The Sunny Beach Town That’s Also ISIS’ Favorite Recruiting Spot
Sousse, Tunisia is sort of the Myrtle Beach of the Mediterranean. There are big, generic beach resorts, raucous night clubs, and even after the safety concerns brought on by the 2011 revolution, over a million visitors a year. But beyond the young, drunk Russian revelers and British families commissioning camel rides, there is a dark underworld of extremism. Hundreds of local young men have left the debauched fun behind to join ISIS in Syria. Vocativ’s deep web analysts monitoring social media found that more ISIS jihadis come from Tunisia than anywhere else.
I went to Sousse and met the family of Mohamed Amrouni, who left Tunisia at 17 to join ISIS in Syria. Mohamed’s brother, Ajmi, took me on a tour the city. He told me that one night, his brother had dinner with the family and went to a local mosque to pray. He never came home.
Ajmi took me to visit the same mosque after a Friday afternoon prayer. It was so packed that attendees spilled onto the lawn. Men outside held signs supporting jihad. When they saw our camera, they confronted us. “We have a stronger network than Tunisiana [the largest cellular provider in Tunisia],” one said. “We will get you. And if you Americans have balls, why don’t you fuck off and go cover the real story in Syria?” (side note: I did eventually fuck off and cover the story in Syria)
Ajmi later introduced me to his parents. The family’s home (one of several they own in Tunisia) was immaculate and well-appointed. His parents welcomed me with strawberry juice made fresh from berries from one of their farms. I looked around the bedroom Ajmi shared with Mohamed. Teddy bears and soccer gear lined Mohamed’s dresser. A certificate from the U.S. Embassy honoring Mohamed’s proficiency in English hung on the wall, as did the last picture taken of Mohamed before he left for Syria.
Ajmi opened a laptop on his desk. “This was Mohamed’s computer,” he said. “He was always watching videos about Jihad. I guess this is where he started to consider going to Syria.” When the family realized Mohamed left for Syria, they immediately checked his computer. It had been wiped clean. ISIS propaganda videos, slickly produced and exciting, have been a recruiting mainstay for the group since their inception. But in places like Tunisia, there’s an even more insidious method–a sophisticated organization of recruiters planted in the community. They’re on street corners, in mosques, and most appallingly, in schools. “It happens in every school in the country,” Mohamed’s best friend, Oussama, told me.
“We’re Muslim,” Khaled said. “But this is not Islam. This is not the meaning of jihad. It’s become a business for these people. Recruiters get $18,000 for every person they send. We offered them more than that to bring our son back, but they refused.” Mohamed’s recruiter was a math tutor, and recruited children in a number of other families. The families banded together to approach the authorities and identified the man. The authorities, in spite of their purported hardline stance against terrorism, did nothing. The Amrounis see the man in town on a regular basis…often in the company of other children.
The ISIS recruiters of Sousse are reminiscent of the drug lords of Cali. They drive the nicest cars. They live in the biggest homes. They are untouchable.
I had the chance to interview “Bilel,” a 17 year-old high schooler preparing to join ISIS in Syria. “I’ve heard recruiters get money for every fighter they send to Syria. How do you feel about that?” I asked.
“It’s none of your business how we’re recruited,” he said. “It only matters that I fight jihad.”
Ajmi stays in touch with his brother sporadically on Skype, and told me that [like many ISIS members in Syria], Mohamed recently moved from Syria into Iraq with ISIS. The conversation they have is always the same. Ajmi pleads with his brother to return to Tunisia…to come home to his friends and family. Mohamed laughs. “No, brother! You come here and join us. Jihad is paradise.”
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