Democracy Lab

The Godfathers of Tunis

Tunisia’s new government has declared war on sleaze -- but that’s much easier said than done.

Belhassen Trabelsi is not your typical immigrant seeking refugee status in Canada. For starters, he arrived in Canada on a private jet. His family owned a $2.5 million mansion in Montreal -- at least until the Canadian government confiscated it. And unlike many people escaping their home countries, Trabelsi is fleeing a democratically elected government, one that came to power after the Tunisian people revolted against the rule of Trabelsi's brother-in-law, longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Trabelsi -- a balding, baby-faced 49-year-old with sunken eyes and a large double chin -- is the brother of Leila Trabelsi, Ben Ali's wife. According to U.S. Embassy cables leaked by the whistleblowing website WikiLeaks, Belhassen Trabelsi is "the most notorious family member" in Ben Ali's extended family. The cables refer to the entire family as a "quasi-mafia," noting that "the Trabelsis' strong-arm tactics and flagrant abuse of the system make them easy to hate." Described in the French press as a "hoodlum," Trabelsi profited from his sister's 1992 marriage, using public institutions and resources to create a Tunisian business empire that included luxury hotels, an airline, a radio station, a newspaper and two banks.

Trabelsi fled for Montreal when Tunisians took to the streets in the winter of 2011 to bring down the Ben Ali regime. Despite a request from the Tunisian government to extradite Trabelsi so that he may face justice, the Canadian authorities, by holding fast to legal procedures designed to protect the rights of legitimate asylum seekers, have allowed him to remain. Earlier this month, Trabelsi lost his bid to have his Canadian permanent residency reinstated, but it is likely he will remain in Canada for years while he appeals for refugee status.

In many ways, Tunisia's so-called Jasmine Revolution was a rejection of the corrupt system led by a small oligarchic clan in which Trabelsi figured so prominently. Yet even today, corruption remains one of Tunisia's major challenges in creating a democratic system. Tunisia has made some headway on the domestic front by confiscating local Ben Ali assets, bringing some of the old oligarchs into custody, and setting up anti-corruption mechanisms. Yet the new government is still struggling to fully reckon with the abuses of the past. One of the biggest challenges: Bringing all ex-regime figures to justice and recovering Tunisian financial assets -- over $15 billion by some estimates -- that were spirited away and hidden around the world.

"This is a fight between two groups: The Tunisian state and an international mafia," says Abderrahmane Ladgham, referring to the Trabelsi and Ben Ali family and those who continue to support them. Ladgham, a member of the coalition government's center-left Ettakatol party, is a deputy prime minister in charge of governance and the fight against corruption.

"The old regime had a face, a façade that it presented to the West, as a developed country, the good little boy of the World Bank, the good little boy of the IMF, a country open to tourism, to culture, and a second face which was repressive, intolerant, opaque, corrupted," says Ladgham. He insists that today's Tunisia, by contrast, is ready to face up to the abuses of the past, saying that the government is committed to transparency, "even if the dossiers or the reports are made against us [members of the government]."

So far, however, the job of retrieving foreign assets and bringing those old regime figures to justice has been hindered by a lack of full cooperation by countries that had good relations with the Ben Ali family. These include Canada, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar -- all still home to members of the family -- as well as Switzerland and France. Some of these countries have made gestures in the right direction. Canada seized a Ben Ali family mansion and $100,000 in bank accounts, while Switzerland, Qatar, and the European Union have frozen bank accounts that were directly owned by Ben Ali and his wife. But Tunisian officials say these steps account for only a tiny portion of the former regime's assets. They believe that much of the rest was either transferred to other family members, or moved from bank accounts to more complex financial instruments. Ladgham adds that some countries don't want to help in an active way, using their internal legislation as pretexts.

When it comes to dealing with internal assets, the Tunisian government has managed to confiscate hundreds of businesses, banks, insurance companies and several pieces of real estate that were controlled by the previous regime. Many of these are in the form of conglomerates, such as Princesse Holding -- a group controlled by Ben Ali's son-in-law, Sakher el-Materi -- that encompasses businesses in all major sectors of the Tunisian economy, ranging from car importers to publishing companies and banks. The broad scale of the confiscations attests to just how widespread corruption was under the old regime. Nearly all major businesses were either owned outright by the former ruling family or had arrangements with them. Government ministries were often used as tools for furthering the same interests.

The politics of managing the newly confiscated assets has proven difficult. Full accounts of the assets, now under the control of the central bank, were only just being compiled in September. As of this March, Tunisia's elected government had still not decided which assets to sell and how they will be sold. Beyond that, Ladgham says that the government may confiscate more assets, because it is "discovering more and more people who are related to the ruling family."

While many of these assets have been seized, Tunisia's new government is finding it difficult to bring to justice those who were in charge. "Our main difficulty lies with those people who profited in the old system," says Samir Annabi, the new chief of Tunisia's National Commission against Corruption and the Misappropriation of Funds. "They will try to defend themselves. It's a continuation of the old system."

The commission is one of the few tools at the disposal of the Tunisian government as it begins cleaning house within the government. Annabi was appointed only recently, four months after the previous chief died in office. Ladgham says that the period of the commission's inactivity amounts to "wasted time" in the fight against corruption. Annabi has over 6,000 files to work through. The files document corruption complaints that were collected under the previous transitional government from citizens and officials alike, although the full extent of their contents is unclear. "Behind each file is at least one person seeking justice," says Annabi, explaining that cases documented in the files will be investigated and referred to the as-yet-unreformed court system.

Annabi's task is made harder, according to Ladgham, by the fact that unspecified parties, both inside and outside the government, object to giving the commission too much power, on the grounds that the body might abuse its authority by selectively choosing which cases to investigate.

Samir Dilou, the Minister of Human Rights and Transitional Justice, also faces an uphill battle. The primary task of his ministry is to design a new justice system in consultation with civil society groups, legal bodies, and political parties. Yet even this relatively focused mission is meeting with considerable resistance. "A regime does not die a sudden death," says Dilou. "It always has that unfortunate habit of perpetuating itself. It's not a question of individual agency, but of a well-entrenched system."

His job has its contradictions. Shortly after the elections, in his role as Minister of Human Rights, he visited the dozens of ex-regime figures jailed at the Al-Aouina military base, in response to complaints about uncomfortable imprisonment conditions. That the minister even felt compelled to make such a visit may come as a shock to the hundreds of thousands of Tunisians -- many of them instrumental in the uprisings that led to the overthrow of the old regime -- who find themselves without jobs today. University graduates in the interior of Tunisia, among whom unemployment runs between 30 and 40 percent, have continued to hold regular demonstrations since the revolution, calling for jobs, justice, and a more accountable government. (Unemployed university graduates are seen demonstrating in the image above.) A recent report by the International Crisis Group notes that the Tunisian authorities' "gradualist" approach to coming to terms with the past has its drawbacks, leaving unanswered wide-scale demands for both justice and accountability,

"We want more transparency and disclosure of information," says Mouheb Garoui, 24, president of I-Watch, a nongovernmental transparency and corruption organization formed in the wake of the revolution. The urgency of dealing with corruption was made clear when Transparency International released its 2011 Corruption Perception Index. Tunisia's global rank fell 14 places since the revolution, though this may be partly due to better reporting about the previous regime's crimes. "Asking for the end of a corrupt regime and succeeding in changing the ruler don't necessarily mean that the rules, or the structure, have changed," says Sion Assidon, the head of Transparency's regional office.

According to one poll published in April, 75 percent of Tunisians do not believe that the new government succeeded in fighting corruption and bribery in its first 100 days. (Gauging public opinion on the issue is tricky, since Tunisia still lacks independent polling organizations.) For his part, Ladgham believes that measuring corruption by public perception is not necessarily useful.

Still, despite the myriad challenges, Ladgham believes that Tunisia is on the right path: "We have nothing to be ashamed of, because we are beginning to learn and we have the will to do something about it."

FETHI BELAID/AFP/GettyImages

Argument

Me Against the World

In a Foreign Policy exclusive, American jihadist (and rapper) Omar Hammami sends word about al Shabaab's bloody leadership wars and how he became a target.

Three months ago, Alabama native Omar Hammami's major claim to fame was his notoriety as the "jihadist rapper," laying down dope (or just dopey) beats in propaganda videos supporting al Shabaab's jihadist insurgency in Somalia.

But on March 14, Hammami appeared in a video with no musical accompaniment and none of his trademark corny humor.

"To whomever it may reach from the Muslims ... I record this message today because I fear my life may be endangered by [al Shabaab] because of some differences that occurred regarding matters of the sharia and of strategy," a visibly shaken Hammami said in an unprecedented breach of jihadist omertà.

The rumor mill kicked into overtime, with most accounts claiming Hammami had been placed under house arrest somewhere in Somalia while al Shabaab figured out what to do with him. Hammami was rumored to be an important battlefield commander, and al Shabaab propaganda portrayed him in a role close to its leadership. What could have happened to cause such a dramatic split?

Hammami is easily the most high-profile Westerner among the al Qaeda-linked terrorist organization in the Horn of Africa, a group that boasts dozens of American-born recruits among its ranks. Several years ago, al Shabaab was seen as largely being a regional force, but a leadership shuffle and the formal alliance with al Qaeda has given it broader ambitions -- and put the terrorist group squarely in the sights of U.S. counterterrorism officials.

In particular, U.S. officials worry about domestic radicalization and support for the Somali group. The schism between Hammami -- the popular son of a Syrian and "typical Southern protestant girl" (as he describes his mother in his autobiography) -- and al Shabaab leadership is therefore particularly interesting.

This week, Hammami tried to address those questions, first in an autobiography posted online, and then in a series of e-mails with Foreign Policy, via his "interlocutor" Abu Muhammad.

His fascinating 127-page autobiography was packed with detail about everything from Hammami's childhood in Alabama to the various types of biting insects and bowel movements he encountered upon coming to Somalia. It's also filled with details about the torturous training that recruits (in particular, foreign recruits) were made to endure. Hammami doesn't complain per se, even when he recounts being beaten in his genitals and starved on forced marches, but these are passages that aren't likely to be seen as generous to al Shabaab. But, in order to avoid making Hammami's current situation any worse, the narrative (billed as "Part 1") stops in 2007, when al Shabaab first emerged as an organization distinct from its predecessor, the Islamic Courts Union. References to Hammami's current plight were oblique at best, and media reports understandably failed to pick up on them.

In response to questions from Foreign Policy, the person who posted the March 14 video agreed to provide some further detail.

As to the identity of the source, the poster identified himself as Abu Muhammad As-Somali, but also as Abu M American, echoing Hammami's jihadist nom de guerre of "Abu Mansoor Al Amriki." His user account was the same one that posted the March 14 video.  In addition to the video, Abu Muhammad posted the autobiography, a photograph of Hammami with the autobiography and a portion of a previously unreleased Hammami audio recording.

Abu Muhammad responded promptly to queries about Hammami's intentions and views, often using the American jihadist's distinctive tone of voice and sense of humor, though he represented that he had received these answers through conversations with Omar.

When asked directly if he was Omar Hammami, Abu Muhammad replied "I'm Omar's PR rep" and said Hammami was limiting his media contacts for security reasons.

Asked about the split with al Shabaab, Abu Muhammad pointed to several passages in the autobiography which he said were relevant to the rift, adding details in several instances. The story that emerges is one of bloody internal feuds and bad behavior toward foreign fighters, which Abu Muhammad said were at the core of the dispute.

Abu Muhammad said there had been a pattern of politically motivated assassinations of Somali jihadist leaders by other leaders of both the Islamic Courts Union and al Shabaab. One of the first incidents that came to Hammami's attention was the 2007 killing of Abu Talha As-Sudani, a Somali jihadist with long ties to al Qaeda.

The official story from Shabaab was that Abu Talha had been killed fighting the Ethiopians, Hammami wrote in his autobiography. But the timeline of the alleged attack did not add up and a photo of Abu Talha's body suggested he might not have died in the heat of combat.

"The story, along with the picture on his camera phone, showing that the bullet was aimed precisely for Abu [Talha's] heart makes me want to lay the blame on someone other than the Kuffaar [infidels]," Hammami wrote.

Hammami said that other mujahideen leaders had "plausible motives" for the killing, pointing out that Abu Talha was considering starting a splinter group that would be loyal to Hasan Turky, a leader in the Islamic Courts Union whom Hammami believed was tied to al Qaeda. (The autobiography mentions several al Qaeda operatives who were active within the Islamic Courts Union.)

Although Abu Muhammad would not confirm Hammami's specific suspicions about more recent killings, al Qaeda and al Shabaab analysts pointed to the deaths of Somalia-based al Qaeda leaders Harun Fazul and Bilal al-Barjawi, and a Shabaab official named Sakr, as a possible jihadist "Night of the Long Knives" meant to clear the decks of bin Laden loyalists and lay the groundwork for the official merger of al Shabaab and al Qaeda under the leadership of Ayman al-Zawahiri in February 2012, about one month before Hammami posted his video.

The autobiography also catalogs Hammami's complaints about the treatment of scores of foreign fighters from the United States and Europe, including what he viewed as unnecessarily brutal training techniques, discriminatory practices, and frequent efforts to marginalize their role in battle. Hammami cited conflicts within al Shabaab over how to treat suspected spies among the foreign fighters, including whether they should be summarily executed. A spate of such executions took place shortly before Hammami posted the March video.

Abu Muhammad cautioned that the foreign fighter rift was broader than these incidents but did not provide specifics. In the autobiography, Hammami notably depicts himself as a sort of labor union organizer on behalf of the foreign fighters, a role he describes as contentious.

At least 40 Americans have gone to Somalia to join the Islamic Courts Union and/or al Shabaab, in addition to dozens more who have provided financial and material support while remaining on U.S. soil. Al Shabaab has featured its Western fighters prominently in propaganda videos, and in 2010, Terrance Ford, director of intelligence and knowledge development for the U.S. Army's Africa Command, said several Americans held senior leadership roles in the organization.

Finally, the autobiography revealed for the first time that Hammami had been writing jihadist strategy papers under the name Abu Jihad As-Shaami. These papers represent  Hammami's effort to expand his role from the battlefield and to claim credibility as a jihadist ideologue, an effort which succeeded to some extent -- perhaps too well.

Abu Muhammad indicated in an e-mail that one of Hammami's "Abu Jihad" tracts was pertinent to the American's current woes. "The Vision of the Jihaadi Movement and the Strategy for the Current Stage" attracted significant attention from Western analysts as an argument in favor of al Qaeda's global ambitions but with criticism of its tactics and priorities -- such as Ayman al-Zawahiri's obsession with the Sykes-Picot borders, an overemphasis on the importance of Jerusalem, and especially a lack of short-term focus on the long-term goal of establishing a global caliphate.

Shortly before Hammami posted his video, someone leaked an audio recording of the American jihadi titled "In Defense of the Khilafah [Caliphate]" on jihadist forums.

The recording was incomplete and swiftly removed from the forums, but not before users began to speculate, based on similarities in the content, that Hammami was in fact Abu Jihad.

Abu Muhammad posted the full lecture today, including unreleased portions that he said had "a lot to do with Omar's current situation."

"The bonds between the local mujahideen and the mujahideen who have a more global vision of the jihad are still noticeably lacking in certain parts of the world today, even despite the great gains witnessed in the last decade," Hammami says in the audio. "I dare to inquire from my brothers, if we choose to continue to neglect this glaring fact for the sake of what some people would like to call unity during our time of hardship, who can assure us that the times of strength and ease of tomorrow will bring about the environment of cohesion we desire?"

Hammami goes on to relate a story from the early days of Islam concerning internal "clashes and conflict" among Muslims. He argues that modern mujahideen have become too specialized, working either locally or globally and not attacking both fronts at the same time. The current "conglomerate of local jihadi fronts" is a failure, he says, because local concerns tend to take precedence over global leadership.

The answer to this, Hammami says, is to unite all the jihadists of the world under a single name, not al Qaeda, but declaring the global caliphate and naming a singular leader as caliph, bringing all local groups under that umbrella. From a religious perspective, this is a wildly controversial proposal. Hammami concedes that his listeners probably think he's a "raving lunatic."

With the audio now public, Hammami's controversial ideas will be sounded out by the online jihadi community over the next days and weeks. In the meantime, his peers on the ground continue to pose an imminent threat to Hammami's life.

Abu Muhammad said al Shabaab had not yet killed Hammami because it was "too messy politically," he said. "Things can't be done in the open, and he hasn't given them any opportunities to create an ‘accident.'"

Abu Muhammad declined to answer questions about Hammami's current location except to confirm he is still in Somalia. He compared Hammami's current situation to Osama bin Laden's setbacks after being forced to leave the Sudan in 1996. "We know what happened with bin Laden after that," said Abu Muhammad.

When asked if he saw that kind of leadership role in Hammami's future, the response was simultaneously pensive and grandiose:

Omar doesn't seek leadership roles. They normally just fall in his lap against his wishes.

Anyway, right now he's got to focus on surviving because the world is his enemy. I get the feeling the endgame is probably death this time...but you never know.

It would probably be in your country's interests to make sure that he DOES die this time.

Hammami's hope for survival seems to be pinned on the prospect that al Shabaab could crumble in the near future, giving way to a new jihadi organization. "Courts fell, Shabaab came," wrote Abu Muhammad, pointing out that Hammami's former allies have been on the defensive in recent days. "It's part of the heritage in Somalia."