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This work is an attempt to isolate the key factor(s) that drive young Tunisian women and men to join violent extremist groups.  Focusing on exclusion, it examines whether radicalized youth have financial difficulties (unemployment, economic exclusion), issues of social support and social recognition (crises of identity, social exclusion), or are culturally marginalized (cultural exclusion). Exclusion refers to an extensive definition that includes:

  • Cultural and Ideological exclusion (Ex: religion, ideological affiliation)
  • Psycho- sociological exclusion (Ex : Precarious existence, disaffiliation)
  • Socio-economic exclusion (Ex : Deprivation, Employment)
  • Political exclusion (Ex : Oppression, conflicts)

As the only country in the MENA region to have quite successfully taken a democratic path, Tunisia holds much promise. Notwithstanding continuous political and economic challenges, Tunisia succeeded in holding several free and transparent elections and ratified a constitution in 2014 seen by many observers as the most advanced legal text in the region. However, the country still faces several challenges most notably violent extremism. Since the eruption of the Arab Spring in 2011, Tunisia has been struggling with a high number of terrorist attacks. On the 18th of March 2015, three gunmen attacked a group of tourists at the Bardo National Museum in the capital Tunis. Three months later, a lone gunman attacked a group of British tourists at a beach resort in the city of Sousse. On the 24th of November 2016, a dozen presidential bodyguards were killed on a bus by a suicide bomber in downtown Tunis. All these deadly attacks were followed by sporadic terrorist attacks especially in the south, near the borders with Libya. In addition, a significant number of foreign fighters joining the Islamic State in Syria, Libya and Iraq were Tunisians. (Watanabe, 2018).

According to the data released by The Soufan Group in 2015, Tunisians constituted the single largest group of foreign fighters in Libya and Syria, with around 6000 fighters (Soufan Group, 2015). A number of these fighters have already returned home, some of whom are not even known to the authorities (Watanabe, 2018).

The convergent trends of increasing violent extremism and reinforcing democratization since the fall of Zine al- Abidine Ben Ali is quite a puzzle. Existing scholarship suggests that we should expect to see violent extremism declining while the country moves forward to more consolidated democracy (MacDonald and Waggoner, 2018; Krueger, 2007). Alan Krueger argues that extremists and terrorists emerge from countries where political and civil liberties are limited (Krueger, 2007: p 74). Puddington brings to light that 90% of terrorist attacks in 2013 took place in either “not free” or “partly free” countries (Puddington, 2015). However, the Tunisian case is quite different. Although Tunisia is classified as a free country by the Freedom House, the number of Tunisians joining radical groups either in Tunisia or foreign groups raises concerns.  This background note will address this issue and attempts to answer a few questions: What are the violent extremist groups that Tunisians have already joined, in Tunisia and abroad? What are the root causes of violent extremism? What kind of strategies has the Tunisian government adopted to counter violent extremism? Akrout, says that in each case Tunisia has put in place a “tailor-made approach”, involving rehabilitation, reintegration, travel restrictions, and deradicalization in prison.  But European officials say that accurate information is difficult to obtain; some experts believe three times as many fighters may have returned, with many of them evading detection by the authorities.

Indeed, Tunisians who join jihadist groups can be prosecuted for “terrorist crimes” or put under administrative surveillance under the 2015 Law on Combating Terrorism and Money Laundering. But there is little evidence that the government has taken major systematic approach to deradicalization.

Tunisia is struggling to catch new ways on how to prevent the disillusionment of the country’s landscape after the 2011 revolution from breeding future terrorist fighters. The importance of research into countering violent extremism (CVE) has gained traction in recent years as increasing evidence demonstrates that hard line approaches to counterterrorism can exacerbate the threat. Traditional CVE strategies that focus on increasing security measures often further alienate and disenfranchise young people who feel they are “under the watch” of the state.

This disillusionment has direct policy implications. The growing distrust of politics led to the low turnout of young people during the 2014 legislative elections. Where political parties are unable to engage with youth, violent extremist groups take the opportunity to exploit youth grievances and frustrations. The main rationale behind this project is the urgent need for a holistic perspective on youth radicalization and de-radicalization for policy recommendations. Having identified discrepancies between academic research on radicalization and its translation into policy, the research project will aim to influence how public policies of prevention and de-radicalization are framed. Additionally, the project will aim to convince national decision-makers to involve marginalized groups of male and female youth in the design of social policies. As such, the project will aim to deny the homegrown drivers of violent extremism and work towards the re-integration of former violent extremists to improve social cohesion in Tunisia.

The country’s lack of an integrated, cross-government strategy is particularly apparent in this area but the most important obstacles to fight radicalization in Tunisia is the social and economic marginalization that persist, and the lack of social and economic opportunities lead to a sense of frustration and injustice among the population and especially youth.

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