My Two Weeks With the Jihadists

Understanding the path to Islamist militancy

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.

Within the rotating pool of young Salafists who were regulars in the circle, there was a small cadre whom the others seemed to defer to as de facto leaders. These men were well-educated and sophisticated in their understanding of religious and worldly affairs. Most had been involved in the movement in some fashion before Tunisia's 2011 revolution. One was a highly cultured student of Islamic history and a talented classical Arabic poet who often shared his verse with the other members of the group; among his most memorable selections was a poem praising the life of Osama Bin Laden. Another, who had spent four years in prison under the former regime on what he insists were fabricated terrorism charges, frequently peppered his speech with references to Rousseau and Hegel. He proudly announced to me when I met him that he spent his free time reading strategic analyses from the RAND Corporation and the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.

Outside this narrow elite however, the picture was more complex. Though some of the group's rank-and-file had graduated from universities, they were far less sophisticated in their understanding of their own ideology. When the leaders presented elegant, if controversial, explanations of their positions, the rank-and-file members stayed largely silent, or chimed in with simplistic slogans without analysis. They seemed to know what they believed, but they lacked a firm understanding of why they believed it. It was almost as if they had decided to be Salafists first, and only after their commitment to the movement had solidified, did they start to delve into what that commitment meant. As one young member of the group told me "I used to be a guitar player, but once I became more serious about the religion, I had to give it up." Salafist interpretations of Islam forbid most forms of instrumental music.

As my two-week sojourn with "the brothers" wore on, it became increasingly difficult to reconcile the radicalism of the ideological positions that they unapologetically expressed to me -- including the legitimacy of targeting American civilians in attacks against soft targets -- with the unconditional generosity they showed me on a personal level. They even had a sense of humor. They laughed hysterically and uncontrollably when I jokingly introduced myself as "the official representative of the Zionist-Crusader alliance" to a tall, muscular young Salafist who had been absent during my first few nights with them. The man smiled as we exchanged pleasantries. I later learned that he had just returned from the battlefield in Syria, where he had fought with a jihadist militia.

When I discussed the paradox with some knowledgeable Tunisian friends, they explained to me that the young Salafists were giving me the same treatment they often give to potential new recruits to their movement. By default, they embraced me as I was -- their personal warmth towards me was not contingent on my agreement with their opinions, at least not at the beginning. Only after I had become comfortable with them on a personal level did they begin trying to convince me that their ideas were legitimate. More than that, the extreme comfort they had with each other created a powerful impression that they were a compassionate, close-knit community, where members protected each other. They always looked fundamentally happy. In Sidi Bouzid, where youth unemployment is astronomically high, young men often wear wistful, reserved expressions on their faces. By contrast, the young jihadist Salafists were always smiling. When I asked one of them why he thought this was, he paused, looked me in the eye, and said, grinning "it's because we have hope."

Among the small cadre of political analysts who specialize in the study of jihadist movements, many cliches abound: Islamic fundamentalism appeals to those without education; people become jihadists in response to difficult material circumstances; Islamist movements gain followers through their skill at social welfare provision. Although these arguments explain the phenomenon to a certain degree, they neglect a crucial dimension of the lived experience of jihadist Salafists: the emotional benefits and self-esteem that religious militancy provides. Independent of ideology, when young politically or religiously immature Tunisians encounter Salafists for the first time, the sense of acceptance and the feeling of belonging that the militants are able to engender is overwhelming. As such, before they are even exposed to the tangible religious and political arguments, they are predisposed to accept them. Combined with the rhetorical construction of the movement's mission as a divinely ordained struggle between good and evil, the Salafist recruitment experience packs a powerful emotional punch. In a country where mainstream political parties offer at best, humble pleas for patience, or at worst, empty promises and hollow rhetoric, the jihadist Salafists are able to provide something very attractive to potential followers: a sense of community, and a sense of purpose in life.