TUNIS, Tunisia — Mohamed Ikbel has grown accustomed to the phone calls at seemingly every hour of the day. Parents plead with him to help track down sons who have gone to Syria, joining the ranks of Islamist-inspired rebels seeking to topple the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
Ikbel knows the story too well. His own brother, Hamza — bound to a wheelchair and struggling to find himself in his tumultuous 20s — turned up in Syria last year, having been recruited by jihadists who planned to deploy him as a suicide bomber. Ikbel’s passionate campaign to win his brother’s return miraculously persuaded the militants to send Hamza home.
Since then, Ikbel has devoted himself to helping other Tunisians track down their own relatives caught up in the conflict in Syria. In the past nine months, roughly 200 Tunisians have called him seeking assistance, he estimates.
“It’s not the end of the story,” he tells The WorldPost. “It’s a disease. There will be more.”
Three years after the youth-led revolution that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali — the opening act of the anti-authoritarian wave known as the Arab Spring — Tunisia is frequently cited as a success story, an example of a country that is building the infrastructure for potentially enduring democracy, in contrast to Egypt, where the military is back in charge. Yet many young Tunisians remain deeply dissatisfied with the state of domestic life. Millions still contend with the same struggles that catalyzed their revolutionary movement — a stark shortage of jobs, brazen corruption, and a sense that the economic spoils tilt toward a well-connected few. Some have become so embittered that they are joining the cause of rebels fighting next door in Syria.
In short, the same discontent that provoked the Arab Spring in the very nation of its beginning now appears to be fueling the rise of regional Islamist extremism, adding fresh recruits to the bloody war in neighboring Syria.
“By monitoring jihadist media, it’s clear that Tunisian nationals compose one of the largest portions of foreign fighters in Syria, on par with Libya but perhaps eclipsed by Saudi [Arabia],” says Charles Lister, a Syria expert and visiting fellow at the Brookings Doha Center.
No one really knows how many Tunisians are fighting in Syria, or how many have died there, but nearly 200 have been publicly reported as killed in combat so far, Lister says.
Ikbel says his brother first crossed the border to Libya, where he took part in combat training, a sort of crash course to insurgency. He then flew from Benghazi to Turkey, where he pretended to be a tourist at the airport in Istanbul. From there, he drove to southeast Turkey — a hub for both Syrian refugees fleeing bloodshed and Syrian rebels — and snuck across the border into Syria. He followed a well-beaten path taken by many Tunisian men before him.
A brother of one of the 43 men who made headlines in Tunisia last year after being captured with rebels in Syria and sent to a regime prison spoke to The WorldPost on condition of anonymity. He says his “normal, open-minded” 28-year-old brother traveled to Libya in March 2012, telling his family he was going for work, when in reality he was training with other jihadists. He was ultimately arrested while fighting in Damascus.
“We tried everything to get him back,” the brother said, with an air of defeat. Unlike Ikbel’s story of hope, he knows his brother may never make it home.
For Tunisians, extremism has become a domestic concern. Last year, two opposition leaders were assassinated by an al-Qaeda linked jihadi cell. Secular Tunisians and opposition groups accused moderate Islamist Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and his Ennahda Party of tolerating extremism while failing to steer Tunisia to a stable, democratic path.
That dynamic may have changed earlier this month when Larayedh resigned, ending months of political deadlock and setting in motion plans for elections later this year and a highly praised constitution. That news has raised hopes that Tunisia could see a shift back toward democracy.
If that happens, Ikbel may find his phone ringing less frequently. In his view, the number of young people headed to Syria will fall when more have reason to feel hopeful about their national fortunes — the clearest antidote to the recruiting pitches unleashed by the Islamist rebels.
“They take the innocent ones,” Ikbel says. “The young ones.”
He recalls the moment he learned what happened to Hamza, then 24. Their sister received a simple text message from him: “I’m in Syria.”
Months before, Hamza had been struggling in school, so he dropped out and embarked on a path to jihadism that he felt would bring him more purpose in life. By Ikbel’s accounting, Hamza was vulnerable to a crafty pitch: He was brainwashed into going to Syria to join the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, the insurgent group fighting to construct a Sunni Muslim state out of the borderlands of two conflict-ridden nations. Known as ISIS, the hardline rebel group bolstered by foreign fighters is waging its own bloody war against Western-backed rebels in Syria, as well as Assad’s regime.
“They told him he was a genius,” Ikbel says. “They tried to convince him he was the next Sheikh Yassin,” he adds, referring to Ahmed Yassin, a quadriplegic and founder of the Islamist group Hamas that controls the Gaza Strip. The leader was assassinated in 2004 by an Israeli airstrike.
Fearing his brother would soon be just another casualty in Syria’s ruthless war, Ikbel took the news to the public sphere, shaming both the rebels who recruited him and his government for not doing enough. He has his very public media campaign to thank for his brother’s return, and perhaps, sheer luck. After a series of media appearances and strategic efforts to locate his brother in Syria, Ikbel claims the rebels decided he was too much of a liability.
“Even the terrorists in Syria heard about me,” he says, with a hint of pride. “They wanted him to go home.” Ikbel says Hamza’s quickly deteriorating psychological state only added to the rebels’ decision to send the young man back to Tunisia.
For the desperate families eager to bring their loved ones home, Ikbel has become something of a hero. To other Tunisians fearful of the consequences of repatriating active jihadists, he has become a controversial figure blamed for inciting terrorism.
“These fighters have gained considerable military experience and many may have lived in and contributed towards jihadist governance in towns placed under strict Islamic law,” says Lister, the Brookings expert. “Coming home to a comparatively secular Tunisia may give rise to domestic tensions.”
Ikbel is enraged by the backlash to his efforts. His brother and others in his situation do not constitute a threat, he says. They are victims.
“They should be forgiven,” he says. “The real terrorists are the ones who send them to Syria.”
Even with elections now planned for Tunisia, the rise of Islamist extremism may prove hard to arrest given the momentum it has achieved.
This momentum is even seen in the poverty-stricken town of Sidi Bouzid in central Tunisia, often portrayed as the birthplace for the revolution. There, a young street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi lit himself on fire in protest over corruption and injustice, sparking broader outrage. But today in that same town, conservative Islamist political group Hizb ut-Tahrir now passes out fliers advocating for Shariah law. Its small tent is set up right across the street from where Bouazizi went up in flames.
“All the Muslims must unite as one,” one flier says. “You deserve to be punished if you don’t follow the rules of Islam.”
While many residents of Sidi Bouzid despise the outgoing Islamist government and reject extremism, a local teacher told The WorldPost that some young men in the area have been recruited by jihadist rebels right out of school and sent to Syria to fight.
Many jihadist and Salafist groups pay salaries ranging from $100 to $150 per month, according to Lister — a vast sum for a poor Tunisian youth. But for some young men like Hamza, the appeal of joining a cause trumps interest in money.
Ikbel says the reasons driving these young men to Syria don’t matter — he just wants to get them home safely.
A video uploaded to YouTube in March 2013 shows Ikbel crying on Tunisian television, holding up photos of his young, bearded brother in a wheelchair. Ikbel spoke of his brother’s innocence, his mother’s broken heart, and his willingness to sacrifice his own life for that of his brother.
“Tell Tunisians how your family is doing,” the television anchor asks of him. “How is your mother doing?”
“All I can say is: Hamza, come home,” Ikbel responds. “Your mother is crying for you. Come home to her. We can have an exchange. Let go of my brother and I will come. Let him go — why do you want him? He has a disability. Have mercy!”
Now back from Syria, Hamza struggles to figure out what to do next. He can’t go back to school because he’s “afraid of how people look at him now,” Ikbel says. Police regularly follow both brothers and listen in on their phone calls, Ikbel insists. Hamza’s life is now scarred with regret.
But Ikbel says the public humiliation was worth it. His brother is home, and that’s all that matters.
And for the people who convinced young Hamza to shed his own blood in Syria, Ikbel has a warning: “God will judge you all.”