Exporting jihadis.

Who goes to fight for ISIS? An estimated 8,000+ from the Middle East; 8,000 from North Africa; 5,000 from Western Europe; 4,700 from the former Soviet Republics; 900 from Southeast Asia; and 280 from North America. If we refine it to individual countries then there are 6,000 Tunisians; 2,500 Saudi Arabians; 2,400 Russians; 2,100 Turks; and 2,000 Jordanians. Given the small size of its total population, Tunisia appears to be massively over-represented.[1]

If one plays with the numbers then 8,000+ from the Middle East – (2,500 Saudis + 2,100 Turks + 2,000 Jordanians = 6,600) = 1,400 from other places in the Middle East. Where? Yemenis, Qataris, Iraqis? Similarly, 8,000 from North Africa – (6,000 Tunisians) = 2,000 from other places in North Africa. Where? Egypt, Libya, Algeria, Morocco. Egypt, Algeria, and Morocco are sufficiently strong police states to bar most emigration. In Libya, the Islamists are preoccupied with a civil war they still hope to win. Otherwise, they’d go to Syria.

If we look at the usual explanations for why young men become jihadis, we see discussions of “failed states” and economic stagnation that leads people to embrace radical Islam as a consolation.[2] However, Tunisia had one of the highest literacy rates and one of the most developed economies in the Arab world. In a way, then, it made sense that the “Arab Spring” first blossomed in Tunisia. That uprising gave birth to the most free of the Arab “democracies.” However, Tunisia is also the single greatest source of the foreign fighters going to join the ISIS Caliphate in Syria. This is more than a puzzle for political science theory.

How can we explain this development? First, Tunisia may be the world’s tallest midget in the eyes of casual Western observers, but it is a sore disappointment in the eyes of many Tunisians. The government remains deeply corrupt and oppressive in casual ways. (Cops still slap people on the street. Try that on in the US today.) Also, many pre-revolutionary figures have wormed their way back into public life.

Second, lots of Islamic fanatics had been locked up by the old regime that was overthrown in 2011. The new regime immediately let them out of jail as victims of the old order. (Bashar al-Assad did the same in Syria, although with a different purpose.) They circulate, they talk, and they make contacts inside the country and outside it. In 2012, a group of Islamists attacked the American embassy in Tunis. In 2015, two separate terrorist attacks killed 60 tourists and wounded 80 others, while a third attack killed a dozen members of the Presidential Guard. If 6,000 Tunisians have left to join ISIS, the government has barred 15,000 from leaving.

Third, the growing economy has not grown anywhere near fast enough to raise living standards in a significant way. In early 2014, 15.2 percent of the labor force remained unemployed. It has gotten worse since then. Two terrorist attacks in 2015 killed the tourism industry, the third ranked part of the economy, along with a lot of tourists.

Are there any lessons from this sad story? Yes. First, a lot of developing economies went down the wrong road after independence. Encouraged by soft-headed Western development theorists, they adopted the Soviet model of a controlled economy. These economies became deeply entrenched with local elites. As a result, they’ve been less nimble than Chain and India about changing course. It will take a while to fix this. Patience.

Second, human rights and personal dignity are important values. Middle Eastern governments have to learn to respect their citizens. It will take a while to fix this. Patience.

[1] Jaroslav Trofimov, “How Tunisia Became a Top Source of Islamic State Recruits.” I forgot to note the date.

[2] Certainly that has been my own sense of it, provided one extended this idea to the poverty stricken Muslim enclaves in Britain, Belgium, and France.

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