While news headlines about ISIS radicalization have often revolved around the small number of American and European recruits that joined the jihadi group’s ranks, the striking incidence of fighters from North Africa has not received the same attention: Tunisia, in fact, bears the undesirable title of most per-capita ISIS recruits outside to Iraq and Syria. Against the backdrop of widespread corruption and economic strife in the post-Ben Ali era, ISIS members capitalized on the relative openness of Tunisian society to spread their message with little resistance, offering an escape from the socioeconomic conditions that made life so difficult for many Tunisians. Nearly a decade later, Tunisia continues working to repatriate, prosecute, and/or reintegrate former ISIS fighters and their families. Given the real risks of accepting these individuals back into society, a careful and intentional analysis of the potential challenges to their reintegration must be explored, especially for those who are not prosecuted for terrorist activities but were still exposed to extremist ideology.
Regardless of the challenges Tunisia faces to reintegrate former fighters—and sometimes their spouses and children—it must continue to repatriate Tunisian citizens captured in the Levant and elsewhere: many former ISIS members now live in overcrowded prisons or tent camps that not only pose a danger to public health but can also be a hotbed for extremist ideology. In this pursuit, Tunisian officials must first address the unpopularity of repatriating former Islamic State recruits before any serious reintegration work can be done. Stigma is a major obstacle to reintegration, and the narrative that former members are “deceived people in need of help,” understandably falls on deaf ears.
While there is likely no single panacea for stigmatization, the Tunisian government can take steps to improve outcomes of the reintegration process and ultimately prevent recidivism. This work must be done in tandem with civil society and media organizations that work to shift social norms around former fighters and their families. While civil society and media organizations can address stigma by promoting reconciliation and fostering more sympathetic attitudes towards former ISIS members, the government is endowed with the specific tools needed to make structural improvements to their lives. Two of the most pressing opportunities for intervention, especially in the context of stigma, are employment and mental health.
Employers are less than keen to hire a former member of an extremist group (or “formers,” for short), and thus, financial stability can be incredibly difficult for formers to achieve. Herein lies an opportunity for the government to employ the newly reintegrated individual and help guarantee that they have the financial resources to live with dignity and a sense of enfranchisement. This employment would reduce the likelihood of recidivism through financial independence and purpose, and can be further maximized by placing the former into a position that requires interaction with community members; this can serve as a daily reminder to the community that this former is now a productive member of society. These jobs could include working at a public transportation depot or in a municipal capacity that requires face-to-face interaction. The former can feel that they have a productive role to play in the community while simultaneously showing the community that they are no longer a potential threat to their safety.
Furthermore, the mental health of formers must be considered just as seriously as their physical health. These recruits were likely exposed to extreme stress from their time in a conflict zone and must have adequate resources to address their mental health, as well as any mental health challenges that arise during the reintegration process. Periodic assessments of their mental health are paramount to determining their likelihood of reintegration, which must be monitored throughout the entire process. A focus on mental health will not only be necessary to address the effect of trauma, but would serve as a critical safeguard to ensure community safety and low rates of recidivism.
Since average citizens in Tunisia (and around the globe) have limited access to physical care and even less to mental health care, allocating additional resources to former members of ISIS may not fall high on the government’s priority list. However, the needs of formers should be prioritized for the social benefits accrued by such a policy decision, especially given the risks of recidivism among formers without comprehensive reintegration. The reintegration of formers is a complicated and often expensive process, and concrete steps to improve the success rate of these programs should be considered not just for financial reasons, but also as part of the government’s responsibility to re-enfranchise citizens that they have left behind.
Due to the high number of ISIS recruits still in need of repatriation, Tunisia faces a unique opportunity to design a robust reintegration system for those who are not charged for terrorist activities. This program must champion the financial and psychological reintegration of former ISIS members through guaranteed employment and mental health counseling and other services. The road ahead will require careful policymaking so that all community members feel that their voices are being considered and so that strong government and civil institutions are built to prevent recidivism and even prevent radicalization from the onset.