Too Important to Fail? Jihad and Tunisia’s Experiment with Democracy


Tunisia recently held its first parliamentary elections since the new constitution went into effect earlier this year. The elections resulted in a peaceful transfer of power from the Islamic movement Ennahda, to the secular Nida Tounes party. The winning party will be called upon to form a new government after presidential elections are held later this month. Tunisia has gripped headlines as both the great democratic success story of the Arab Spring while also being recognized as the largest known exporter of jihadists to Syria and Iraq.

Contrary to what some observers are saying, the victory of secularists in the Tunisian parliamentary elections does not signal a de-radicalization of Tunisia’s religious politics, especially among its most economically vulnerable and marginalized communities. Weak economic growth combined with unchecked democratization and increased local counterterrorism measures are driving members of the country’s religious protest movement to wage jihad elsewhere. The large number of foreign fighters coming from Tunisia, in addition to Morocco and Jordan, could indicate that neither a promising democracy nor consistent internal stability is a long-term solution to jihadism in the greater Middle East region.

To address this reality, the United States should look towards building a stronger and more durable partnership with Tunisia by providing carrots that demonstrates the United States’ commitment to Tunisian democracy while also incentivizing Tunisia’s new government to adopt policies that implement much needed domestic reforms.   One of the overarching lessons of the Arab Spring is the demand for accountability. While elections are a good step forward, the United States needs to offer more than verbal praise at the ballot box. Washington is starting to do so by demonstrating that it is committed to addressing counterterrorism problems in the Trans-Sahara region. However, Washington can go further to hold transitioning governments accountable by offering foreign aid packages and investment contracts that incentivizes the new Tunisian government to implement much-needed economic reforms and mutually beneficial counterterrorism strategies.

Furthermore, the seemingly perplexing Tunisian foreign fighter phenomenon offers an opportunity for the United States to study the main drivers of this problem—structural economic deficiencies that are exacerbated by unchecked militant Salafist preaching, as well as the demographic stress caused by the spillover of refugees and instability from the Libyan civil war. Doing so will enable the United States to make more prudent policy towards Tunisia that addresses these drivers while also mentoring the new Tunisian government.

Structural economic deficiencies

The stress factors that led to the self-immolation of the young Tunisian fruit seller Mohamed Bouazizi in late 2010 need to be analyzed in greater depth to understand the root factors behind Tunisia’s jihadist movement. We commonly view Bouazizi’s stark and public death as the catalyst that led to popular protests and the subsequent abdication of long-time Tunisian president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Poor economic conditions are important elements to Tunisia’s narrative because while poverty itself does not lead to terrorism, poor economic conditions create an environment that continues to draw many into the orbit of mosques that do preach jihad and promote terrorism. The impact of Bouazizi’s death sheds a fierce light on the depth of the economic travails facing Tunisia and the extent to which Tunisians will go to express their discontent—from revolution in 2011 to jihad in 2014.

Approaching the four-year mark since Bouazizi’s passing, the Tunisian economy is still grappling with the difficult issue of generating enough growth to meet its financial commitments. Although there have been some internal reforms, they have been slow while external factors, like trade with Europe, add additional pressure to the Tunisian economy. Approximately 70 percent of Tunisia’s trade is conducted with the European Union, with France constituting one of its main trading partners. As fear is rising that the Eurozone is on the brink of a third recession, the new Tunisian government will undoubtedly continue to feel the full impact of Europe’s economic woes.

The population most vulnerable to the slow-moving pace of domestic economic reform and European economic problems are Tunisia’s youth, especially those with college educations. While the national unemployment rate is 15 percent, youth unemployment continues to hover around 40 percent. With the government unable to generate economic growth or create new jobs, young Tunisians in the southern cities of Ben Guerdane and Tataouine are looking to jihad for employment.

In Tunisia, where the annual GDP per capita is $4,300 per year, joining the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) or Jabhat al-Nusra is replete with economic incentives. Jordan’s King Abdullah recently noted that ISIL pays its foreign fighters $1,000 per month, whereas there are some suspicions that Qatar offered Tunisian NGOs upwards of $3,000 for each Tunisian that chose to join the jihad. ISIL and other groups pay a livable wage that promises to raise Tunisians into the middle class while also giving unemployed youth a sense of purpose.

Domestic religious policy

Under Ben Ali’s Tunisia, secularism was strongly enforced to the point that mosques were closed and Islamists were prosecuted. After the 2011 revolution, the floodgates of political participation opened up, allowing Islamists of all shades to enter the electoral fold.

In 2011, former Islamist political prisoners founded Ansar al Sharia as a non-violent Islamist organization that was committed to public service. Since the revolution, Ansar al Sharia and other Islamists have used their newfound religious freedom to establish vast networks that facilitate the recruitment of young Tunisians into the ranks of ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra. After a falling out with the Tunisian government in 2013, membership in Ansar al Sharia is now illegal, and the group is listed as a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. government.

In the case of Ansar al Sharia, the release of Islamist political prisoners after the revolution followed by high-profile political assassinations in 2013 illustrates how rapidly unrestrained Islamism has evolved into a security challenge in the post-Ben Ali era. A recent Washington Post article aptly noted that Tunisians had previously waged jihad in places like Iraq and Afghanistan, a phenomenon preferred by the Ben Ali administration rather than being forced to deal with jihad at home. While many Tunisians are quick to blame the rise of Ansar al Sharia and other extreme Islamist organizations as influences from more-Salafist leaning Gulf states, the fact that many Tunisians in the 1980s and 1990s were yearning to embark on jihad abroad suggests that more radical elements of Islamic political identity already existed within Tunisia. Thus, ISIL and Jabhat al-Nusra recruiters are not necessarily creating a new phenomenon of foreign fighting, rather, these organizations are exposing a part of Tunisia’s repressed religious political identity and exploiting it for their own theaters of jihad in Syria and Iraq.

The recent history of Tunisian foreign jihad and the rate at which Islamism has spread in the country’s public sphere since 2011 are strong indicators that rather than eradicating political Islam, Ben Ali created an underground militant Salafist movement that is now a fully functioning element of Tunisia’s political society. As a result, the post-Arab Spring Tunisian government has been left to manage the foreign fighter problem with an underdeveloped security apparatus. Under Ennahda’s leadership, there were accusations that the Islamist party was not doing enough to stem the flow of foreign fighters to Syria, subsequently turning a blind eye and tacitly permitting their continued travel abroad. The Tunisian government still does not have an adequate counter-radicalization policy to manage the flow of Tunisians to Syria and has instead focused its efforts on counterterrorism operations against Ansar al Sharia and the proactive detainment of returning jihadis. A shift towards counterterrorism measures and a crackdown on Islamist organizations like Ansar al Sharia is likely fostering further jihadi sentiment in Tunisia, rather than eliminating it. The repercussions of Ben Ali’s policy decisions and the current government’s nascent counter jihad policies are now manifested in the foreign fighter phenomenon and will continue to pose a challenge to Tunisia’s security as recruitment networks mature and become more sophisticated.

Libya spillover

While the world has been focused on ISIL’s conquest of northern Iraq and eastern Syria, Tunisia’s western neighbor Libya continues to teeter on the verge of state failure. Absent functioning security services to monitor the country’s borders, Libya has become a major conduit for transporting arms, funds, and recruits to the Syrian front, referred to by a U.S. defense official this summer as “the I-95 for foreign fighters into Syria from Africa.” As a result, Libya—who shares a 285-mile long border with Tunisia—has become a training ground for Tunisian foreign fighters. According to a report recently released from International Crisis Group, organized crime and terrorism, particularly along the Tunisian-Libyan border, are “inseparable.” Thus, it is likely ISIL is able to transport recruits and finances along existing smuggling routes in North Africa and the Trans-Sahara region.

Additionally, the poorer Tunisian towns along the Libyan border are adversely affected by disruptions in the informal economy that operates across the porous border. After violence erupted this summer, Tunisia closed the main crossing at Ras Ajdir where a UN report suggests up to half of informal bilateral trade between Libya and Tunisia takes place, valuing $977 million. While disruptions affect vendors and merchants along the border region, they also have repercussions for Tunisia writ large, as it relies on Libya to meet a fourth of its fuel needs. As a result, informal fuel trading and smuggling is just as important in Tataouine as it is in Tunis.

Finally, the conflict in Libya has created a refugee crisis that has flown under the radar due the intense publicity of the Syrian refugee crisis. According to President Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia has accepted two million Libyan refugees, and at the peak of violence this summer, 5,000-6,000 refugees were crossing Tunisia’s border each day. Unlike Jordan and Lebanon, who are also facing the challenge of absorbing large refugee populations from Syria, the world has largely forgotten about the conflict in Libya. While aid and commitments continue to pour into countries absorbing Syrian and now even Kurdish refugees, Libyan refugees in Tunisia are left to the Tunisian government to handle. Populations along Tunisia’s Libyan border are highly vulnerable to recruitment, and existing trade infrastructure allows money and recruits to easily disappear into Libya.


Prior to 2011, Tunisia was not a main focal point for U.S. security interests in the Middle East. In the years since the Arab Spring, Tunisia has become the epicenter of Arab Spring success—politically speaking—with a peaceful transfer of power from the Islamist Ennahda movement to the secular Nida Tounes party in the recent parliamentary election. As the United States continues to promote a strategy of capacity building and partner burden sharing in the Middle East, Washington needs to support viable partners that are willing and able to commit to security measures that will protect mutually shared interests across the region. If Tunisia receives the support it needs to address some of the aforementioned security issues it faces at home, Tunisia could be considered the standard for U.S. foreign policy towards other transitioning Arab states.

Tunisia is the only Arab democracy to emerge from the Arab Spring protests, and both secular and Islamist political parties continue to seek consensus on myriad social, political, and economic issues. Tunisia’s continued commitment towards the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Partnership demonstrates that it is a viable partner in U.S. security initiatives in North Africa. If the United States is going to lead efforts towards a political transition in Syria or Iraq, Washington should evaluate Tunisia’s successes (and shortcomings) to determine if there are lessons that can be learned from the Tunisian model that can be implemented in U.S. foreign policy strategy elsewhere.

As a new government will form in the coming weeks, the United States also needs to assess whether or not Tunisia’s democracy is “too important to fail.” If the answer is yes, policymakers ought to look at Tunisia’s foreign fighter problem as a starting point for understanding the impact economic deficiencies, domestic policies, and spillover from the Libyan civil war have had on Tunisia and the greater Trans-Sahara region. Given the spread of al-Qaeda and other militant Islamist groups from the Arabian Peninsula to North Africa, the United States should sufficiently recognize the potential Tunisia has to become a strong ally in counterterrorism operations on the African continent.

Finally, understanding the recruitment of jihadists from Tunisia might unveil how young Tunisians have been so successfully radicalized. Due in part to its colonial history, Tunisia has been viewed as an extension of Europe in North Africa. Tunisia’s foreign fighter phenomenon reveals that Salafism is not contained to the “core” Middle East and can just as easily emerge in London, Paris, or Munich as it has in Tunis. Drawing parallels between recruitment in Tunisia and recruitment in the West could enable governments in the West to better counter violent extremism and develop improved counter radicalization strategies.


Amanda Claypool, a former National Security Education Program (NSEP) David L. Boren Scholar, is currently a researcher in the Center for a New American Security’s Middle East Security and Strategy and Statecraft programs.