The ISIS Volunteer Who Won’t Be Coming Home
The author has followed the story of a young Tunisian ISIS recruit and his family for almost four years. Today he is not in paradise, and not in hell, but somewhere in between.
Per capita, Tunisia has exported more fighters to terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq than any other country. The Tunisian Ministry of the Interior says around 3,000 Tunisians traveled to Syria and Iraq by the end of 2014 to join the fight. Some unofficial expert estimates are twice as high. Many of these came from poor suburbs in and around Sousse.
Sousse businessman Khaled Amrouni believes the extremist exodus was caused by lack of opportunity. “It’s simple. We are in this beautiful city, on the beach. And since the revolution, the young men in Sousse have struggled with poverty. There are no jobs. They see the good life, but they can’t touch it. So it became easy for these extremists to brainwash them and convince them to go to Syria.”
Khaled can’t apply his theory to his own son, however. Mohamed Amrouni has been in Syria for almost five years. The Amrouni family is far wealthier than most in Sousse. They own a plastics store, a farm, and several homes in Tunisia. When Mohamed left, his older sister was studying in France, and his older brother, Ajmi, was planning to begin at a university in Tunisia. Khaled always expected Mohamed to finish high school and follow suit.
I first met the Amrouni family in 2014, several months after Mohamed disappeared. Men in Kalâa Kebira, the small Sousse village where the family lives most of the time, rallied in the streets, holding signs encouraging young men to make the journey to Syria. Local imams held lectures, calling the trip to Syria a duty for the youth who were able to go.
“After the revolution, the extremists had a chance to come out in force,” said Oussama ben Amer, Mohamed’s childhood best friend. “They would come preach to us in school, in the streets… it became a normal thing. And boys going to Syria became a normal thing, too.”
In 2013, Mohamed was 17 years old and in his second to last year of high school. He would often work in the family store after school. He was a dedicated, successful student, so it didn’t seem strange to his family that a math tutor would often come to instruct him as he manned the counter.
But Mohamed’s friends noticed changes just before the school year ended. “He was wearing religious robes in class, and he avoided the slightest physical contact with girls at school. It was weird behavior for a boy his age,” Oussama recalled.
Mohamed spent an increasing amount of time at a local mosque. He sometimes stayed overnight in observance of i’tikaaf, a custom in which a Muslim remains in a mosque for one or more days to worship continuously. “This wasn’t a normal thing in Tunisia, really,” Oussama said. “In ancient times, it was, but we didn’t see it happen here until after the revolution. And now we can say it was pretty much related to ISIS.”
Mohamed’s parents didn’t think anything of the overnight worship. Fairly conservative Muslims themselves, they were happy Mohamed was pursuing religion more fervently than his older brother Ajmi, who preferred the beach and bars. On the night of July 30, 2013, Mohamed left his parents’ store for an overnight at the mosque, promising he’d be home the next morning.
The next time they heard from him, he was calling from the Libyan border, with a group of young men from in and around Sousse. They were on their way to Syria.
Mohamed’s family was stunned. It didn’t take long for them to figure out that Mohamed’s devoted math tutor was an ISIS recruiter, indoctrinating him in their after-school sessions. Khaled learned that he and a network of others in Sousse recruited as many as 20 other children. He believes that these recruiters received a bounty for every person they recruited and sent to Syria.
The Amrouni family acquainted themselves with the families of some of the other young men who’d been recruited, and together, they approached the authorities. Khaled says that eventually, police arrested the math tutor who’d recruited Mohamed. He was investigated, but citing a lack of evidence, the police freed him.
The Amrouni family still passes him from time to time in the streets of Kalâa Kebira. “Guess what he does now?” Khaled asked, laughing bitterly. “He’s a schoolteacher.”
For the first couple of years, Mohamed’s older brother Ajmi and the rest of the family put everything they had into trying to get Mohamed back to Tunisia. They made a public Facebook page to bring attention to his case. Twice, Ajmi went to Turkey to try to coax him into crossing the border.
In interviews conducted in 2014, it seemed that Khaled believed his youngest son was just a misguided child. “My son was a brilliant student. The network [of ISIS recruiters] targeted him for this reason,” Khaled said then. “The authorities should do more to try to get him and the others back, to help them.”
After a video I’d produced about him and his family aired in 2014, Mohamed himself messaged me on Facebook. He seemed willing to answer my questions, so I asked if he planned to marry in Syria. He said that he didn’t need to—when ISIS invaded America, he’d just take a sex slave. “I’m not with my family, but I’m happy very much,” he said after. “If you were Muslim, you would understand why we fight.
“If you want to join Islam, be with IS… Welcome.” He said, just before going offline and deactivating his account.
After thousands left for Syria, the Tunisian government began enforcing travel restrictions. Anyone under the age of 35 would have to present parental consent and meet with government officials to be able to leave the country. Trips to Turkey were routinely denied, but this wasn’t much of a deterrent. The jihadis simply booked flights to other countries, and flew to Turkey from them.
But with so many jihadis in Syria and Iraq, the issue of more leaving was soon eclipsed by a more pressing threat—what happens when the thousands of extremists who left started to come back?
Mohamed maintained regular contact with Ajmi through Skype and Facebook accounts he would open and deactivate within a few days. In nearly every conversation, Mohamed would urge Ajmi to come to Syria to join the fight. He’d ask Ajmi to pass messages to his old friend, Oussama, to do the same.
Mohamed said he was working as a nurse in an ISIS hospital, treating fighters injured in battle and earning about $50 a month. He maintained that he was happy and didn’t regret joining. He became more careful about revealing his whereabouts, opting instead to tell Ajmi once he departed a certain area. He spent more than a year in Deir Ezzor before settling in ISIS’ Syrian stronghold, Raqqa.
As the years passed, the grief of Mohamed’s parents atrophied into relative indifference toward Mohamed and concern for Ajmi. In an interview in 2016, Ajmi told me his father asked him to stop going to the mosque completely. “He’s just too scared that someone will get to me the way they got to my brother,” he said.
When Ajmi told his parents that Mohamed had married a Syrian woman in Raqqa in 2015, they barely reacted. News that he had two children with his new wife in rapid succession seemed to make them even more distant.
About six months ago, as ISIS was losing its final grip on Raqqa, Ajmi said Mohamed started speaking differently. “He told me he left ISIS, and that he wanted to come home. He said he realized that he was wrong to come to Syria in the first place. He begged for my forgiveness, and he begged for our parents to forgive him.”
Ajmi believes that as ISIS lost territory and manpower in Syria, they became more lax about monitoring their soldiers. Mohamed used the opportunity to slip away. His wife’s family hid him in their home, and there, he decided he would go back to Tunisia. He would make the trip alone, sending for his family later.
He planned to make his way to Syria’s border with Turkey. He would cross illegally, turn himself in to Turkish authorities, and hope for a quick extradition back to Tunisia.
“If he comes back, of course he will go to prison,” his father, Khaled, told me. “Maybe since he’s had children, he has started to feel guilty about what he’s done. Maybe now he understands what he has put us through. I hope he starts paying for his bad actions, and that Allah will guide him to the right path and forgive him.”
The last time Mohamed spoke to Ajmi was on Nov. 14, 2017. He was finally going to cross the border to Turkey, he said. He’d be home in Tunisia soon, and he didn’t care if home meant prison.
Tunisia’s handling of returning jihadis has been inconsistent. According to the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad, 970 fighters have returned to Tunisia from Syria and Iraq. Not all have been incarcerated. In late 2016, Tunisian president Béji Caïd Essebsi said that not all returning jihadis would be detained, provoking nationwide protests. This prospect was abandoned.
Ajmi says he knows two men who have returned from Syria. Both did short stints in prison and were then freed. “But they have both been put back in prison,” Ajmi said. “The police were watching them, and found out they were both planning attacks inside Tunisia. Separately.”
In late 2017, the Tunisian government announced that it secured funding to create a deradicalization program aimed at rehabilitating returning jihadi fighters. They said the plan would roll out this year, though details of the program and its proposed implementation are still unknown.
None of this is of much consequence to Mohamed now. In January, after two months of silence, the Amrouni family got a letter from the Red Cross in Tunis. On a routine visit to a prison in a Kurdish-held Syrian border town called al Malikiyah, a local chapter of the organization encountered Mohamed. When he attempted to cross the border to Turkey, he was captured and imprisoned by a faction of the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed force affiliated with the Kurdish YPG.
In the letter, Mohamed’s message to his family was a single line. “Please call my sister in France and get my wife’s number.” He listed his home address as that of his mother and father. The document was stamped with “SAFE AND WELL” in English and Arabic.
In a briefing on Feb. 26, Operation Inherent Resolve’s American spokesman, Col. Ryan Dillon, made a statement about those in Mohamed’s position. “While we remain focused on rooting out Daesh [ISIS] terrorists from the remaining territory they hold, we also support the SDF in pursuing and targeting foreign terrorist fighters attempting to escape through neighboring countries and inflict further harm across the region and the world. We are proud of the progress in his effort, with the SDF (Syrian Democratic Forces) capturing hundreds of these foreign-born terrorists.”
It is unclear how the SDF and their allies will handle these foreign prisoners. The home countries of these jihadis have been slow to coordinate extraditions. Tunisia has repatriated very few of the fighters who have been captured abroad, and none from Syria.
Ajmi went to the police and asked if they could help with Mohamed’s extradition. They said there was nothing they could do. He’s pressed the Red Cross in Tunis for more information, but they have none to give. “I’m searching for any option,” he said.
When asked if he thought Mohamed might be a terror threat once he returned to Tunisia, Ajmi was adamant that he wouldn’t. “No… he was so young,” he said. “I just want my brother to come back, do his prison time, and restart his life. Insh’Allah. He is not a threat.”
But it’s hard to consider Mohamed and other foreign jihadi prisoners anything else. Radicalized and now battle-hardened, there are hundreds of such threats waiting in prisons for their home countries, America, and/or the Kurdish and Iraqi forces holding them to decide their fate.