TUNIS: Fears are mounting in Tunisia that the return of militants from foreign battlefields could destabilize a country already reeling from a wave of deadly attacks since its 2011 revolution. 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.
The rampage was claimed by Daesh (ISIS) in a video showing Anis Amri pledging allegiance to the group’s chief Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.
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.
Tunisia has witnessed an emergence of extremism since the 2011 revolution that toppled longtime dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, as well as a wave of militant attacks on foreign tourists and security forces.
The United Nations estimates that over 5,500 Tunisians are fighting alongside extremist groups, including in Syria, Iraq and Libya where Daesh seized swaths of territory.
“The issue of returning jihadis is acute because the noose is being tightened around Daesh in Syria, Iraq and Libya,” political analyst Hamza Meddeb said.
He was referring to ground Daesh fighters lost in Syria and Iraq under an onslaught by the U.S.-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 militants could head back to their home countries, including to Tunisia.
Last week Interior Minister Hedi Majdoub told Parliament that 800 militants have already returned from the front lines, stressing however that the authorities have them on their radar.
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 militants.
Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators gathered outside Parliament in Tunis to protest against allowing militants back into the country.
They also chanted slogans hostile to Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party, who had in the past backed the idea of “repentance” in exchange for renunciation of violence.
According to contemporary history professor Abdel-Latif Hannachi, Tunisia has the capacity to deal with returning fighters, “but it is necessary to work in stages.”
“First investigate, then refer them to the courts and isolate them if necessary, then finally begin their rehabilitation,” he told AFP.
Sunday, Ghannouchi said he opposed a ban on returning Tunisian militants and that the country should “assume its responsibilities.”
“This disease has to be dealt with seriously,” he told a public meeting, saying his “treatment” was “justice, police, education and therapy.”
But Tunisia’s security forces warned in an issued statement that the possibility of battle-hardened militants returning was “worrying and could lead to the Somali-ization of the country.”
Experienced fighters “have received military training and have learnt to use all sorts of sophisticated weapons,” they said.
The security forces urged the government to take “exceptional measures” to fight the return of militants 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.
President Beji Caid Essebsi said in December that his country was “taking all the necessary measures” to ensure that militants returning from Syria and Iraq are “neutralized.”
Citing the constitution he said “we can’t prevent a Tunisian from returning to his country.”
“We will not put them all in prison because we would not have enough prisons ... but we will monitor them,” he added.
Following a raging storm of criticism in the press and on social media, Essebsi later told Tunisian television that “we will not be indulgent with the terrorists.”
Monday his former campaign manager Mohsen Marzouk warned in a statement posted on Facebook that “every returning jihadi” was like a “time bomb.”
In November Tunisia’s national security council announced the adoption of a strategy to fight extremist violence.
The analyst Meddeb said the plan remains “polarizing” because authorities have not released details.