Tunisians were used to seeing Nidhal Selmi proudly sport his country’s red and white colours as a defender on the national football squad. So it was a shock when he appeared in a photograph from Syria in a camouflage jacket with a Khalashnikov rifle across his thigh. The picture was posted online shortly before he was killed fighting there.
While Selmi’s shift from sports star to jihadi martyr may be striking, the death of a young Tunisian in Syria is far from it: Tunisia is one of the main sources of foreigners in the ranks of extremists fighting in Iraq and Syria.
By government estimates, more than 3,000 Tunisian nationals have joined the Islamic State and other al Qaeda-linked groups in the civil war that has pulled in young men from Europe, Asia and Africa.
How Selmi, a middle-class footballer with a bright future, fell into fighting an overseas war illustrates the complex draw of jihad on North Africa’s youth.
“It didn’t take long for him to change, a matter of months,” said Sami Mssoli, who coached him from the youth ranks of local club Etoile Sportivede Sahel. “I really don’t know what happened to him, but it’s a serious phenomenon, and more are taking this route.”
Democratic transition The wave of jihadis and their possible return home as veteran combatants creates yet another complication for Tunisia, poster child for the Arab Spring, as the small North African country tries to complete its democratic transition.
A crackdown on extremists has brought the government accusations of repression from ultra-conservative Islamists, despite a new constitution that is a model for religious tolerance and progressiveness.
Every week now, Tunisian newspapers carry death notices of another young man killed in Syria, Iraq and even Libya, a tragic sign of how Tunisia’s relatively trouble-free political transition allowed a hardline religious undercurrent to surface.
Many were students, unemployed and middle class, rather than desperately poor. Some lived in marginalised rural communities, and most were taken in by extremist recruiters who found fertile ground in Tunisia’s post revolutionary freedom.
“It’s not about money,” said Mohammed Ikbel Ben Rajeb, whose organisation, RATTA, provides help to families of young men in Syria and Iraq. “Those who go to Syria really believe they are going there to find their eternity, their paradise.”
One of the Arab world’s most secular countries, Tunisia struggled after its 2011 revolution with a fierce, sometimes violent, debate over the role of Islam in the political world and with the rise of ultra-conservative Salafists. After Islamist militants killed two secular opposition leaders last year, the country righted its transition. There were parliamentary elections in October and a presidential vote will be held on Sunday.
The government arrested 1,500 suspected militants this year, and took many mosques back from the hands of radical imams.
“These places should be for prayer and not for giving extremist speeches, talks that incite people to violence and terrorism,” Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa told Reuters.
But ultra-conservative Islamists complain the government crackdown impinges on their freedoms.
“What we are living now is a repression of mosques,” said Abd Arrahem Kamoun, a conservative preacher who was dismissed in the government crackdown. “Today it is harder to control the younger salafists after all the repression.”