Nearly 700 ISIL fighters have returned to Tunisia but there is no formal strategy to deal with them, analysts say.
Lamia pulls out her mobile phone and scrolls through a series of pictures on a messaging app. There is her eldest son, Bilal, smiling jauntily in a black beret bearing the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group logo and a gun in his hand.
There he is posing on a bombed-out street with a friend, or standing in front of a colour-coded map of Syria. “I just kept telling him I wanted him to come back,” said Lamia, who did not give Al Jazeera her last name, from her home in Ksibet el Mediouni, a small village near the coastal city of Monastir in Tunisia.
In July 2013, Bilal, then 20, told his parents he was going to the beach.
Instead, he went to fight with ISIL in Syria.
In late March 2014, Bilal stopped calling his parents. A fellow fighter contacted the family to say Bilal had died, though the family still holds out hope he might be alive.
According to recent United Nations statistics, 5,500 Tunisians have gone to join ISIL, Jabhat al-Nusra, and al-Qaeda in Syria, Iraq, and Libya.
As the wars have dragged on, thousands, like Bilal, have been killed; hundreds more have been jailed in Syria. But for other fighters, home beckons.To date, nearly 700 fighters have returned to Tunisia, according to a spokesman for the interior ministry.
Most fighters return after becoming disenchanted by the war, being cajoled by their distraught families, or hoping to recruit their fellow countrymen.
“They don’t realise that when they come back, it will be another challenge. They are really going to be hassled,” said Mohammed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, the president and founder of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (RATTA), a civil society group founded in 2013 to work with families of children caught in conflicts around the world.
The issue hits close to home for Ben Rejeb: His younger brother went to Syria in March 2013 and celebrated his 24th birthday at an al-Nusra Front training camp.
He spent only 10 days in Syria, during which time his family bombarded him with phone calls and messages pleading with him to come home, before returning to Tunisia.
But Ben Rejeb’s brother’s case is unique. His brother has muscular dystrophy and is confined to a wheelchair, which made it difficult for him to perform any duties in the al-Nusra Front camp.
The peculiar nature of the case garnered media attention in the Arab world, as did a public plea by Ben Rejeb. In the end, he was given authorisation to leave and re-enter Tunisia without hassle.
For most returning fighters, jail and state surveillance are common. But that is only if they are able to return to Tunisia at all.
Jounedi Ayed’s son went to Syria in 2012, leaving behind an education, a stable job, and his family.
At the family’s home near Monastir, Ayed, who did not want his son’s name made public, recounted his son’s journey from partying teenager to pious Muslim to member of ISIL. Ayed told Al Jazeera from his home near Monastir that his son “realised his mistake” after witnessing abuses of power in Syria.
But since sneaking out of Syria into Turkey, his son has been stuck in Istanbul without a passport. According to the RATTA, dozens of Tunisians are caught in limbo in Turkey.
Disillusioned fighters usually try to return to Tunisia one of three ways.
The most common route is to fly directly from Turkey to Tunisia, but that involves a high probability that would-be returnees will be arrested at the airport.
According to Ben Rejeb, returnees may also try flying from Turkey to Tunisia with a stop in Morocco, where they are known to burn their passports and go to the Tunisian embassy to get new ones. Upon receiving a new passport, they then proceed to Tunisia.
Finally, some fighters attempt to cross the border with Libya, either undetected or by presenting themselves to border guards at the Ras Ajdir checkpoint. The RATTA estimates that 400-500 fighters have re-entered Tunisia undetected.
Many former fighters have repented, but don’t have the opportunity to demonstrate this to the Tunisian authorities, Ben Rejeb said.
In November 2015, then Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche staunchly declared that Tunisia “would not accept a pardon for these Tunisians just on the basis of a declaration of repentance without legal accountability.”
Ayed said he believes his son has changed. But though he wants to return home, Ayed said he is worried that his son’s future will be spent in a Tunisian prison cell.
The EU-wide Radicalisation Awareness Network (RAN) notes that an effective policy for rehabilitating returning fighters includes “dialogue and engagement with a wide range of actors from the micro to macro level, such as families (both immediate and wider), community members and leaders, religious scholars, teachers, local authorities, police, and intelligence services.”
But Tunisia has not established a formal strategy to deal with returning fighters, though the government uses powers accorded through a new anti-terrorism law to contain them.
President Beji Caid Essebsi signed the law in July 2015, following two ISIL-claimed attacks on the Bardo museum and a Sousse beach resort. It is designed to give the government sweeping powers to combat terrorism, and most returning fighters are immediately placed in jail following a trial, or kept under surveillance.
“Ninety-five percent of them [returning fighters] were arrested and interrogated by police upon their return, while the others remained under surveillance,” Walid Elweikene, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior said last December, according to the Saudi paper Asharq al Awsat.
The government has emphasised addressing immediate security objectives through surveillance and imprisonment. European countries such as France and the UK are also following such hardline measures, while other countries are pursuing softer strategies, such as rehabilitation.
“So far there is too little evidence to suggest that one approach is better than the other. The rehabilitation programmes that exist are small and have had few ‘graduates’. It will take time to measure their long-term effect,” writes Richard Barrett, senior vice president of the Soufan Group, in an email to Al Jazeera.
According to Charles Lister, a research fellow at the Brookings Doha Center, around 11 percent of fighters pose a credible threat upon returning home.
The three large-scale attacks in 2015 were claimed by ISIL, with all the attackers being trained in Libya before returning to Tunisia. To this extent, the possibility that a returning fighter could orchestrate an attack should be taken into account – in this case, around 70 fighters – but neither should it be exaggerated.
Ben Rejeb said while returnees convicted of committing crimes in Syria, or who pose a proven threat to Tunisian security, can be imprisoned, it is not a blanket solution.
Tunisia’s overcrowded and under-served prisons are well-known breeding grounds for recruitment and the dissemination of radical ideas, he added.
“In the short term you’ve won, but in the long term it’s a flaw,” Ben Rejeb said.