They were sitting where they always sit: at the far edge of the makeshift, roadside cafe on the outskirts of of Sidi Bouzid — the small, economically marginalized town in central Tunisia where in December 2010, a young street vendor lit himself on fire and changed the world. There were about 20 of them. Some wore long flowing robes and black skullcaps; some wore jeans, t-shirts, and Yankees hats; nearly all of them had thick beards. My friend had called in advance – they must have known I would be coming. As I took my seat in the circle, they all beamed at me. "Welcome, welcome! We are honored!" said one tall youth with glasses and a jovial smile. Another swiftly handed me the cup of ice cream he had ordered for himself, declaring that it was a gift.
"From now on, when you sit with us, you will be brother Michael!" added another. We were all in our 20s no longer boys, but still learning how to be men. They accepted me unconditionally. For the next two weeks, they welcomed me into their world. Nevertheless, we are different. I am an American. Their hero is Osama Bin Laden.
"The brothers," as they like to call themselves, are zealous followers of the jihadist Salafist movement – an ultra-fundamentalist religio-political current that combines scriptural purism with a rhetorical embrace of Al-Qaeda's vision. In Tunisia, Salafists have unabashedly rejected democracy and participation in elections as corrupt, un-Islamic practices. Although the Tunisian state aggressively suppressed jihadist Salafists during the 1990's and 2000's, in the climate of greater political openness that has prevailed since the country's 2011 revolution, the movement has become increasingly visible and increasingly brazen. At Salafist demonstrations, speakers call unabashedly for the imposition of Islamic Sharia law as the only source of legislation as crowds chant slogans like "Obama! Obama! We are all Osama!" or "Patiently oh Jews, the army of Muhammad will return!" In governorates like Sidi Bouzid that have long resisted the hegemony of the central state, Salafists often patrol markets, believing themselves to represent a type of grassroots police force. Although most Salafists I spoke to insisted that the movement's activities in Tunisia were limited to preaching and social welfare, a number of Tunisian Salafists have traveled to Syria to fight with the Al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra militia. Some have started to return.
Written By: Michael Marcusacontinue to source article at theatlantic.com