TUNIS, Tunisia — Chawki Boumallouga was at home when he received a call from the local police asking him to come in for questioning.
When he arrived at the station, police immediately took him back to his house and began rummaging through his possessions — his clothes, his papers, his furniture, his electronics. They found nothing of interest, but took him back to the station.
That’s when the interrogation started, and with it came a startling revelation: The police told him they had evidence that he had recruited militants to fight for ISIS in Syria when he preached at a local mosque, a post he had given up a year earlier.
Boumallouga was stunned, “I said, ‘How? What do you have against me?’”
The police said that a young man who had returned from fighting in Syria had told them he had prayed at the mosque and accused Boumallouga of recruiting him and facilitating his travel from the Tunisian capital to ISIS territory.
“I have a job. I am married. I have two daughters … They destroyed my life.”
Boumallouga was thrown into prison. He began to sort through his memories to see if he had said or done anything during the three years he had preached at the mosque in the Madina Jadida neighborhood of Tunis that could be construed as dispatching young men to kill and die for ISIS. “I might have said, ‘Dear God, help our brothers in Syria,’” he said, in reference to the ongoing war between mostly Islamist rebel fighters and the dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad. He said he probably spoke out against Assad, but then again, so had the country’s then-president, Moncef Marzouki.
After two days in jail, in April 2015, Boumallouga was brought out to face his accuser and the evidence against him. But the young man quickly rescinded the allegation, saying his words had been manipulated and misinterpreted.
“No, I didn’t say Chawki sent me to Syria,” said Boumallouga, recalling the young man’s words. “I said his voice had an effect on me and inspired me to think about going to Syria.”
Boumallouga was held for five more days in prison before he was brought before a judge, who took one look at the evidence against him and ordered him to be released that day. Boumallouga was given a court document two weeks later saying that he had been cleared. He began to relax, believing the matter had been settled.
But Boumallouga’s problems were just beginning. Over the next two and a half years, he was summoned by the police, jailed, and interrogated more than 10 times, spending a total of two months behind bars.
“I have a job. I am married. I have two daughters,” said Boumallouga, sitting in a Tunis cafe in January. “They destroyed my life.”
Chedly Ben Ibrahim / BuzzFeed News
After a war that has lasted more than two years, ISIS has lost its self-proclaimed caliphate straddling Iraq and Syria. Now many fear its battle-hardened militants are returning home, potentially to carry out attacks or recruit fighters. Across the Middle East and North Africa, police, soldiers, and spies are under pressure to hunt down ISIS suspects, while prosecutors and judges attempt to ease public fears and bolster faith in their governments by putting them behind bars. Press releases and articles regularly tout the numbers of detentions, convictions, and even executions of ISIS suspects.
But a BuzzFeed News examination of cases against ISIS defendants has found that all too often, police and prosecutors across the region have been granted wide latitude to pursue ISIS cases, only to botch them. Authorities often arrest and convict possibly innocent people, putting them behind bars or even on death row based on minimal evidence, while wasting precious resources that could be used to pursue and build cases against dangerous militants.
Police forces and security agencies riddled with corruption, brutality, and incompetence are often rounding up the usual suspects — poor and pious youth from marginal neighborhoods, or migrants — and charging them with serious offenses, frequently after extracting confessions under torture, according to jurists and human rights advocates.
“When you have police forces that are under-resourced, ill-trained, they don’t really have the time, training, and equipment to do proper police work; they know they can get evidence through confessions,” said Nathan Brown, among the foremost scholars of Middle East legal systems.
Demonstrators gather in front of the Interior Ministry during a protest against then–Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, Jan. 14, 2011.
Antoine Gyori / Corbis / Getty Images
Search for Chawki Boumallouga on the internet and all that comes up are sites and posts about programming and business software systems. His LinkedIn page, featuring a photo of him in a T-shirt with his children, describes him as head of IT at a Tunisian business school.
Sitting at a cafe near his home in Tunis, Boumallouga wore a leather jacket and jeans, laughing easily and expressing incredulity over his ordeal. As a child, he studied the Qur’an, and he is a devout Muslim, praying five times a day and abstaining from alcohol, he said, but he is no militant.
Police forces and security agencies riddled with corruption, brutality, and incompetence are often rounding up the usual suspects
Boumallouga’s first run-in with law enforcement goes back more than a decade, to when clashes erupted in Tunisia between armed Islamists and security forces. This was during the reign of Tunisia’s longtime dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Boumallouga was swept up in mass arrests of anyone suspected of being an Islamist. He was held in prison under harsh conditions without charge for a year.
Protests broke out again in December of 2010, when Tunisians from all walks of life took to the streets in what became a popular uprising against the corruption and brutality of Ben Ali’s rule. On Jan. 14, 2011, the protests drove Ben Ali out of the country and ignited the Arab Spring revolutions. A surge of new ideas transformed the once-staid North African country of 10 million people into a beacon of hope. New political parties were formed. News outlets were launched. Labor unions reasserted themselves. Islamists long suppressed by Ben Ali began to enter the public arena.
A few months after the uprising, Boumallouga went to the Ministry of Religious Affairs and applied to be a preacher at a mosque, a lifelong dream. He got the okay, and began giving Friday sermons.
But his duties as a preacher soon clashed with work. When Boumallouga’s employer told him he was needed to work on a project in Tunisia’s south in 2014, he had to decide between his gig delivering the word of God and his duties as a family man. It wasn’t a difficult choice. Boumallouga is religious, but not that religious. He had a wife and child, and another on the way. He left the mosque and kept his day job.
After that phone call from the police in the spring of 2015, he was summoned for interrogations every few months throughout the year and into 2016, Boumallouga said. Each time he was confronted with a new witness who police said had damning evidence against him. Each time the case collapsed. But Boumallouga would be forced to spend days or weeks in jail, damaging his relations with his employer and putting a strain on his family. On one occasion, he was pulled out of a hotel where he was on vacation with his family, humiliated in front of his wife and children, and thrown into prison.
Boumallouga struggled to figure out what had gone wrong, and why the police continued to call him in. Tunisia suffered catastrophic attacks carried out by ISIS during the year when Boumallouga’s troubles began. In March 2015, ISIS claimed an attack on Tunis’s Bardo museum that left 22 dead. Three months later, an ISIS shooter killed 38 people, including 30 Britons, at a seaside resort in the city of Sousse, devastating the country’s crucial tourism industry and sparking a major crackdown on suspected extremists.
But Tunisia, the only success story of the Arab Spring uprisings, appears to have genuinely sought to balance major security concerns — including returning ISIS militants and a simmering low-level insurgency along its mountainous western border — with respect for citizens’ rights and due process. Last year, it passed a law allowing lawyers to join suspects in interrogations within the first hour of their arrest. Defense attorneys told BuzzFeed News that a handful of judges challenge police narratives and closely scrutinize evidence. But police continue to drive the inquiries, and the threat of being labeled pro-ISIS by the media has cowed many judges. They have been hammered in the media for allowing people to go free who later turned up in other terrorism cases, imperiling their ability to handle cases, according to defense attorneys.
“There is tension between the police and the judiciary,” said Michaël Ayari, Tunisia specialist at the International Crisis Group. “The police say it’s because the judges are terrorists themselves.”
For much of 2017, Boumallouga didn’t hear from the police. But he remained nervous. He feared the police were building up another case against him, maybe a big one. Through sympathetic cops, he was told that a state security official had it in for him and was behind all the attempts to ensnare him as an ISIS recruiter.
But if Tunisia’s revolution and its democratic experiment has had one positive impact, it’s that it has emboldened ordinary citizens to confront the state. So Boumallouga hired one of his cousins, Ahmed Belghith, as a lawyer, and prepared a counteroffensive. They both knew that it could help Boumallouga gain a measure of justice — but also risked further exacerbating relations with the very police who were already tormenting him.
Either way, it wouldn’t be easy. “A figure in the Ministry of Interior doesn’t like Chawki,” said Belghith.
Ayman, a Tunisian student wrongly accused of being in ISIS, in Tunisia Feb. 8.
Chedly Ben Ibrahim / BuzzFeed News
Prisons across the Middle East are stuffed with thousands of young men, and occasionally women, accused or convicted of ISIS membership with scant evidence against them. Sometimes they are accused of joining ISIS simply for liking or sharing a post on Facebook, or being in the contact list of another suspect’s phone.
“After an attack, all they can try to do is track the suspect’s movements,” said Atanur Demir, a defense lawyer in Turkey who has defended clients accused of involvement in several high-profile ISIS attacks, including the New Year’s Eve 2017 massacre at Istanbul’s Reina nightclub. “And there’s only one thing they can do: trace their phones and numbers they’ve called. The police arrest everyone an attacker called before the attack. Maybe in one case you’ll get 40 defendants who’ve done nothing but be in a suspect’s phone.”
Courts and prosecutors sometimes manage to sort through the cases, distinguishing hardened militants from innocent suspects caught up in legally questionable dragnets. Often they don’t. When cases make it to court, evidence is presented that rarely measures up to international standards. Even those cleared of wrongdoing are often marked for life and have trouble traveling or getting work.
In Iraq, where ISIS stormed into the city of Mosul in 2014 and established its now-crumbled caliphate, Human Rights Watch has documented 5,500 cases where suspects have been held and interrogated for months without access to a lawyer, many forced to confess under torture.
Judges often fail to distinguish between fighters who may have killed, raped, or tortured, and people who continued to do their jobs after ISIS took over their neighborhood. Belkis Wille, the Iraq researcher at HRW, recalled one case where a plastic surgeon was arrested and charged with ISIS affiliation for continuing to work at a hospital after ISIS took over. Of 7,000 suspects convicted since 2014, 92 have already been executed for being members of ISIS after trials that lasted as little as 15 minutes. Wille estimated that at least 20,000 men were being held on charges of ISIS affiliation in northern Iraq.
“You’re talking about a fairly significant part of the population that’s implicated,” Wille said, speaking by phone from Iraq. “This kind of approach is an absolute disaster. All it’s going to do is further marginalize their families and open up their children to a wave of recruitment by new extremists.”
Even in countries that have not had a significant ISIS presence, police officers and courts exercise a kind of collective punishment against communities deemed potentially supportive of jihadis. In Egypt, dozens of young men living in mostly poor neighborhoods stereotyped as Islamist strongholds are rounded up in regular sweeps, say defense attorneys. Suspects are often hustled through mass trials and handed severe sentences, including the death penalty.
The ISIS cases generate splashy headlines that are aimed at reassuring populations worried about terrorism threats, and ease political pressure. But the stigma over defending ISIS suspects has become so high that many attorneys refuse to take them on as clients.
“Of course they hassle me,” said Khalid Ali Nour Eldeen, an attorney in Cairo who is working on five ISIS cases, including two with groups of 170 and 200 defendants in mass trials decried as grossly unfair by rights advocates. He said he felt compelled to accept ISIS defendants because many were the children of his neighbors and relatives. “Most of the lawyers refuse to take these cases, because they are afraid of state security,” or the the secret police.
“If they can’t find the real perpetrators, they fabricate the reports to say that X or Y did it, and many times those guys are innocent.”