, has substantially weakened the jihadi networks in Tunisia, security experts say, through mass arrests, brutal crackdown and gun battles with the security forces. On his last day as U.S. president, in January, Barack Obama authorized the bombing raid that is said to have killed about 80 militants at an Islamic State training camp in Libya. Many of the dead were thought to have been Tunisian.
Ashton Carter, then U.S. defence secretary, said, “They were external plotters who were actively planning operations against our allies in Europe.”
Alaya Allani, a professor of Islamism and Salafism at Tunisia’s Manouba University, said there is no doubt that the Tunisian jihadi networks have been severely damaged. He noted that a few of their recent raids were aimed at nothing more than getting food supplies – an indication of their desperation as their supply lines deteriorate.
But ailing jihadi networks in Tunisia do not mean the European terror threat from Tunisians who fought abroad has diminished. “Not all of the Tunisian fighters in Syria will come back to Tunisia,” Prof. Allani said. “Some hotheads will go to Europe or into North Africa. They would be the most dangerous ones.”
The family of Ali, the young Tunisian man who went to Syria in 2012, was devastated when he vanished.
Using different phone numbers, Ali calls home every few months, Fathi said. “He’s alive. He is married and has a child, but we don’t know what he is doing,” he said. “They’ve brainwashed him. We feel he wants to come back but can’t.”
The trouble is the Europeans and Tunisians want the foreign fighters to stay in the countries where they are fighting. Once they leave, they become another country’s problem.