Tunisia Islamists in jihad against Assad

2012-05-14 22:29

kalahari.com

Ben Guerdane - The first that Tunisian schoolteacher Mokhtar Mars heard of his brother fighting alongside rebels in Syria was a phone call from a foreign number, telling him Houssein was dead.

"We got an anonymous call telling us he had been martyred. Just three words. We tried to call back but there was no answer," said Mars, 40, sitting on a mattress along a wall of what was his younger brother's room, bereft of other belongings.

"The last call we got from him in February was from Libya. He said he was there to study... Then all contact was broken. We tried to call the number he used but there was no answer."

Houssein Mars, 34, is one of at least five Tunisians, all from the southeastern town of Ben Guerdane on the border with Libya, who are believed to have been killed in Syria. Two of their families agreed to be interviewed, as did the family of a sixth man, from the same town, whose fate is not known.

The families either received calls from their sons in Syria or calls from strangers telling them their sons were dead.

Though the families have seen no corpses or proof of the deaths, a video carrying the black flag of al-Qaeda has appeared on Facebook eulogising the five men to a backdrop of Koranic verses and stating they had been killed in Homs, which has seen some of the worst bombardment by Bashar al-Assad's forces.

Syria's envoy to the United Nations says 26 Arab fighters have been captured and "confessed" to al-Qaeda sympathies. Another envoy to the UN said 19 of those 26 were Tunisians.

Foreign Islamist fighters appear to be a fringe element only in the conflict between assorted Syrian rebel groups and Assad's armed forces. But the fate of this one band of Tunisian friends offers some of the hardest evidence yet that Syria could become a magnet for the kind of young Muslim men from around the world who once sought jihad and martyrdom in Iraq or Afghanistan.

At least one young man in Ben Guerdane told Reuters he was himself ready to go and fight in Syria.

Devout Sunnis

The Tunisians' families say they were simply devout Sunni Muslims anguished by images of civilians suffering at the hands of forces dominated by Assad's minority Alawites, whom many Arabs see as waging sectarian war on Syria's Sunni majority.

"What we see on television cannot make any Muslim happy... An army killing its people. No one can accept this," said Mokhtar Mars, adding that because his brother and others wore beards and prayed often did not make them militant Islamists.

"There are bearded, religious people but that does not mean they are extremists," he added. " If you saw these boys you would be surprised if they killed a fly."

The Syrian list of captured fighters suggests men from all over Tunisia have gone to fight in Syria. However, the Facebook video eulogising the dead quotes Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late Jordanian leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, praising the bravery of men from Ben Guerdane in particular.

That suggests the town had a history of sending volunteers to the Iraqi conflict too.

Residents of Ben Guerdane, which lives off trade and smuggling with Libya and where outward displays of religious fervour have spread since last year's Tunisian revolt ousted secular leader Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, say more youths may have quietly slipped away to join rebels fighting to overthrow Assad.

"There are some youths who are going to Syria via Ben Guerdane. They are religious. We think they are from Salafi Islamist currents but it is not certain," said a security source in the town. "What we know is that more than 10 left from here."

Syria's government has from the outset sought to paint the uprising as a plot by foreign fighters and al-Qaeda militants. It points to Thursday's twin suicide bombings which killed 55 people in Damascus as evidence that it is fighting "terrorism".

In February, al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri urged Muslims to come to the aid of Syrian rebels.

Arms seeping in

That call coincided with reports from Iraq that fighters and arms were seeping into Syria, fuelling violence in a country that once sent guns and militants the other way.

Russia, which is Assad's main arms supplier and defender, said in March he was fighting al-Qaeda-backed "terrorists" including at least 15 000 foreign fighters and accused Libya of running a training centre for rebels.

Libya's prime minister has said he was unaware of any camps, and Syrian opposition members, keen to rally Syria's minorities to a revolt led largely by the Sunni Arab majority, are at pains to distance themselves from militant links.

"I have received offers from Arabs and foreigners to send us fighters but we said 'no'. We have fighters. We need guns. There is no al-Qaeda here or any such group. It is all lies," said Lieutenant Colonel Khaled Hammoud, a commander of the opposition Free Syrian Army, speaking by telephone from the Turkish border.

"We don't want to give the regime an excuse to accuse us of bringing in foreign fighters."

Whether or not they are working with Syrian rebels, however, as the violence drags on foreign fighters may take advantage of the chaos, further complicating the conflict.

"Foreign volunteers are part of the picture and that was virtually inevitable given the context: growing chaos across the country, a political conflict with sectarian undertones, and extreme forms of violence leading to some radicalisation," said Peter Harling, Syria analyst at the International Crisis Group.

"But jihadis generally are still a sideshow. In a sense it is surprising that relatively few bomb attacks of the kind they may engage in have occurred."

The families of the men from Ben Guerdane say they were devout Sunni Muslims who spent much time in prayer.

Desire for jihad

At least two of them, including Houssein Mars, had spent time in jail under the ousted president Ben Ali charged with alleged links to Islamist radicals, their families say.

At least one, 26-year-old Mohammed Lafi, was jailed after trying, and failing, to slip into Iraq via Syria, his family says. He then went to Algeria, where he was arrested and sent back to Tunisia. Jailed for three years, he was freed in 2010.

The men had spoken to relatives about their desire for jihad, or holy war, and to die as martyrs but had said nothing specific, it seems, before making their way to Syria.

Walid Hilal has been missing since 24 February, when he told his family he was going to the capital for a kung fu tournament. The 21-year-old had taken up the sport a year before and appears mid-kick in the Facebook eulogy, in a red martial arts outfit.

"My son is a martyr. He did nothing wrong and I'm not worried about him," said his mother Mabrouka, sitting beside her husband and other sons on a couch. "He used to say 'I'll go to jihad and you mustn't cry' but I didn't take him seriously."

Walid's mobile phone has been off since he left. Like the Mars family, the Hilals received a mysterious call from a Syrian number on 17 April telling him Walid had become a "martyr".

"After two days, when he was not answering the phone, we found out his friends had gone too and their phones were off too. We realised something was happening and we heard that some of them called their parents from Turkey to say they were going to Syria, but our brother did not call," said Taher Hilal.

"All we know is he was martyred, but how and why? We have no pictures and no proof."

Read more on:    al-qaeda  |  syria  |  tunisia  |  uprisings
NEXT ON NEWS24X

SHARE:

Read News24’s Comments Policy

24.com publishes all comments posted on articles provided that they adhere to our Comments Policy. Should you wish to report a comment for editorial review, please do so by clicking the 'Report Comment' button to the right of each comment.

Comment on this story
0 comments
Add your comment
Comment 0 characters remaining
 

Inside News24

 
/News
 
Traffic
Lottery
 
  • Thursday Stellenbosch - 18:16 PM
    Road name: R44 Southbound
    DELAYS between the R310 Adam Tas Street and Paradyskloof Road
  • Thursday Milnerton - 17:45 PM
    Road name: Marine Drive Northbound
    DELAYS between Boundary Road and Blaauwberg Road
 
More traffic reports...
 

Jobs in Cape Town [change area]

Property [change area]

Travel - Look, Book, Go!

Magical Massinga

Spend 5 nights at the gorgeous Massinga Beach Lodge in Mozambique and only pay for 4 from R13 220 per person sharing. Includes return flights, accommodation, transfers and romantic turndown. Book now!

Kalahari.com - shop online today

2 TV Series for R250

Get 2 TV Series box sets for R250 and save up to R148! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Pre-order the Xbox One

Get this all-in-one entertainment system with live TV, movies, social networking and gaming. Pre-order now!

Up to 50% off hair care products!

Save up to 50% on professional hair care products at kalahari.com. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

30% off academic books

Score a mind blowing 30% off academic books! Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

Mind blowing deals on electronics!

Save up to 35% on electronics. Offer valid while stocks last. Shop now!

OLX Free Classifieds [change area]

Samsung Galaxy s4

Mobile, Cell Phones in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 24

Best bargain in big bay

Real Estate, Houses - Apartments for Sale in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

VW Golf 6, 1.6 Trendline (Excellent condition)

Vehicles, Cars in South Africa, Western Cape, Cape Town. Date October 25

BlackBerry Bold Touch 9900

The Blackberry Bold Touch 9900 is as the name says...

From R2999.00

I'm shopping for:

Horoscopes
Aquarius
Aquarius

Your heart is big and you are sensitive to the needs of those around you. Your humanitarian side is emphasized today and you may...read more

There are new stories on the homepage. Click here to see them.
 
English
Afrikaans
isiZulu

Hello 

Create Profile

Creating your profile will enable you to submit photos and stories to get published on News24.


Please provide a username for your profile page:

This username must be unique, cannot be edited and will be used in the URL to your profile page across the entire 24.com network.

Settings

Location Settings

News24 allows you to edit the display of certain components based on a location. If you wish to personalise the page based on your preferences, please select a location for each component and click "Submit" in order for the changes to take affect.








Facebook Sign-In

Hi News addict,

Join the News24 Community to be involved in breaking the news.

Log in with Facebook to comment and personalise news, weather and listings.