Tunisian Researchers Probe the Roots of Radicalization

The ministry of higher education and scientific research here has allocated 2.5 million Tunisian dinars (about $1.2 million) over four years to support academic efforts to better understand the roots of radicalization in young people, and how to combat it. Four research projects have been selected for support under the initiative—one in the humanities and social sciences, and three in engineering and technology.

Tunisia, like many parts of the Arab region, has been hit by several terrorist attacks in recent years. Elements of hardline religious movements have been accused of perpetrating many of them, like the assassination of two prominent political figures, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, in 2013. Others have targeted police and security personnel. And in 2015, 20 people were killed and dozens were wounded in an attack on the Bardo National Museum in the Tunisian capital.

“This research will play a key role in understanding the radical discourse, the emergence and growth of terrorist organizations, and the psychology of terrorism and its impact on young people, the economy and society,” said Khalil al-Amiri, a state secretary at the Tunisian ministry of higher education.

The initiative is a partnership between research centers in several Tunisian cities, university professors, and researchers from the interior, defense, and health ministries. Some of the researchers are studying the causes and consequences of terrorism on Tunisia’s society and economy. Others are looking at how to better protect and secure borders, sensitive areas, infrastructure and natural resources, like water, which is considered a national treasure.

“The academic research helps the state to work effectively to combat terrorism and thus reduce the cost of security to deal with the issue,” said Sami Braham, a professor at Ez-Zitouna University and a scholar at the ministry of higher education’s Center for Economic and Social Studies and Research.

Numerous international reports have pointed to an increase in young Tunisians joining insurgent and terrorist organizations outside Tunisia, particularly in Syria and Libya, with some estimating the number to be as high as 6,000. An announcement in April by El-Hadi El-Majdoub, Tunisia’s minister of interior, placed the number at about 3,000, with 60 percent in Syria, 30 percent in Libya, and the rest in other regions of the world. A study by the Tunisian Center for Research and Studies showed that 40 percent of Tunisian terrorists are university students and graduates.

Sami Braham, a professor at Ez-Zitouna University and a scholar at the ministry of higher education’s Center for Economic and Social Studies and Research.

“Perhaps if Tunisia’s universities had focused on researching this dangerous phenomenon in the past years, we could have encircled it and avoided its consequences,” said Braham, who participated in developing the National Strategy to Combat Terrorism,  which was published in November of 2016. He also noted that to date there have been no doctoral or master’s research projects in Tunisia dedicated to the topic.

Hussein Boujra, the director of the Center for Maghreb Studies at the faculty of humanities and social sciences at  Tunis April 9, is one of the scholars involved the humanities and social sciences research. He believes the lack of university research in this area is due to a shortage of financial resources. “There is not enough funding for academic research in general, but the involvement of university students in terrorism is something dangerous and cannot be tolerated. It requires adequate and rapid support,” he said.

The persistent lack of funding for scientific research is common in the Arab region, where defense spending consumes the largest share of the budget in most countries. Tunisia is actually at the top of the list of Arab countries in terms of what it spends on research and development–.86 percent of its GDP, or $660 million annually. (For upper middle income countries, the average expenditure is 1.57 percent, according to the World Bank.)

Despite the availability of funding for the four research project supported by the ministry, other problems also hamper the work.

“There is administrative chaos,” said Boujra. “There is not enough coordination among the four projects, and even within the same project, because of the current lack of leadership at the Tunisian Center for Economic and Social Studies, due to the retirement of its director. That center is the main supervisor of the research.”

Government bureaucracy further hinders the researchers’ work, according to Braham. “The state institutions themselves are not cooperating,” he said. “The ministries of interior and justice do not allow researchers to obtain information about those involved in terrorist acts that do not harm the public security.”

As a result, researchers focus on communicating with those who are accused of terrorism or their families directly without the necessary personal protection, despite the sensitivity and seriousness of doing so, according to Braham.

It will be some time before the results and impact of these research projects can be evaluated, as they are not expected to be completed before the end of 2020.



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