SOUSSE Tunisia (Reuters) - Tunisians were used to seeing Nidhal Selmi belting around a stadium, proudly sporting his country’s red and white colors as a defender on the national football squad.
So it was a shock when he appeared in a camouflage jacket with a Khalashnikov rifle across his thigh in a photograph from Syria posted online shortly before he was killed fighting there.
While Selmi’s shift from sports star to jihadi martyr may be striking, the death of a young Tunisian in Syria is far from it: Tunisia is one of the main sources of foreigners in the ranks of extremists fighting in Iraq and Syria.
By government estimates, more than 3,000 Tunisian nationals have joined the Islamic State and other al Qaeda-linked groups in the civil war that has pulled in young men from Europe, Asia and Africa just like the Iraq and Afghanistan wars did before.
How Selmi, a middle-class footballer with a bright future whose family said had everything from a BMW car to the latest boots, fell into fighting an overseas war illustrates the complex draw of jihad on North Africa’s youth.
“It didn’t take long for him to change, a matter of months,” said Sami Mssoli, who coached him from the youth ranks of local club Etoile Sportivede Sahel. “I really don’t know what happened to him, but it’s a serious phenomenon, and more are taking this route.”
The wave of jihadis, and their possible return home as veteran combatants, creates yet another complication for Tunisia, poster child for the Arab Spring, as the small North African country tries to complete its democratic transition.
A crackdown on extremists has brought the government accusations of repression from ultra-conservative Islamists, despite a new constitution that is a model for religious tolerance and progressiveness in the Arab world.
And its armed forces are already fighting a low-intensity campaign against Ansar al-Sharia, one of extremist Islamist groups to arise in the early free-fall days after the uprising that ousted autocrat Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
North Africans, particularly Tunisians, long participated in foreign wars from Chechyna to Iraq. Baghdad jail cells still hold Tunisians who fought there, and Abu Iyad, the fugitive leader of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, is a veteran of Afghanistan.
But every week now, Tunisian newspapers carry death notices of another young man killed in Syria, Iraq and even Libya, a tragic sign of how Tunisia’s relatively trouble-free political transition allowed a hardline religious undercurrent to surface.
Many were students, unemployed and middle class, rather than desperately poor. Some lived in marginalized rural communities, and most were taken in by extremist recruiters who found fertile ground in Tunisia’s post revolutionary freedom.
Many families blame the first, Islamist government for lax control of extremists, who took over mosques and spread their radicalizing message during the early days after uprising that ended Ben Ali’s regime. Many Islamists jailed under Ben Ali were freed after the revolt.
“Its not about money, those who want money go to Italy,” said Mohammed Ikbel Ben Rajeb, whose organization, RATTA, provides help to families of young men in Syria and Iraq. “Those who go to Syria really believe they are going there to find their eternity, their paradise.”
Selmi’s hometown of Sousse is an odd mix.
A tourist town, it is perhaps one of Tunisia’s most liberal places, where luxury hotels mean money is not scarce and the beach scene is thriving. But unemployment is stubborn and dozens of young men leave to join jihad from the surrounding region.
According to his former trainer and team mates, Selmi was always joking, and like any other young men, played cards, hung out at cafes and talked about girls.
He showed little inclination to religious extremism or politics, they say. Football was his life, and he was well on his way to becoming a star, with coaches interested in moving him from the second national team to the first.
Team mates say he started to change last year after spending more time with ultra-conservative salafists at a local mosque. He grew a beard and became reluctant to discuss his new ideas with friends. Then he disappeared to Syria at the start of 2014.
His Facebook page maps his change: September 2013, there is a photo of him laughing at a water fun park. On February 2014, he posted an image of the jihadi’s black flag. Only occasionally did he speak to team mates by messenger from Syria.
“He said he would stay there, that he was fine,” said Chiheb Hadj Fredj, who played with Selmi on the Etoile squad. “He just said we would see each other again in paradise.”
Selmi’s father Fethi says he learned last month of the death of his son, who he said wanted for nothing, owning an apartment as well as a BMW car and the best clothes.
His face drawn, he smiles only when talking about his son’s career. He says he believes Selmi left to fight after becoming angered at internet videos of the violence committed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces.
“He died for his conviction,” he said sitting with his two younger sons on the sofa in the family home. “It is not something everyone his age would do, to leave behind everything and chose another way.”
At the other end of the social spectrum, relatives of young jihads from the rural town of Oueslatia, near the historic religious city of Kairoaun, say they were inspired by hardline local preachers and extremist internet broadcasts.
A sense of marginalization was another factor, according to local store owner Jebnani Najib: “We have nothing for them here except alcohol or the mosque.”
One of the Arab world’s most secular countries, Tunisia struggled after its 2011 revolution with a fierce, sometimes violent, debate over the role of Islam in the political world and with the rise of ultra-conservative Salafists.
After a crisis last year when Islamist militants killed two secular opposition leaders, the country righted its transition. There were parliamentary elections in October and a presidential vote will be held on Sunday.
The government arrested 1,500 suspected militants this year, and took many mosques back from the hands of radical imams.
“These places should be for prayer and not for giving extremist speeches, talks that incite people to violence and terrorism,” Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa told Reuters.
But ultra-conservative Islamists who say they want nothing to do with violent extremists complain the government crackdown impinges on their freedoms, sweeping them up as suspects and in turn feeding resentment over perceived intolerance.
“What we are living now is a repression of mosques that is worse than the past regime, at least Ben Ali never touched the mosques,” said Abd Arrahem Kamoun, a conservative preacher who was dismissed in the government crackdown. “Today it is harder to control the younger salafists after all the repression.”
Editing by Philippa Fletcher