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How Tunisia became an ISIS breeding ground

Ryan Denison is the Senior Fellow for Theology at Denison Forum, where he contributes writing and research to many of the ministry’s productions.

He is in the final stages of earning his PhD in church history at BH Carroll Theological Institute after having earned his MDiv at Truett Seminary. Ryan has also taught at BH Carroll and Dallas Baptist University.

He and his wife, Candice, live in East Texas and have two children.

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In this Friday, Feb. 19, 2016 photo, people gather after an air strike on a house and training camp belonging to the Islamic State group, west of Sabratha, Libya. American F-15E fighter-bombers struck an Islamic State militant training camp in rural Libya near the Tunisian border Friday, killing dozens, probably including an IS operative considered responsible for deadly attacks in Tunisia last year, U.S. and local officials said. (AP Photo/Mohamed Ben Khalifa)

Among the reasons for ISIS’s success in the Middle East, the steady stream of foreign fighters ranks among the most important. While conventional wisdom says that most of these fighters should come from impoverished and war-torn countries like Syria, Libya, and their destabilized neighbors, the relatively small nation of Tunisia has been the leading source of such terrorists for the last several years. As The Wall Street Journal‘s Yaroslav Trofimov describes, Tunisia’s place atop that list is surprising in large part because it is one of the more stable and successful democracies in the Arab world.

In 2011, Tunisia was one of the nations that saw the Arab Spring revolutions upend its system of government and open the door for democracy. However, while that revolution either turned into civil war in countries like Syria, Libya, and Yemen or was put down as in Egypt, Tunisia held a successful democratic election that saw a more moderate Islamist party come to power and loosen many of the restrictions on public demonstrations of faith. And while the government has since limited some of those freedoms after radical Muslims used the lessened security to begin recruiting Tunisians into terrorist cells, it remains one of the least restrictive governments in the region.

So why do so many continue to give up their freedoms at home to join groups like ISIS and fight in Syria and Libya? As Trofimov describes, “In a country that remains deeply divided, the answer, predictably, depends on whom you ask.” He goes on to write of how Moncef Marzouki, Tunisia’s first elected president, believes that the primary reason so many educated and employed Tunisians become terrorists is that “the young people need a dream, and the only dream available to them now is the [ISIS] caliphate.”

Others argue that as many of the officials from the pre-revolutionary regime returned to power following the 2014 elections, “the new Tunisia isn’t that different from the Tunisia of old.” While they may have more nominal freedoms, the government repression and a lack of accountability among those in power remind them of old times.

Still others believe that the government has not been strict enough, especially when it comes to their treatment of religious extremists. As Mohammed Iqbel Ben Rejeb, the president of the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, described, radical groups “have political cover here. Nobody interferes with them.” His characterization is perhaps a bit too general given the way government officials routinely imprison and, at times, torture suspected and returning terrorists. However, the sentiment speaks volumes about the perceived environment in Tunisia today where many continue to watch loved ones converted by extremists at their local mosques.

Ultimately, the decision to join a terrorist organization like ISIS is largely a personal one motivated by several factors. Attempting to limit the justification to one reason or another will never fully explain the situation because those reasons often stem from a deeper cause. Whether it’s a desire to be part of something greater than yourself, to experience the freedoms to which you feel entitled, or to fulfill a perceived spiritual responsibility to Allah, the common thread that connects each of the reasons given above is a sense of dissatisfaction with the individual’s current existence.

That dissatisfaction is not going to be solved by becoming part of a group like ISIS, as evidenced by the multitude of converts that try to leave their ranks after joining. However, it’s also not going to be solved, at least not on a permanent basis, by a new dream, greater social freedoms, or stricter laws. The only lasting cure for the dissatisfaction with this life that has plagued humanity since the fall is a personal relationship with the one true God. That is the testimony of Scripture and the reality of every individual who has sought fulfillment in sources other than the Lord. We can deceive ourselves for a time and temporarily placate the desire for something more, but that hunger for meaning and thirst for fulfillment will always come back unless it finds its cure in the one who came so that we would never hunger or thirst again (John 6:35). That is true for prospective jihadists in the Middle East and for each of us as well.

As Augustine wrote in his Confessions, “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” The only source of lasting satisfaction and fulfillment that we can find in this life is Jesus Christ. Apart from him, anything we do to try and find rest for our souls will fall short because our loving heavenly Father doesn’t want us to settle for less than the ultimate peace and fulfillment that can only be found in him. Is your soul at rest today?

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