The Abdaoui family had just started to accept the death of its son Khalid when it learned that his twin brother Walid, within the same year, had also been killed on his way to wage jihad Syria. In the central Tunisian province of Kairouan where the Abdaoui family lives, stories about the deaths of its young men, dying while fighting holy war abroad, are not uncommon.

The Abdaoui family had just started to accept the death of its son Khalid when it learned that his twin brother Walid, within the same year, had also been killed on his way to wage jihad Syria. In the central Tunisian province of Kairouan where the Abdaoui family lives, stories about the deaths of its young men, dying while fighting holy war abroad, are not uncommon.

The local and international media has repeatedly portrayed young jihadists as sons from poor families with little education.  But families like the Abdaouis and others from Kairouan have seen their children, university graduates from good income families, also lured by extremism.

The twin fighters

When 24-year-old Walid Abdaoui decided to leave the country to fight in Syria a few months ago, he was a fresh graduate of one of the higher institutes and he was lucky to find a job as a nurse in a nearby hospital. 

Neither Walid nor his twin brother had shown signs of extremism, his sister Naja Elabdawi said, until right before their journeys. “They started to become more inclined to staying alone and they became very attracted to the internet,” she said.

She added that her brother Walid received offers from a contact on the internet and lessons at the town’s mosque and said that Walid received an US $ 250 after which time he quit his job at the hospital. But, according to his sister, Walid’s trip to Syria may have been triggered by his twin brother’s death.

The internet sheikhs

“He isolated himself and he started to suffer from a very difficult psychological state,” she said. “He started to become obsessed by the idea of traveling to Syria and his father couldn’t convince him not to go.” 

While their parents were on a pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia (el Hajj), Walid travelled with two young men whose families had no idea where they were travelling until they received a call from Libya. 

Before Walid’s journey, his father went to the Oueslatia police station and informed them about his son’s intensions to travel to Syria, especially since he knew that Walid had received money from someone he had been in contact with on the internet.

The father asked the police to stop his son from traveling and Walid was imprisoned for a while. After his release, he was put under close observation, but he was able to deceive the police and eventually travel with another 24 young men, three of whom were unemployed university graduates.

Fallen jihadists

Bilal Elkabi nicknamed Omar al-Tounisi, a business school graduate, was recently killed in a suicide bombing attack in Benghazi. “The family didn’t hear any news from him until the day we were informed about his death.” 

Ayman graduated from the Higher Institute of Technological Studies of Kairouan in late 2014.  He could not find a job so he joined his father in his grocery store.  After a few months, he travelled to Syria, but then he decided to quickly return to Tunisia. Upon his arrival, he was arrested by the Tunisian security forces for interrogation and was not released until mid-December 2014.

Ali was an engineer from Djerba who settled in Kairouan with his wife, an engineer. She decided not to search for a job because she wanted to devote her time to raising her children. Ali used to work for a big industrial firm and he earned 3,000 dinars (US $2,247) per month, but he decided to travel to Syria although many of his friends, some of them from the Salafi stream, advised him not to do so because “there is no clear vision on the fighting parties there.”

After few weeks, his wife was informed of Ali’s death. She then moved back to her parents’ home with her three children to give birth to her fourth child.

Crossing the border

The Tunisian Ministry of Interior estimates the number of young people who joined the fighting groups in Syria to be over 3000 and authorities said they have stopped thousands more young men from going abroad for jihad.

The Ministry says that it had prevented many young men from traveling through Tunis airport to Istanbul, and from there to southern Turkey and then to Syria. The other route taken by these young men is through southern Tunisia and from there they cross the Libyan borders and join the training camps before going to Syria. 

Most of the young men who travelled to fight didn’t tell their parents about their intention to travel and they gave them false reasons for their absence. When Ayman al-Arbawi decided to travel, he told his family that he was planning to spend a few weeks working in Libya. After six months, his family discovered his lie on an internet site, which announced Ayman’s death in June while he was fighting with Islamic State (IS) (Daash). 

“He was a very quiet person who used to spend his time studying and getting good grades,” said his mother, who believes that he was very much influenced by the books he used to read.

Accusations and protests

Walid and Khaled’s family accused a doctor, who is often in the Oueslatia area and the mosque where the young would-be jihadists congregated. The family also accused the head of the police station of not living up to his responsibility when Walid’s father went to him and asked him to stop his son from traveling.

Protests were organized demanding the closure of crossing points leading to Syria and the judiciary intervened as well so that the anti-terrorists squad would stop a number of these young men from traveling. A number of them were arrested and there were investigations with them, but they were all released.

There were some pre-emptive measures to stop young men from traveling to Syria and on a number of occasions, young men were not allowed to travel to Turkey and Libya, but these measures were not strict enough to stop young people from traveling. 

Identity and the hero image

“Perhaps it is our human nature that makes us support our brothers who are being oppressed by their unjust ruler,” said Wasila Qiqa, an education specialist and a professor. “It is perhaps that these young men want to prove their sense of belonging to their Arab Islamic identity and they are eager to change the world.  And perhaps, they are convinced that Islam is in danger.” 

According to Qiaq material poverty makes it easy for terrorist networks with rhetoric capacities to mobilize young men, persuade them to join them and manipulate their religious feelings by triggering the image of the hero inside them in order to make them willing and enthusiastic about joining a group that acknowledges them and stands by them. “This is in addition to the life of comfort and luxury that they will enjoy when they join jihadi groups.  If they die, they will be martyrs and they will enjoy the al-hoor al-ain of Jannah (the virgins in heaven).”

Qiqa added that there are certainly other reasons which should be highlighted such as taking advantage of freedoms by extremist groups who have dominated the mosques and used them to disseminate their ideas among young people and easily mobilizing them.  She also blames some media outlets that have promoted jihad in Syria through the calls of sheikhs who urged young people to save the “afflicted” Syrian people, as well as social media.

“Young people are angry and spiteful, especially those who are unable to find jobs,” said Qiqa. “The ideologies they study on the internet make them prone to violence as well as the absence of educational curricula that could enable the youth to confront extremist thought, especially because of the lack of mental and sports activities.”