Tunisia is often seen as a role model for the Arab world: the reality is very different indeed.
WARNING: This blog contains a graphic image.
France is a great place to visit. I have been very fortunate to see Paris (on many occasions) as well as Normandy (with my eldest daughter) back in 2015. I hope to see the south one day with my wife, not least because she was an au pair there before we met.
Although ‘French civilisation’ is often seen as one of the highlights of human history, that country has a not-so-great past as well. France colonised other lands on three different continents: North America (including my home nation – Canada); Asia – Vietnam; and many parts of northern and western Africa.
‘Civilising’ an ‘uncivilised’ part of the world?
And while some would say that French occupiers had a ‘civilising’ effect on an otherwise ‘uncivilised’ part of the world (nonsense: there are many types of ‘civilisation’), others, and here I am thinking primarily of those who suffered from their Gallic overseers, would beg to differ.
Several French overseas territories overthrew their masters violently: the Algerian revolution comes to mind immediately. Not all have fared so well in the aftermath of independence but I suppose they at least have their freedom.
One land that seems to have done better than most is Tunisia. After it cut its ties in 1956 it was ruled for decades by Habib Bourguiba, and not so well. Bourguiba was succeeded by Zine El Abdedine ben Ali who plundered the country until an event shook both Tunisia and the entire Arab world. Talk about the ‘butterfly effect’!
On December 17, 2010 a lowly fruit seller named Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire after having his economic means seized and his person humiliated by a female police officer. His death and the subsequent riots led to the overthrow of the ben Ali regime and sparked the so-called ‘Arab Spring’. Tunisia has since been a true democracy.
And yet not all is well in this North African country. Tunisia has seen many terrorist attacks and provided one of the world’s highest numbers of ‘foreign fighters’ for Islamic State (ISIS). When I was in Tunis a few years ago a local official told me that not only had upwards of 6,000 Tunisians joined ISIS but 21,000 were stopped from leaving the country. That is a lot of ‘wannabes’ to worry about.
Al Qaeda’s (AQ) first successful international attack after 9/11
One of the most famous terrorist attacks in Tunisia actually took place before the Arab Spring and shortly after 9/11. In 2002 a Tunisian terrorist detonated a truck bomb outside the el-Ghriba synagogue in Djerba, killing 19, including 16 German and French tourists. This was Al Qaeda’s (AQ) first successful international attack after 9/11.
A decade and a half later, a German convert to Islam attacked four prison guards weeks before being eligible for extradition to the US. The Americans wanted him extradited for his alleged role in 9/11. Christian Ganczarski had spent time in Afghanistan, was believed to have been an adviser to former AQ leader Usama bin Laden, and had been sentenced in 2009 to 18 years in prison for being one of the masterminds behind the Djerba attack.
There are several interesting aspects to this story.
One, that the US was seeking to extradite a possible member of the 9/11 plot 17 years later speaks volumes of the effect of that attack on the US. Secondly, it demonstrates that nine years in a French prison had done nothing, it seems, to dampen this jihadi’s propensity to use violence.
What then does this say about the rehabilitation of terrorist prisoners? Not much I would submit. In fairness, I know nothing about what programmes, if any, this terrorist had access to within the French penitential system. He may have been left to rot for all I know.
Still, it does raise important questions about whether we can ‘deprogramme’ terrorists. Some say we can: I am very skeptical on that front. If efforts seem to be working, how can we nevertheless really know what is going on inside the mind of a killer?
Even if I remain unconvinced that deradicalisation really works, we are left with a challenge. We can leave terrorists locked up forever (‘throw away the key’) although few Western nations do that anymore. Or we can try to undo the ideology that led to their campaigns of violence but run the risk that our efforts are all for nought. I suppose it all depends on what level of recidivism we are ok with.
All I know is that this is not the last time we will hear about Tunisia – or France – when it comes to terrorism.