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Insight: Tunisia Islamists seek jihad in Syria with one eye on home

Hayet Saadi, mother of Aymen Saadi, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis November 13, 2013.REUTERS/Anis Mili
Hayet Saadi, mother of Aymen Saadi, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Tunis November 13, 2013.REUTERS/Anis Mili

By Patrick Markey and Tarek Amara

ZARGHOUAN, Tunisia (Reuters) - Aymen Saadi's brief call to jihad began with dreams of fighting for an Islamic state in Syria and ended with a botched suicide bombing attempt in a crowd of foreign tourists in Tunisia.

Guards tackled the Tunisian teenager before he detonated his bomb at a presidential mausoleum last month south of Tunis. Minutes earlier, a fellow bomber had blown himself up into a bloody mess across the sand at a popular beach resort a few kilometers away.

Saadi's mission may have failed, and the beach bomber killed only himself, but Tunisia's first suicide attack in a decade was shock enough for the small North African nation; the war with militant Islam was at its door.

Tunisia's interior's ministry says its initial investigation indicates Al Qaeda-linked group Ansar al-Sharia carried out the attempted twin bombing.

Saadi might not have reached Syria's battlefields, but his journey from middle-class student to would-be suicide bomber reveals how far that conflict has become a clarion call for homegrown jihadists.

The bloodshed in Syria - as in Afghanistan in the 1980s and 1990s and Iraq in the past decade - is drawing young foreign recruits into Islamist militant ranks only to spit them back out again to return home hardened by fundamentalist fervor and war.

Saadi now sits in a Tunisian jail, but his case and those of other Tunisian jihadists are a warning about how militants, many trained in Libyan camps and dispatched to battles in Aleppo and Idlib, may come back to haunt North Africa.

"My son talked about Syria, but never about anything here in his country," Saadi's mother Hayet told Reuters. "My son was manipulated by criminal bosses, terrorists; he was just an adolescent who talked about jihad."

Tunisia is hardly alone in worrying about jihadi backlash; the roll call of those drawn to the cause of Sunni Islamist rebels battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is long and diverse - from veterans of Iraq and Chechnya to sons of London and Stockholm immigrants.

But after the Arab Spring revolts of 2011, North Africa is especially vulnerable. Hardline militants found fertile ground to spread their fundamentalist message in the political chaos of countries like Tunisia and neighboring Libya.

The Maghreb is even more exposed after this year's French intervention in Mali. Fleeing from French troops, Al Qaeda and Islamist fighters slipped into lawless southern Libya, forming a base from which to threaten Western interests.

After the revolt that toppled President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali in early 2011, Tunisia is still in flux. Moderate Islamists oppressed by Ben Ali rose to power. But ultra-conservative Salafists - keen to impose an Islamic State - returned too, from exile or prison.

Salafists have since taken over mosques, attacked art shows and alcohol sellers they see an un-Islamic. A year ago hardline Islamists briefly stormed the U.S. embassy in Tunis and hoisted a black jihadi flag in victory.

Under pressure after militants killed two opposition leaders this year, Tunisia's ruling moderate Islamists blamed local hardline group Ansar al-Sharia for the violence and branded it a terrorist group in a crackdown.

Now, where once they openly preached for an Islamist state under strict Sharia law, many Tunisian hardliners have gone underground, frustrated at repression by fellow Islamists enjoying the benefits of government power.

Ansar al-Sharia leader Abu Iyad, a veteran of Afghanistan, has vanished, too. Before he fled, he called Syria, not Tunisia, the route for jihad. His loyalty to Al Qaeda's regional vision has not been lost on his followers.

"We want nothing less than an Islamic state in Tunisia, and across the region. The first step must be Syria," Abu Salah, a young Salafist told Reuters in Tunis. "I am proud of our brothers in Syria, and I will go there myself in a few weeks."

FOOTBALL VERSUS FUNDAMENTALISM

Tunisia's Mediterranean beaches, popular with European tourists, and its proud secular tradition - among the strongest in the Arab world - make the former French colony of 11 million people seem an unlikely source for jihadists.

Nothing about Saadi's hometown Zarghouan, just 51 kilometers east of Tunis, suggests a cradle of extremism. It is best known for small sweet round donuts known as Kaak Warka pastries.

Saadi's family, too, is one of middle-class Tunisian moderation; an engineer father, a teacher mother, a white-daubed family home and a garden filled with orange and lemon trees.

In the teenager's room, a postcard of Bob Marley sits on a bookshelf next to Harper's Shorter English dictionary.

By his mother's account, Saadi was open-minded, and his high school grade book is dotted with "excellent" marks, in German, English and History. He was also a keen footballer, playing striker for the municipal football team.

But, she says, his views began to change about a year ago. She recalls no one incident that triggered the shift, but he started to spend long hours scanning radical Islamist websites and drifted to ultra-conservative preachers at a mosque.

Then he argued that he should not attend a mixed-sex school.

"He was just like other boys. He played football, listened to music, joked with girls," Hayet said on the terrace of the family home.

"At the end of 2012 he changed; he grew a beard, threw away his jeans and wore the jilbeb," she said, referring to the long traditional gown favored by Salafists.

His parents alerted authorities once to stop him going to Syria in March this year. But, she says, in August, he told them he was going to the beach with friends. He called several times - once from a Turkish number and on another occasion from a Libyan one - but he never came back. He refused to say where he was.

The next time she saw him he was behind bars.

According to his mother, who spoke to her son in prison and his lawyer a week ago, Saadi told investigators he spent time near Benghazi, training with militants there in preparation to go to Turkey and then Syria.

But his commanders eventually sent him back to Tunisia.

"He wanted to go to Syria. My son told investigators the leaders called on him to carry out the attack in Tunisia," Hayet said. "He hesitated, but he thought they would kill him."

ROAD TO ALEPPO

Abu Talha, 23, a Tunisian Salafist from a town close to the Libyan border, made it to Syria. He told Reuters he spent six months fighting alongside an Islamist brigade in Aleppo last year before returning to Tunis because of family obligations.

Photographs show him with his Islamist brigade in Syria and earlier, dressed like a tourist for a flight to Turkey to evade authorities before crossing into northern Syria.

Wary of giving too much detail, Abu Talha, who like most Salafists used a nickname in interviews with Reuters, said he was not linked to any Tunisian group. He said he flew directly to Istanbul and had contact with fighters in the south of Turkey before crossing with them to a camp on the outskirts of Aleppo.

A Syrian commander trained them with AK-47 rifles, rocket launchers and pistols for a month. They read the Koran and took religious classes when not training.

"We trained with young men from Morocco, Jordan, Chechnya, Algeria. It was a group of about 100 together," he said.

Abu Talha said he took part in battles against Syrian government forces and an attack on a military base in Aleppo, with his Islamist brigade close to Jabhat al-Nusra, a hardline Syrian group designated a terrorist group by Washington.

"We were close to al-Nusra. We spent a lot of time with them. I am proud of the experience because I believe in the project of sharia," he said. "I am more convinced today that jihad is an obligation for us."

Those declarations will unnerve officials in Tunisia's ruling moderate Islamist Ennahda party, some of whom spent years in prison for Islamist political activity, and who worry about the spread of fundamentalist militancy.

Tunisian officials say the government is keeping track of those who leave for Syria to monitor their return.

But the country's frontiers are porous, and the chaos in neighboring Libya offers militants an easy route in and out. Arms and bomb material have been found in raids on militant homes near the Libyan border.

Tunisian officials say militants travel to the vast deserts of Libya for training and weapons. That fits with accounts from families of jihadists, who say some get training near Libya's Benghazi before flying into Turkey to cross the Syrian border.

How many Tunisians have made it to Syria on jihadist missions is unclear, but some officials estimate it could be several thousand.

Mohammed Ikbel Ben Rajeb, who runs an association for relatives searching for Tunisians fighting in Syria, says more than 200 families from cities and regions across the country have contacted him for help.

"We know these jihadists will come back, and they may become a danger for the country's security," Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki told reporters. "We have to try to convince them the real jihad is against unemployment and poverty here in Tunisia."

OBLIGATION FOR ALL

Behind closed shutters of a shop in a southern district of Tunis, a group of Tunisian Salafists met with Reuters days before one of them prepared to leave for the Syrian war for what he called "an obligation for all Muslims".

His beard stained yellow with Henna and wearing the jilbeb, Abu Salah said he had never used weapons before, but expected to be trained before he reaches Syria.

"After Syria must be Tunisia," he said. "Tunisia's revolution and those in Syria, Egypt and Yemen and Libya gave us a chance to set up an Islamic state and sharia law, and in the Maghreb first."

It is not clear how Saadi, the would-be teenage suicide bomber, managed to get back into Tunisia with his name on a police list after his first attempt to reach Syria. But he told his mother he returned by car across the Libyan border.

After months of absence, Hayet only found out her son had returned when she came back from work to find police raiding her house and her neighbor telling her Saadi had been arrested.

"When I saw him last Saturday for the first time, he asked his father to forgive him. He said he had been manipulated," Hayet said of her son. "They are using teenagers who support Islam like bombs for their own ends."

That would have been the outcome for Saadi, but for the guards at former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba's tomb, who caught him in time. At the Sousse beach resort, security guards had also prevented a fellow jihadist from entering the hotel that was his target, so he blew himself up among the palm-thatched umbrellas on the sands.

(Reporting by Patrick Markey; Editing by Will Waterman and Peter Graff)

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