Jul 05

Families in Tunisia fight back against Islamic State radicalisation and terror recruitment

Walid Abdaoui, formerly an anathestist from Ouslatia in Tunisia, was killed in a suicide attack in Libya where he had joined Islamic State The former Grand Mosque in Ouslatia where five young men from the same neighbourhood were recruited to Islamic State. It was renamed the Guidance Mosque in 2013.The pic was supplied by a local blogger from Ouslatia.

At first he tried to force his little sister to wear niqab, the full-face veil that covers everything but the eyes. Next he began deleting channels from their television, allowing only those featuring the most extremist Islamist voices to be heard.

With growing alarm, his parents begged his older brothers for help but it was too late: 23-year-old Bilel Kaabi was already too far along the path of radicalisation – a path that would ultimately lead to his death.

It was September 16, 2014, when his family discovered Bilel had left their home in the conservative central Tunisian town of Ouslatia for a jihadist training camp in neighbouring Libya, a country that had long ago devolved into a cycle of lawlessness and deadly violence.

A month later, on October 18, they received horrific news: Bilel had strapped on a suicide belt and blown himself up at a checkpoint run by the army of General Khalifa Haftar in Benghazi.

At least 21 people, including Bilel, died, according to local media.

His death sent the family into a spiral of grief so intense that some – especially his mother and father – have yet to recover.

It also spurred his elder brother Waleed Thaalbi into action. The 39-year-old taxation officer began investigating the mosque where Bilel had become radicalised.

Before the 2011 revolution that put an end to President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali’s 23 years in power, the mosque was known as Jamiyah Kbir, or the Grand Mosque. It attracted a regular crowd of worshippers.

Ben Ali’s regime had kept a tight grip on mosques, enforcing secularism and repressing Islamist groups.

His overthrow paved the way for an Islamic resurgence.

Nowhere was this more pronounced than in Ouslatia. A group of radical Islamists moved in and by 2013 the Grand Mosque had been renamed Jamiyah al-Hidaya or the Guidance Mosque. Salafist imams began calling for a holy war.

“At first the mosque had a small wall built around it, low to the ground,” recalls Thaalbi. “Soon they had collected money to raise the wall around the mosque … ordinary people who used to go to the mosque to pray normal prayers were no longer allowed to attend unless they openly agreed with the ideas of those in charge.” Four other young men from the same neighbourhood – one of them, Ashraf Abdaoui, was Bilel’s childhood friend – had also been radicalised in Jamiyah al-Hidaya and left around the same time to join the Islamic State group in Libya and Syria.

Of the others, Waleed Abdaoui (an anaethestist) was killed in a separate suicide attack in Libya (his older brother Khaled Abdaoui is a senior ISIS militant known for beheading a fellow Tunisian from another militant group). Ayman Kaabi (who had a teaching degree) is fighting in Syria, as are Saif Abdaoui and Ashraf Abdaoui.

In most cases their families had reported the young men’s alarming radicalisation to the police and security officials months before they left, yet ultimately, with the new government seemingly tolerant of an increasing Islamist influence, little was done to prevent their departure.

Theirs was a similar path to that taken by Seifeddine Rezgui, the 24-year-old man who gunned down 38 people, the majority of them foreign tourists, on a beach in Tunisia on June 26 before he was killed by security forces.

The two men responsible for the March attack on the National Bardo Museum in the capital Tunis in which 22 people, mostly foreign tourists, were killed also trained in an ISIS camp in Libya, officials said.

“It has been confirmed that [Rezgui] trained in Libya with weapons at the same period as the Bardo attackers,” Rafik Chelli, the secretary of state for the interior ministry said on Tuesday. “He crossed the borders secretly.” But the porous border between Tunisia and Libya, where the black economy of smuggling weapons, goods and jihadists is at its most prolific, is only part of the problem, Bilel’s brother says.

The root cause, he insists, lies with the recruiters who operate out of the radicalised mosques.

“In my brother’s case he was not poor, he had a degree in management, he had job opportunities, this was not a matter of marginalisation or poverty,” he says. “He was brainwashed.” Bilel’s brothers banded together and confronted those at the mosque.

“We went a bit crazy,” Thaalbi admits.

As his investigation progressed he learned the lengths to which the chief recruiter, a local dentist, had gone to lure impressionable young men into violent extremism.

“He would provide expensive dental services for free or allow them to pay in very small instalments and then he would blackmail them over the money, forcing them to join these groups.” With his 82-year-old father paralysed with grief, unable to accept what his son had done, Thaalbi, whose family comes from a long line of police and security officials, decided to act.

Along with the family of Waleed Abdaoui, the mayor of Ouslatia, the newly-appointed local police commissioner, a local blogger and a representative from the Ministry of Religious Affairs, Taalbi established a crisis committee to “clear our streets of these radical groups”.

The local dentist who had recruited the five men and sent them to their death was run out of town and eventually arrested.

“We took control of the situation,” Thaalbi says. “We organisedan official funeral for Bilel … we had to bury an empty box for him.

“We put an empty box in front of the dentist’s office to say ‘this is what you are doing to our sons’ and we had a big protest march that involved all parts of civil society.” The crisis committee’s work continues to this day: “We suspect there are some sleeper cells here in Ouslatia … and we are trying to save the remaining young men – we don’t want other families to suffer as we have suffered.” It is a feeling Mohamed Iqbal Ben Rejeb knows too well.

His younger brother Hamza was 25 years old when he left his home in the suburbs of the Tunisian capital in March 2013 and travelled to Syria to join the al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.

Hamza suffers from muscular dystrophy, so he was never going to fight, Ben Rejeb says. Instead, he had joined the online team to launch cyber attacks on behalf of the militant group.

“He lasted only four days before he returned to Tunisia,” Ben Rejeb says.

“You have to understand that he was brainwashed and yet they describe him as a terrorist … nobody is born a terrorist, a terrorist is made.” Because of his medical condition Hamza was treated better than most young men who return from Syria, Iraq or Libya. Yet the family remains under almost constant surveillance, destined to be punished for life for the mistakes of one son.

It was out of his experience that the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad was formed, Ben Rejeb says, and is now supporting 150 families of the young men who have gone to fight.

“It gives people an opportunity to talk about it, to openly face it and to not be ashamed any longer,” he says.

His group is one of the few that does not advocate for the criminalisation of those returning from battle, which, he says, appears to be the only policy of the Tunisian Government.

“The security solution is only a short-term solution,” he says. “If you just put people in jail they will continue to have the dark ideas that took them abroad to start with.” In the longer term, it is more important to focus on deradicalisation and rehabilitation.

And as the number of foreign fighters grows, the security crackdown only seems to be fuelling more extremism, he warns.

At least 3000 Tunisians have gone to fight in Libya, Syria and Iraq, experts say.

Almost 12,000 young Tunisian men were prevented from leaving the country over suspicions they were planning to join ISIS or other radical groups, Ben Rejeb says. A further 560-700 have come back from the battlefields.

“These are just the official figures – we suspect the real number is much higher than that.” His group has written to members of parliament, government ministers and the media, pushing for a more comprehensive approach to preventing these young men from leaving and dealing with them when they return. So far their appeals have fallen on deaf ears.

Issam Dandouri is a security analyst and the director of Order and Citizenship, a group that aims to balance security needs with civil rights.

He has little time for the idea of rehabilitation – his organisation is instead pushing for anyone deemed a terrorist to be stripped of their citizenship.

“It is not aimed at preventing terrorism,” Dandouri admits. “It is just symbolic … we need to show that Tunisia will deal very firmly with terrorists.” His group is also arguing for enhanced cyber surveillance, better intelligence co-operation between countries and much stronger security around hotels, tourist beaches and monuments.

But for the families of the 38 people killed on the beach in Sousse last week, the 22 killed at the Bardo Museum in March, and for those who live with the horror of the crimes their sons have committed in the name of extremism, any improvements to Tunisia’s response to terrorism will come too little, too late.

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