Radicals like Amri don’t fit narrative of Tunisia’s Arab Spring success story

The story of how Anis Amri, the chief suspect in the Christmas Market attack in Berlin this week, went from Tunisian school dropout to fugitive killed by Milan police in a shootout yesterday yet again casts an uncomfortable spotlight on a country hailed as the only success story of what became known as the Arab Spring.

The question of why Tunisia, largely known before the 2011 revolution for its Mediterranean resorts and since as a poster child for a successful – albeit fragile – transition from dictatorship to democracy, has produced so many radicals both from its domestic population and diaspora is a vexed one.

Some 7,000 Tunisians have left home to join extremist groups in Iraq and Syria, filling the ranks of Isil in particular. When it comes to the cohort of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, there are more Tunisians than any other nationality. In neighbouring Libya, Tunisians have made up a large proportion of militants in groups like Isil, carrying out suicide bombings and other attacks against the local population. In a bid to stem the flow of recruits, the Tunisian government has now imposed restrictions on youths attempting to travel abroad.

Tunisian extremists have also turned their deadly attentions on their own country, striking against the security services and targeting foreign tourists in Tunis and the coastal resort of Sousse in 2015.

Mohammed Lahuaiej-Bouhlel, who ploughed a truck through crowds in Nice in July, killing 86 people, was born in the north-eastern Tunisian town of M’saken before later moving to France. A French citizen of Tunisian origin implicated in the 2015 attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine in Paris, named Boubakr al-Hakim, had spent time in Tunisia after 2011 before heading to Syria, where he was later killed in a US air strike.

Anis Amri, the man suspected of the Berlin truck attack, which echoed the Nice atrocity and resulted in 12 dead, grew up in the small town of Oueslatia, deep in Tunisia’s underdeveloped interior. The youngest in a family of four brothers and five sisters, he left school at 14 and became known for his drinking and partying. Two months after Tunisia’s revolution triggered the resignation of Ben Ali, the autocrat who had ruled for decades, Amri left for Italy on a boat, looking for better opportunities than he could find at home, according to his family.

Other young men from Oueslatia would also leave in the following years, some to join militant groups in Syria and Iraq.

Later convicted in absentia by a Tunisian court for stealing a car, Amri also ran into trouble in Italy, where he spent nearly four years in a total of six prisons for offences including arson.

His family say they believe he may have been radicalised while in jail in Italy and he had recently told them that he planned to return home to Tunisia next year, as he was struggling with life in Germany. That was an understatement. After apparently arriving in Germany in summer 2015, Amri’s asylum application was rejected. He went on to use multiple names and soon came to the attention of the authorities who suspected he was planning a burglary to raise funds to buy weapons for a possible attack “against the state”.

But after failing to find evidence, their surveillance of Amri was dropped. There are many questions to be asked about how Amri was able to slip through the net then and since the attack.

His apparent escape route from Berlin this week was via train through France to Turin and then on to Milan – across at least three countries in a continent reeling from a series of terrorist attacks over the past 18 months.

But there will also be questions in Tunisia over how another one of its sons has brought unwanted attention to a problem many of its people are still in denial over.

It is common to hear Tunisians say that the number of their compatriots cited as having joined Isil at home or abroad is an exaggeration, an attempt to smear the country’s image as it navigates its nascent democracy.

Many are uneasy about delving into the historical and socio-economic dynamics that helped create more radical currents within Tunisian society. While Amri appears to have been radicalised after he left Tunisia, in several respects his story echoes those of others who drifted into extremism from the path of petty criminality.

Other young Tunisians have sought to escape lives stunted by joblessness and despair, finding meaning in the fiery rhetoric of radicals, many of whom were released from jail after an amnesty five years ago.

Until Tunisia begins to address the challenge of its youth, struggling with few prospects and the humiliation of long-term unemployment, the radical message will continue to resonate.

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