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.
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 But the young man quickly rescinded the allegation, saying his words had been manipulated and misinterpreted.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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
“Before, whenever the police arrested anyone they accused them of being members of the Muslim Brotherhood,” he said, speaking in his office deep within the impoverished Ain al-Shams district of northern Cairo. “After 2014, the fashion became to call them ISIS. These people are arrested randomly and put in jail. And then they call out and ask, ‘Who are the people of Ain al-Shams?’ And whoever raises his hand becomes part of what they call ‘the Ain al-Shams ISIS cell.’”
Lawyers suspect Egypt’s regular and secret police are under pressure by bosses to meet quotas, a suspicion essentially confirmed by a senior police official speaking on condition of anonymity. “Every police station has to send a report to the ministry saying this year we had these cases, we solved this number and failed in this amount and are still working on this amount,” said the police official.
Arrests tend to go up at the end of the calendar year as police officers rush to boost numbers, he said. “And 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,” said the official.
State security officials are under similar pressure to boost numbers. If one officer makes 30 arrests in a year he gets a better performance review than one who only makes 20 arrests, regardless of the quality of the cases. “They want to look active and like they’re doing their jobs for their bosses, and the way to do that is to produce as many cases as they can,” said the officer. “And that’s why we find many ridiculous and silly cases. It’s simply all about counting men.”
Attorneys describe amateurish and haphazard law enforcement at all levels. Recently, one of Nour Eldeen’s nephews was swept up by police as he was taking a bus to work. He was crammed with scores of others into one of more than a dozen waiting police minivans. After they filled up the vehicles, they took his nephew to a camp run by the Central Security Forces, a branch of the Ministry of Interior. Nour Eldeen’s nephew was released without questioning after security personnel took one look at his fashionable leather jacket, slicked-back hair, and clean-shaven face. Nobody who looked so modern could be an ISIS member, they apparently concluded, unaware of the ways ISIS and al-Qaeda operatives regularly dress in order to get past security officials.
Lawyers described cases in which police took young men from their homes and then came back looking for the same men two weeks later. Nour Eldeen recalled one case in which a man was arrested and then reported killed in clashes with security forces two days later. Eight months later, the police came looking for him again.
“There’s no handover between officers and departments,” he said. “When one commander takes over from another guy, they don’t coordinate.”
In one case in Egypt, a dozen people were charged with being members of an ISIS cell and sentenced to death. The sentences were automatically referred to an appellate court, but six were sent to one judge and the others to a different one. In a measure of how randomly the cases are tried, six were acquitted and set free while the others’ sentences were upheld.
Egyptian lawyer Khaled Masry is defending a group of men from the northwestern city of Marsa Matrouh who are on death row on charges of having taken part in ISIS’s 2015 videotaped executions of Coptic Christian migrant workers in Libya. The case is built solely on confessions allegedly extracted under torture. “Some of them have never even been to Libya,” Masry said. “Some of them were already in prison at the time of the videotape.”
The only two confirmed militants in the case are already dead. Masry described cases in which dozens were being held in prison and accused of belonging to ISIS simply for sharing ISIS propaganda videos or liking posts. “Maybe less than 10% of the people being held really went to Syria or Iraq,” said the lawyer.
The stakes are high. ISIS itself focused its efforts on both the battlefield and meting out justice according to a strict interpretation of Islam, setting up courts that doled out harsh punishments. International rights experts say that applying the rule of law in a fair manner is key to ameliorating the damage ISIS has done, and to preventing militant groups from gaining more footholds across the Sunni Arab world where they have sprouted.
Flawed prosecutions destroy lives and degrade trust in already shaky governments. Ayman, 22, was arrested two years ago in his hometown in Tunisia’s far-western Kasserine district, on charges of supporting ISIS fighters in the nearby mountains. The evidence against Ayman, a secondary school student at the time, appears to have been flimsy. He once helped a neighbor who had tried to join a militant group in neighboring Libya get a slot at the same secondary school he attended, according to Ayman and his attorney.
He was stuffed into a police vehicle, beaten, and then driven 200 or so miles to the capital, where he was taken to a jail and beaten again with plastic tubes and electric prods. He said he was sexually abused by his captors, declining to describe details, as they tried to get a confession.
His captors demanded his Facebook account passwords and his phone, but came up with nothing. Ayman said he was surprised by the vehemence with which they went after him, describing himself as neither political nor pious. Finally, following days of beatings and isolation, he was brought before a judge, after police had put makeup on his face to cover up the bruises. He began to explain that he was innocent, when the judge interrupted him. The judge told Ayman he believed him and could tell that he’d been tortured, but that he would have to spend time in jail and be subjected to interrogations as a precaution.
The young man was ultimately held in prison for 20 months before being released, and has been barred from traveling abroad and has to check in regularly with police. Even his siblings can’t get passports because of the stigma attached to him over the arrest.
Now he’s trying to rebuild his life, beginning a computer repair course in Tunis. “I have a feeling that I have been wronged,” he said. “I feel there is no future for me in this country. The state wants to make me a loser.”
Brown, the legal scholar, said Arab judiciary officials have repeatedly told him countries like Egypt don’t have the luxury of worrying about the rights or the innocence of suspects, given the security risks. But if inadvertently allowing an ISIS suspect to go free carries a potentially high risk, so too does punishing the wrong person.
“If you’re sending innocent people to jail or even executing them, yes, that matters,” said Brown. “What it has a tendency to do is lump all opposition together and it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The idea that there’s this undifferentiated swamp of terrorism out there makes regimes treat opponents and political challengers as seditious or terrorists, and makes that opposition harder. It’s a blunt instrument that feeds into the polarization of these societies. And it is that polarization that creates the environment in which radical groups can flourish.”
When Boumallouga was called in for a meeting with police Dec. 5 last year, he realized his suspicions that there was a state security official out to get him were correct.
According to Boumallouga and his lawyer, a local interior ministry official called Nabil Bin Othman was the man behind the scenes, going after the computer programmer and family man as a personal crusade. On a couple of occasions when Boumallouga was in and out of courts and police stations, he had even spotted Bin Othman, a tall, well-built man in his forties.
This time Bin Othman had lined up three more suspects to testify against him. Each was supposed to again claim that Boumallouga had served as an ISIS recruiter. Boumallouga grew nervous. Even though he said he had done nothing wrong, the Tunisian press was filled with more and more cases of people convicted on terrorism charges based on flimsy evidence.
But once the men were brought into the room to confront him, all three denied they had accused Boumallouga of ISIS ties. One specifically named Bin Othman as the man who forced him to make false accusations against Boumallouga.
By now, police officials appeared to have grown weary of the entire matter, and sympathetic to Boumallouga. They let him go, only to immediately call him back again to face another accuser. This man also quickly recanted any allegations he had made against Boumallouga, describing them as concocted by Bin Othman.
“All the policemen here in the neighborhood, the local police and counter-terror, encouraged me to complain about this case,” Boumallouga said.
Several days later, he was called again by law enforcement, but in a twist, this time he was being summoned as a claimant.
A counterterrorism prosecutor had agreed to take up his case against Bin Othman. For nearly four hours, Boumallouga told his story. He described living in fear, nights spent in prison, and the effect the ordeal had on his job and his family. The judge, a magistrate at a counterterrorism court, appeared sympathetic. For now Bin Othman — who has been publicly called out by others for his heavy-handed tactics — is under investigation for allegations of falsifying evidence, according to local media.
Tunisia’s Interior Ministry did not respond to formal written requests in Arabic and English and telephone calls soliciting comment on security matters and its efforts to fight extremists. Three Interior Ministry officials reached by phone and told of Boumallouga's tale and the allegations against Bin Othman said they were not authorized to comment and did not know of anyone who was.
In spite of all he has been through, Boumallouga said he was grateful to the police and to the judges who examined his case without prejudice. “Before the revolution police were beating and torturing people for nothing,” he said. “Now some are trying to be humane and respect human rights. When I was invited to speak as a claimant the police were welcoming me. Things are changing, despite everything.” ●
Ahmed Belghith's name was misspelled in an earlier version of this post.
Anis Abidi in Tunis, Maged Atef in Cairo, and Burcu Karakas and Munzer Awad in Istanbul contributed additional reporting to this story.