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Radicalization after the Arab Spring: Lessons from Tunisia and Egypt

Shadi Hamid

Any discussion of Islamist radicalization lends itself to analytical confusion, particularly if we’re looking for an elegant model of why people turn to political violence and terrorism. Radicalization, as it happens in real life, is inelegant. It’s banal to say so, but different people radicalize in different ways. As we will see, trying to understand why a particular individual in a Tunisian slum radicalizes and decides to join ISIS will always be something of a mystery. Why him (or her) and not someone else in that same slum who experiences many of the same political and economic pressures?

As terrorism scholar Jessica Stern writes: “It is difficult to make gross generalizations about what leads individuals to do what they do in any area of life; difficulty in answering this question is not unique to terrorism experts.”[1] For some, radicalization is a gradual process that takes place over many years—the product of accumulated experience. Others might be predisposed to radical politics, but it is only a catalyzing moment that pushes them not just to theorize or think about violence, but to act on it. Each individual interacts with his or her own socio-political environment in distinctive, often unpredictable ways.

When looking at individual-level radicalization, the goal is to understand the different pathways and contributing causes. A more fruitful approach, however, comes with widening the aperture and asking which contexts make the resort to violence among (some) citizens more or less likely, all other things being equal. This probabilistic approach lacks the thick description of individual-level stories of would be or actual jihadists, but it tends to be more useful from a policy perspective. For example, Egypt is a strategically important country as well as a close ally. Accordingly, we are concerned about the things Egypt does—adopting repressive measures and a heavy-handed security mindset, for example—that provide a more enabling environment for terrorist activity.

Lastly, while it isn’t the focus of this paper, we can also consider organizational-level radicalization. For example, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is a mainstream, rather than a radical or extremist, Islamist organization. Yet, after the Egyptian coup of July 2013, a process of radicalization began at the individual level, with a growing minority of younger Brotherhood members advocating “defensive violence” and, more recently, economic sabotage to the dismay of an older, more conservative leadership-in-exile. But the use of violence is only one element of radicalization and not necessarily the most important. Younger Brotherhood members have adopted a more revolutionary posture, seeing the Egyptian state not as something to be reformed (the group’s pre-2013 position), but as an enemy to be overhauled, purged, or even destroyed. Those who advocate “defensive violence” primarily make tactical arguments. However, these changing attitudes toward state institutions suggest a potentially deeper, philosophical shift, with profound long-term implications. This new, revolutionary politics has, over time, seeped up to the Brotherhood’s leadership and organizational structures. It reflects not just a critical mass of individual Brotherhood members adopting different attitudes toward political change, but an organizational shift as well.

This paper is divided into two sections, one focused on Tunisia’s unusually high contribution of foreign fighters to Syria and the other a case study of terrorism and insurgency in Egypt after the military’s overthrow of President Mohamed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood. These two cases offer different insights into how radicalization occurs in the age of ISIS. Again, my main question of interest is: What kinds of contexts are more or less likely to produce higher rates of political violence?

Tunisian Foreign Fighters and Islamist Extremism in Syria

Despite deep ideological polarization, the democratic transition in Tunisia survived, flawed but intact. That’s not to say there weren’t darker undercurrents. As the democratic transition sputtered along, a disproportionately large number of Tunisians were looking elsewhere for hope and inspiration. More than 3,000 Tunisians found that inspiration on the battlefields of Syria, accounting for a shockingly high percentage of an estimated 22,000 foreign fighters.[2] According to the Tunisian interior ministry, as of April 2015, another 12,490 Tunisians had tried to leave to fight in Iraq, Syria, and Libya but were blocked by the authorities.[3]

One could spend days in the capital city of Tunis and not see a single sign. Yet if you were a young Tunisian, you almost certainly knew friends, acquaintances, and even family members who had gone to fight. This was the new normal. Internationally, Tunisia was being fêted as a democratic “model,” but many in the ultraconservative Salafi community felt that there was no place for them in the political process.

As mentioned above, understanding the causes of individual-level radicalization is something of a mystery, even (or perhaps particularly) for those who knew the person in question intimately. During a recent research trip to Tunisia, I interviewed a man I will call Yassine. Yassine’s son, a business student at Manouba University, went to Syria and died fighting for ISIS in August 2013.

“It happened all at once,” Yassine recalled. The son, whom I will call Hichem, began spending a lot of time at the mosque and going to the fajr, or dawn, prayer. He grew a short beard and started wearing a thobe, the telltale dress of Salafis. “I told him this isn’t how we Tunisians dress, and he took it off,” said Yassine. “But he got a passport without telling us. He would tell his mother everything, except this one thing. One day, on a Sunday, he didn’t come home. He called to say he was staying with a friend, although that’s not something he ever did.”

How did a father, or anyone else for that matter, make sense of such a tragedy? Yassine had a number of hypotheses for why his son went to Syria, ranging from the lure of Internet jihadist forums to a Salafi preacher at the local mosque who “brainwashed” his son, inserting foreign ideas of takfir, or the excommunication of fellow Muslims. Yassine said that his son and other young Tunisians were initially attracted to Syria (as opposed to Libya, the Sinai, or even acting inside of Tunisia) because of the unfolding humanitarian catastrophe. Watching the slaughter of their Muslim brethren at the hands of the Assad regime, they were moved to act in whatever way they could. The groups that were most hospitable to foreign fighters were the Islamist rebel factions, the most powerful of which at the time was Jabhat al-Nusra. Far from the usual al-Qaeda franchise, Nusra, directing its fire against Bashar al-Assad and fighting alongside “moderate” Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions, enjoyed considerable legitimacy among Islamist and non-Islamist Syrians alike. After the falling out between Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq, many Tunisian fighters, including Hichem, defected to what would become the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS.

Young fighters, with no real military experience, went to Syria not knowing what to expect. Some became disillusioned. Others like Hichem appear to have radicalized over the course of the fighting, particularly after joining ISIS. “In the final months, he was asking his mother to pray for him to join the ranks of the martyrs,” his father recalls. This isn’t necessarily surprising. War and radicalization go hand in hand, which makes it all the more important to distinguish between the initial motivations for joining an Islamist rebel group and how those motivations and ideological commitments evolve over time. In other words, a young Tunisian might, at first, be moved to join Nusra for “secular” reasons—to fight Assad out of a desire for revenge because their friends joined, or because those groups take better care of fighters or have more advanced weapons. Individuals are complex, so we should assume that their motivations are complex as well. This suggests that the decision to ally with one faction over another is based on some combination of all of the above factors. Of course, religion plays a role as well, otherwise we would see liberal Tunisians going to fight for, say, the FSA. Salafi-oriented Tunisians are more likely to see the Assad regime as a secular, infidel regime at war with pious Sunni Muslims. They are more likely to see jihad as religious obligation. For them, it doesn’t matter that they are Tunisian and the people they’re ostensibly fighting on behalf of are Syrian; they are all Muslims, bound together as members of a transnational umma. But while religion may be necessary, it is not sufficient.

One of the few survey-based studies of Syrian rebel motivations supports the broad outlines of Yassine’s account. Drawing on interviews with over 300 fighters in 2013-2014, Vera Mironova, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt found that the “many reasons given by Islamists for taking up arms are not that different from FSA fighters.”[4] While 71 percent of Islamists cited the desire to build an Islamic state, only 25 percent said this was their main motivation. Interestingly, when they interviewed FSA fighters who defected to an Islamist group, “almost all mentioned reasons which were not expressly religious.”

However, after spending a significant period of time with a particular Islamist faction, fighters are likely to adopt and internalize more and more of the group’s ideology. In other words, the “Islamism” of Islamist rebels is, to an extent, acquired. According to the study, 74 percent of the Islamist respondents said they had become more religious since the beginning of the war. Daily immersion and indoctrination in a group’s propaganda is difficult to resist. More fundamentally, the natural desire to belong and be part of a cause that transcends the individual—something that grows increasingly appealing when facing death—contributes to a powerful and self-reinforcing dynamic. The most radical groups, such as Nusra and ISIS, obviously take ideological coherence seriously. Accordingly, individual fighters, even those with reservations, have strong incentives to demonstrate ideological fervor in order to gain the favor of local and regional commanders. Fear also plays a role, particularly in ISIS, where openly expressing doubts about the organization can bring about an untimely death. With individual fighters demonstrating, or even overstating, their devotion to the cause, a kind of religious outbidding takes place, leading to a vicious cycle of radicalization.

While it may be more pronounced in the region, this cycle isn’t necessarily unique to civil conflict in the Arab world. Moderates tend to lose out in revolutions and civil wars. The longer a society experiences chaos and disorder, the stronger radicals become. As radicals grow stronger, violence intensifies further, and so on. As Samuel Huntington writes in his classic 1969 work Political Order in Changing Societies: “Moderates remain moderate and are swept from power. Their failure stems precisely from their inability to deal with the problem of political mobilization. On the one hand, they lack the drive and ruthlessness to stop the mobilization of new groups into politics; on the other, they lack the radicalism to lead it.”[5]

Almost by definition, gradualism loses its appeal in the totalizing fog of battle. When the goal is to vanquish an opponent, or merely stay alive, everything else fades in comparison. For the “moderate,” the taking up of arms is done grudgingly, if at all. The radicals, however, embrace violence because they have lost faith, if they ever had it, in the possibilities of politics. Revolution is the only way, and revolution is about maximalist aims. Why, exactly, would people who are willing to kill and die for a cause care about being moderate? In their book ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, journalists Michael Weiss and Hassan Hassan identify an unlikely, even odd, category of ISIS supporter: secularists or agnostics who “express deep objections about [ISIS] atrocities” but come to embrace violence as necessary.[6]

Editor’s Note: The full chapter is available in the new book Blindspot: America’s Response to Radicalism in the Middle East, published by the Aspen Institute and edited by Nicholas Burns and Jonathon Price.


[1] Stern, Jessica. 2014. “Response to Marc Sageman’s ‘The Stagnation in Terrorism Research.’” Terrorism and Political Violence 26: 607.

[2] Blanchard, Christopher M., Carla E. Humud, Kenneth Katzman, and Matthew C. Weed. May 27, 2015. The “Islamic State” Crisis and U.S. Policy. Congressional Research Service, at fas.org/sgp/crs/mideast/R43612.pdf, p. 2.

[3] “Tunisia blocks more than 12,000 would-be jihadists: minister.” April 17, 2015. AFP, at news.yahoo.com/tunisia-blocks-more-12-000-jihadists-minister-202230331.html.

[4] Mironova, Vera, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt. August 13, 2014. “Islamists at a Glance: Why Do Syria’s Rebel Fighters Join Islamist Groups? (The Reasons May Have Less to Do With Religiosity Than You Might Think ).” Political Violence @ a Glance, at politicalviolenceataglance.org/2014/08/13/islamists-at-a-glance-why-do-syrias-rebel-fighters-join-islamist-groups-the-reasons-may-have-less-to-do-with-religiosity-than-you-might-think/. See also Mironova, Vera, Loubna Mrie, and Sam Whitt. August 11, 2014. Fight or Flight in Civil War? Evidence from Rebel-Controlled Syria. Social Science Research Network, at ssrn.com/abstract=2478682.

[5] Huntington, Samuel. 1968. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, p. 269.

[6] Weiss, Michael, and Hassan Hassan. 2015. ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror. New York, NY: Regan Arts, p. 163.

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