Since 2011, as many as 7000 Tunisians have traveled abroad to fight in conflicts in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, representing one of the largest national contingents of foreign fighters. While many of these fighters remain abroad, a significant number have returned to their home country—one official estimate from April 2017 placed the number of Tunisian returnees at 800. With the potential for thousands more to return, Tunisia faces the difficult challenge of crafting a large-scale response to prevent the spread of violence and radicalism domestically.

Recognizing the grave and criminal actions of extremist groups abroad, there is much disagreement as to whether some returnees should be offered an opportunity to peacefully reintegrate back into society. While many Tunisian citizens are understandably fearful that returnees pose an immediate threat to public safety, others argue that imprisonment represents an imperfect and potentially counterproductive solution, especially as returnees’ motivations for going to the conflict zone vary wildly, as do their experiences while there. While some actively participated in terrorist acts or other atrocities, others only completed basic training or served in a nonviolent supporting role. Similarly, their motivations for returning range from disillusionment with extremist ideology to a desire to recruit others to the cause.

In 2014, during the early stages of this crisis, former President Moncef Marzouki proposed legislation that would provide some returnees with a path to reenter society. Under the weight of considerable social pressure, however, this approach gained little traction and was sidelined in favor of policies that enhanced law enforcement’s mandate to arrest and prosecute returnees. The Ministry of Interior restricted foreign travel for certain individuals and, in July 2015, parliament passed a counterterrorism law that enabled law enforcement to prosecute anyone who engaged in terrorist acts outside the country. Many political leaders have repeatedly and publicly called for returnees to be prosecuted to the full extent of this law.

In practice, however, the security-oriented approach has faced major legal obstacles. Authorities often lack clear evidence regarding suspects’ activities abroad, and, according to several civil society activists, law enforcement officials often arrest returnees without sufficient evidence for judges to convict them.1 These arrests sometimes serve solely to stigmatize and harass people who were already sympathetic to extremist narratives and deepen personal grievances and existing negative perceptions of the state. One local activist, for example, shared his experience of assisting a returnee who was trying to keep his job as a teacher, but was regularly forced to miss work to report to the police station for interrogation.2 For returnees making a sincere effort to reintegrate, such harassment may impact their ability to establish normalcy in their life, which could significantly increase their chances of recidivism.

At the same time, Tunisian prisons already far exceed their intended capacity, and the influx of hundreds of inmates convicted on long-term sentences would strain the system and facilitate the spread of extremist ideologies to non-ideological criminals. As expressed by one civil society activist and researcher, “in my personal experience, for every one [extremist] sent to prison, ten emerge; especially when they are held together with those in prison for crimes against the state.”

Recognizing these obstacles, the government seems to have adopted some degree of flexibility. Returnees who had not engaged in violence while abroad are kept under house arrest and are only required to check in with local authorities periodically.3 This recognition of the need for a differentiated approach has also been reflected by some working groups of government officials, including the National Commission for the Fight Against Terrorism. Yet, given the consistent lack of political will, leaders have been hesitant to push for a more constructive and open debate on rehabilitation.

At present, the overarching strategy of the government remains unclear to many within civil society and lacks sufficient consideration of the importance of coordination with the communities to which these individuals return.4 Establishing a local support system for returnees’ social, economic, or psychological needs is an essential component in the prevention of recidivism. Conversely, returnees who are met with antipathy and social isolation may be far more likely to turn back to the extremist community that had once accepted them.

Data from a recent study collected by the International Center for Religion and Diplomacy (ICRD) and the Center for the Study of Islam and Democracy (CSID) offers some insight into how this issue can be approached at a local level. Researchers surveyed 139 fundamentalist religious actors (such as imams, students, and volunteers with religious associations) from Tunis, Sousse, Bizerte, Kasserine, and Ben Guerdane. Questions covered a wide range of issues related to countering violent extremism (CVE), including the reintegration of foreign fighters. These respondents represent one section of the community that could bring to bear valuable expertise and credibility to support the rehabilitation of these returnees, and thus offer some insight into how this issue should be approached at a local level.

Very few of these fundamentalist religious actors (only about 10 percent) were familiar with any existing programs to rehabilitate those tied to extremist groups. However, a majority (79 percent) felt that there is a need for rehabilitation programs, and 91 percent indicated they would support such a program if it were implemented in their community. While this sentiment is not necessarily representative of the entire community, given the study’s focus on religious actors only, it does suggest that rehabilitative programs could find a niche of support among the religious sector. Only 44 percent of respondents, however, felt that this type of work would be supported by other leaders in their community. Certainly, there have been vocal opponents to reintegration within civil society, but which voices represent the general public sentiment is still unclear.

Attitudes Toward Potential Rehabilitation Program

Significantly, only 46 percent of respondents believed that a potential rehabilitation program should be run by state actors, whether the federal government or security forces. Instead, a slim majority favored an approach led by the community, whether by religious actors (34 percent), civil society organizations (15 percent), or others (5 percent). While the preference for religious actors may be a factor of the profile of respondents, religious actors could have a critical role to play in providing counseling, cultivating public support within their sphere of influence, or serving as a nexus between a rehabilitation program and the local community. These latter roles would be particularly critical within the often self-isolated fundamentalist communities from which respondents were chosen.

Moreover, the responses suggest that although the state currently holds a monopoly over issues related to extremism, there is limited confidence in its ability to lead rehabilitation efforts. While public security dictates that the Tunisian government should play a leading role in overseeing the reintegration of foreign fighters, it is important that non-governmental actors are empowered to assist in rehabilitation efforts for those who cannot or should not be immediately convicted on terrorist charges. Regardless of the overarching leadership of any program, returnees require a diverse array of specialized and individualized support—including psychological care, jobs training, and religious counseling—that extends beyond security forces’ capacity or mandate. Such support could be best provided by organizations and activists that are embedded within affected communities, with government support.

Religious leaders, in particular, have an invaluable role in helping communities reconcile with returnees—an important step to ensuring that they do not encounter the same marginalization and limited opportunities that drove them to travel abroad in the first place. This includes engagement with returnees’ family and friends, who can be a critical resource in their rehabilitation or a radicalizing influence that needs to be accounted for.

Of course, Tunisian political and civil society leaders should be careful not to further inflame social tensions through their public speech or messaging. However, only once the state has set clear national priorities will it be possible to build the cooperative partnerships necessary for a successful reintegration strategy.

Andrew McDonnell is a researcher and analyst at the International Center for Religion & Diplomacy (ICRD) in Washington, DC.

1. Interview with representatives of the National Observatory for Youth, October 20, 2016.
2. Interview with former researcher for Amnesty International in Tunisia, October 19, 2016.
3. Interview with Tunisian parliamentarian, April 28, 2016; interview with Tunisian journalist, April 26, 2016.
4. Interview with Tunisian representative of the International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners, October 19, 2016.