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Tunisia fears return of jihadists from foreign battlefields

Tunisia

<p>Fears are mounting in Tunisia that the return of jihadists from foreign battlefields could destabilise a country already reeling from a wave of attacks since its 2011 revolution.</p> <p>Concern has increased after a Tunisian was identified as the suspected attacker who mowed down 11 people with a hijacked truck at a Berlin Christmas market last week and also killed the driver.</p> <p>The rampage was claimed by the Islamic State group in a video showing Anis Amri pledging allegiance to IS chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.</p> <p>Days later Tunisia said it had arrested Amri`s nephew and two others it said were linked to the Berlin attack suspect but not to the assault itself.</p> <p>Tunisia has witnessed an emergence of extremism since the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, as well as a wave of jihadist attacks on foreign tourists and security forces.</p> <p>The United Nations estimates that more than 5,500 Tunisians are fighting alongside extremist groups, including in Syria and Iraq and Libya where IS seized swathes of territory.</p> <p>“The issue of returning jihadists is acute because the noose is being tightened around IS in Syria, Iraq and Libya,” said political analyst Hamza Meddeb.</p> <p>He was referring to ground being lost by IS fighters in Syria and Iraq under an onslaught by the US-led coalition and the fall of their Libyan bastion Sirte which pro-government forces retook in early December.These setbacks have sparked concern that tens of thousands of jihadists could head back to their home countries, including to Tunisia.</p> <p>Last week interior minister Hedi Majdoub told parliament that 800 jihadists have already returned from the frontlines, stressing however that the authorities have them on their radar.</p> <p>His words failed to appease politicians, security forces and citizens who over the past few days have publicly voiced their fears and warned against returning jihadists.</p> <p>On Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside parliament in Tunis to protest against allowing jihadists back into the country. </p> <p>They also chanted slogans hostile to Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahdha party, who had in the past backed the idea of “repentance” in exchange for renunciation of violence.</p> <p>According to contemporary history professor Abdelatif Hannachi, Tunisia has the capacity to deal with returning fighters, “but it is necessary to work in stages”.</p> <p>“First investigate, then refer them to the courts and isolate them if necessary, then finally begin their rehabilitation,” he told <span class="caps">AFP</span>.</p> <p>On Sunday, Ghannouchi said he opposed a ban on returning Tunisian jihadists and that the country should “assume its responsibilities”.</p> <p>“This disease has to be dealt with seriously,” he told a public meeting, saying his “treatment” was “justice, police, education and therapy”.</p> <p>But Tunisia`s security forces warned in a statement that the possibility of battle-hardened jihadists returning was “worrying and could lead to the Somali-isation of the country.”</p> <p>Experienced fighters “have received military training and have learnt to use all sorts of sophisticated weapons,” they said.</p> <p>The security forces urged the government to take “exceptional measures” to combat the return of jihadists and strip them of their nationality.Article 25 of Tunisia`s new constitution specifically states that no citizen shall be deprived of their nationality, exiled, extradited or prevented from returning to their home country.</p> <p>President Beji Caid Essebsi said in early December that his country was “taking all the necessary measures” to ensure that jihadists returning from Syria and Iraq are “neutralised”.</p> <p>Citing the constitution he said “we can`t prevent a Tunisian from returning to his country”.</p> <p>“We will not put them all in prison because we would not have enough prisons… but we will monitor them,” he added.</p> <p>Following a storm of criticism in the press and on social media, Essebsi later told Tunisian television that “we will not be indulgent with the terrorists”.</p> <p>On Monday his former campaign manager Mohsen Marzouk warned in a statement posted on Facebook that “every returning jihadist” was like a “time bomb”.</p> <p>In November Tunisia`s national security council announced the adoption of a strategy to fight extremist violence.</p> <p>The analyst Meddeb said the plan remains “polarising” because authorities have not released details.</p>
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