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New Research: Disaffection and Limited Avenues for Engagement Leaves Tunisians Vulnerable to Violent Extremism

June 1, 2017

Washington, D.C.— Public opinion research released today by the International Republican Institute’s (IRI) Center for Insights in Survey Research uncovers the sources of vulnerabilities to violent extremism among segments of Tunisia’s population. Through in-depth focus group discussions and one-on-one interviews with residents of Beja—including the friends and family of extremists who have left Tunisia to fight with groups such as ISIS—IRI identified recommendations for community-led initiatives to counter the influence of violent extremism.

“Despite the great strides towards democracy Tunisia has taken since the Arab Spring, it is one of the largest exporters of foreign fighters to extremist hotbeds like Syria and Iraq,” said Scott Mastic, Regional Director for the Middle East and North Africa. “This research confirms that the belief that there is no effective, nonviolent way to express grievances is being exploited by terrorist recruiters, and proposes innovative, citizen-centered counter-strategies to address this problem.”

This targeted qualitative research in Beja builds on previous nationwide polls conducted by IRI in Tunisia. The findings indicate a gap between the expectations raised by the 2011 revolution and continued grievances of Tunisians. Unemployment, the lack of responsiveness by local government and the perception of widespread corruption were cited as key factors that rob vulnerable segments of the population of their sense of agency and self-worth.

A large proportion of respondents also reported negative encounters with police or security services, including cases of assault and harassment. In vulnerable segments of the population, this appeared to fuel feelings of anger, frustration and the sense that there are no effective remedies for citizen concerns.

“As Tunisia continues on the path to democracy, decision-makers must seize the opportunity to address the issues driving segments of the population towards extremism,” said IRI Senior Governance Specialist Luke Waggoner. “It is crucial that both the national and local governments engage citizens through measures such as regular and accessible town hall meetings; reforms to make municipal processes more transparent; and by taking steps to improve the relationship between security services and the public.” 

Background

IRI’s approach to preventing violent extremism is anchored in three phases: understanding, informing, and equipping. This report represents the first phase of that strategy. In late 2016, the Institute conducted research in Beja, Tunisia, to understand the local drivers behind increased vulnerability to violent extremism in the community. Beja was selected because it has been a source of a significant number of foreign fighters. This report is based on focus group research and extensive interviews with residents of Beja, including family and friends of foreign fighters. The groups have been classified according to their levels of vulnerability or resilience to violent extremism.