My Two Weeks With the Jihadists

Understanding the path to Islamist militancy
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Tunisian Salafi Islamists wave flags inscribed with Islamic verses during a demonstration in support of the ruling Ennahada party in Tunis. (Anis Mili/Reuters)

They were sitting where they always sit: at the far edge of the makeshift, roadside cafe on the outskirts of of Sidi Bouzid -- the small, economically marginalized town in central Tunisia where in December 2010, a young street vendor lit himself on fire and changed the world. There were about 20 of them. Some wore long flowing robes and black skullcaps; some wore jeans, t-shirts, and Yankees hats; nearly all of them had thick beards. My friend had called in advance - they must have known I would be coming. As I took my seat in the circle, they all beamed at me. "Welcome, welcome! We are honored!" said one tall youth with glasses and a jovial smile. Another swiftly handed me the cup of ice cream he had ordered for himself, declaring that it was a gift.

"From now on, when you sit with us, you will be brother Michael!" added another. We were all in our 20s no longer boys, but still learning how to be men. They accepted me unconditionally. For the next two weeks, they welcomed me into their world. Nevertheless, we are different. I am an American. Their hero is Osama Bin Laden.

"The brothers," as they like to call themselves, are zealous followers of the jihadist Salafist movement - an ultra-fundamentalist religio-political current that combines scriptural purism with a rhetorical embrace of Al-Qaeda's vision. In Tunisia, Salafists have unabashedly rejected democracy and participation in elections as corrupt, un-Islamic practices. Although the Tunisian state aggressively suppressed jihadist Salafists during the 1990's and 2000's, in the climate of greater political openness that has prevailed since the country's 2011 revolution, the movement has become increasingly visible and increasingly brazen. At Salafist demonstrations, speakers call unabashedly for the imposition of Islamic Sharia law as the only source of legislation as crowds chant slogans like "Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!" or "Patiently oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return!" In governorates like Sidi Bouzid that have long resisted the hegemony of the central state, Salafists often patrol markets, believing themselves to represent a type of grassroots police force. Although most Salafists I spoke to insisted that the movement's activities in Tunisia were limited to preaching and social welfare, a number of Tunisian Salafists have traveled to Syria to fight with the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra militia. Some have started to return.

Every night, after they had finished their evening prayers, I would meet them at the cafe. Their nightly sessions were multi-faceted: part religious lecture, part political rally, part old friends swapping stories. I would often arrive to find them excitedly discussing the latest episode in Tunisia's endless cycle of post-revolution political turmoil - a hint of schadenfreude in their voices. Because they openly reject democracy as part and parcel of the West's "cultural occupation" of the Muslim world, every setback in Tunisia's democratic transition was evidence that the system would inevitably fail and that their fellow citizens would finally see the value of a "true Islamic state." One evening, I arrived and found an atmosphere of jubilance, as they congratulated each other on an Al-Qaeda operation in Iraq that had freed many jihadist leaders from prison earlier that day. Other times, I would find them sitting in near-silence, listening intently as one charismatic youth gave an impromptu lecture on Islamic jurisprudence in flowing classical Arabic.

"The brothers" were intent on drawing contrasts between themselves and the society that surrounded them. While most young Tunisian men are clean-shaven and wear jeans, many of these young Salafists sported beards and wore long, Afghan-style tunics in ostensible imitation of the Prophet Muhammad. They had a common mythology that was completely alien to those outside their movement. Many of them could recount detailed anecdotes from the lives of important historical "martyrs" of the international jihadist movement - in other words, senior Al-Qaeda leaders who had been killed in American military operations. The fact that these practices were completely outside the societal mainstream did not seem to bother them - on the contrary, they seemed to embrace their eccentricity. As one usually reserved member of the group told me: "I thank God for the distortion of our movement in the media. The Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, said: 'Islam appeared as a stranger, and it will return as a stranger.'" For these young men, their own individual sense of social and moral worth was completely unconnected to the way most people viewed them. In the epic struggle between good and evil that they imagined themselves in, the stronger the rejection by society, the more confident they became that they were right. The only validation they needed was from each other -- which they received in spades.

Presented by

Michael Marcusa

is a doctoral student in Political Science at Brown University.

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