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Why Tunisia is the Top Supplier of Students to the Islamic State

TUNIS—Montasser Bellah Al-Awady was just a couple of months away from his graduation from the University of Benzert. An engineering student, he was active in a movement to improve students’ learning and working conditions, known as the Engineers’ Revolution in Tunisia. Then he left his family, his university, and his country to head to Syria and join fighters with the Islamic State.

The news was shocking to those who knew him. “I was waiting for the graduation of my son after a few months,” said his father, Fawzy Al-Awady.  “But terrorism took him from me.”  His son used to live a normal life, he said, and the family did not notice any change in his behavior or the development of any extremist attitudes.

Montasser is one of 1,300 students from different Tunisian universities who recently joined the battles in Syria, Iraq and Libya, according to a study conducted by the General Union for Tunisian Students. Some international reports have found that Tunisia ranks the highest in the number of fighters who have joined extremist groups abroad. That well-educated youth are converting to extremist views is regarded as a bad harbinger by many observers.

“The figures are scary,” said Riyadh Al-Dreezy, from the Tunisian Radio Students’ Union. “If the elite of the Tunisian society get more involved in these practices, then the results would certainly be even more disastrous in the less-educated circles.”

Al-Awady and his colleagues’ reasons to join the fighting outside their country are not known directly. However, the study conducted by the General Union for Tunisian Students revealed that most recruited students come from universities in the poorer governorates, especially the universities of Qairawan, Benzert, Qabes, and Sidi Bouzid, regarded as the cradle of Tunisian revolution. Extremists may have an easier time recruiting these students, the report said, due to “the deterioration of social circumstances and the presence of incubators for these movements in these places.” The number of students who had joined extremist forces from Qairawan University was about 200, followed by 100 students from Benzert University.

Where are fighters coming from? Credit: Amr Eleraqi/]

“Montasser was an active and effective student in the Islamic Students’ Union, especially during the recent sit-in of engineering students,” said Essam Al-Eweny, Montasser’s  colleague. Al-Eweny added that Montasser was not inclined to extremism or at least he didn’t appear to be and he never seemed to have a problem with men and women mixing at the university.

In a preliminary comment on the study results, Raheem Zoreeq, the spokesperson of the Ministry of Higher Education in Tunisia, said “These are big and scary figures. It is a major loss for the Tunisian universities.”

Zoreeq added that the ministry wants to review the educational curricula and offer more opportunities for students to hold cultural, sports and recreational events to further engage students with their academic surroundings and hopefully lead them away from extremism.

According to the study, students in mathematics and technology disciplines have the highest rates of recruitment to extremism—19 percent, followed by natural sciences, chemistry, and physics at 21 percent, then Benzert engineering with 14 percent, and finally literature and law at the end of the list at 3.3 percent.

“Engineering students are considered strategic targets for terrorist groups, because of these students’ knowledge of army weapons and mastery of media, photography and communication,” said Ahmed Al-Zawady, leader of the General Union for Tunisian Students.

The Tunisian educational curriculum in science, math and technical disciplines does not generally give students analytical or research skills or the ability to do critical thinking, according to Al-Zawady. Teaching is dominated by what are regarded as proven facts with no room for discussion. That makes those students easy prey for recruitment, while literature students, who are more inclined to debates, discussions, and research in their theses, are less susceptible.

The study said that extremist recruiters reach out to students on the Internet, as well as through mosques and secret meetings, which take place mostly outside the university campus, that have an ideological and psychological impact on the students. The low socioeconomic status of the students’ families and the students’ educational difficulties make some students easier to recruit than others.  Tunisia’s deteriorating economy and the students’ own educational failures appear to help drive them into extremists’ arms. Most of the students then travel through Libya or Turkey to get to Syria or Iraq.

Students’ failure to do long-term planning and to think through what will happen to them after joining extremists or how they might build a career in Tunisia plays a major role in their involvement with terrorist groups, the report found. The cleverness of extremist groups with media, and their ability to offer payments to the students or their families, also can make the groups difficult for some students to resist.

Improving higher education appears to be key in preventing further conversions. “Radical educational reform has become inevitable, including programs’ content and university services,” Al-Zawady said.
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