Terror in Tunisia and the Gloomy Outlook

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The attacks recently perpetrated against two hotels in Sousse confirm that Tunisia is now in a permanent state of war, and the future looks rather gloomy. The war being waged against Tunisia is not just specific to that country, as if it were a civil war, but it is largely one of the key operational theaters of the global Jihad movement. Many factors make Tunisia an easy target, the top-3 factors include:

According to MEA Risk LLC tracking service, the country has an abundance of Jihadists. After all, the men who attacked the Sousse hotels were born and raised in Tunisia, and are believed to have never travelled outside of the country. Indeed thousands of Tunisian youth have been so marginalized by the ousted Ben Ali regime, and then radicalized during the subsequent interim government of the Islamist Ennahda party, that today there is no shortage of would-be suicide attackers. Even some of the most aggressive fighters and leaders in the Syrian and the Iraqi conflicts are said to be Tunisians.

Then there is the proximity of Libya that makes Tunisia a strategic target in the regional Jihadist strategy. Sending terrorists from lawless Libya and into Tunisia is not so difficult. The two attackers, although they did not come from Libya, used a boat to counter and bypass the security measures taken in and around the hotels. Coming from the sea was not apparently taken into account by those trusted to repel terror attacks. Jihadists who are based and trained in Libya can easily use such route when it comes to targeting seaside resorts. In fact, MEA Risk reports that thousands of Tunisian militants receive combat training in Libya, and although many remain there, others return to Tunisia or are sent to Algeria to wage war.

There are also efforts to undermine Tunisia’ democratic gains. Many in the Islamist movement did not accept the victory of secular parties in the most recent elections, headed by their bête-noir and elected current President Beji Caid Essebsi. And although the overwhelming majority of the Islamists are peaceful and law-abiding Tunisians, a few are bent on creating chaos to an already highly troubled nation. The way to undermine the workings of secular democracy is to simply hit hard on the country’s economic assets. And nothing is more important for Tunisia than its tourism sector.

So what’s in it for Tunisia in the foreseeable future and perhaps even for the long term? The first consequence of these recent attacks is the recognition that the war on terror is here to stay. This means that the political and security leaders must begin to socialize in earnest the idea of a permanent state of war to a frightened and demoralized population. The next phase of the war, which essentially started with this Sousse attack, will be even more difficult for the Tunisian authorities because the war will not be waged against one single enemy but two. Obviously, there is the Islamic State (IS), which claimed responsibility of the Sousse attacks. IS is the most aggressive and most brutal organization active on the Tunisia territory. It has been able to recruit thousands of young men, and MEA Risk says has been active in the Jebel Chaambi, near the city of Kasserine in western central Tunisia, and Jebel Ourgha in the Kef governorate, near the Algerian border. Smaller IS-related groups have been active in Kasserine, Kef, Sidi Bouzid and Tataouine, for example, places where poverty and despair among the youth are rampant and where the primary targets have been mainly the security forces, the national guards and the army.

From these camps and with the help of hundreds of recruiters, IS is able to attract many so-called lone wolves, who are essentially based across the entire country and can strike virtually any time, either as planned operations or as spontaneous ones. Eliminating all of them will be a titanic effort that Tunisia cannot afford. But it needs to manage the risk appropriately, starting with effective public communications.

Along with IS is the potential return to the theater of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The organization in Tunisia has eroded considerably. Unlike its continued strong presence in neighboring Algeria, AQIM in Tunisia has suffered from important defections in favor of IS. However, Libya today could very well lead to the re-birth of AQIM in the region, if current talks lead to agreements between the various AQIM stakeholders. Indeed, many militant groups in Libya are divided whether to align themselves with IS. Many others are entirely refusing any idea of recognizing IS, in particular those in Sirte and Adjdabia in Libya. But it is in Libya, in those particular regions, that Algerian AQIM leaders, current and past, have been seeking to reconcile their differences and form a single front. Among the leaders seeking such outcome are Mokhtar Belmokhtar and Abdelmalek Droukdel. It is through an audio message, that Droukdel announced recently that the pro-AQIM groups in the Maghreb have met in Libya, and have decided to join forces to “attack expatriates living and working in Muslim countries, from Rabat to Jakarta”

As these reconciliation maneuvers bear fruit, Tunisia will now have to deal with a re-born AQIM that will seek to regain losses in its territory through violence. An intense competition for territorial control will take place, pitting IS and AQIM against one another, and Tunisia will be caught in the crossfire. Such war has already started at the top of these organizations in the form of calls for action. On June 22, 2015, MEA Risk reported Droukdel urging members to attack targets, mostly foreigners. Two days later, an Islamic States’ spokesman in Derna, Libya, Abu Muhammad al-Adnani called on its fighters in the Middle East and North Africa to be more active during Ramadan, and attack Christians, Shias, and Muslims fighting alongside the United States’ anti-IS coalition.

These calls are pointers of a dangerous escalation of the conflicts involving many actors in North Africa, and Tunisia is likely to be caught in the fight.

A President Stuck Between a Rock and a Hard Place

For the Tunisian authorities, communicating the crisis to the nation will be challenging, to say the least. Physically securing the country will require enormous resources, human, organizational and technological. While externally, securing its borders is important, although peace will have to come from a resolution of the Libyan crisis, internally, the country needs to insure it has the ability to secure its own territory by identifying terror cells, and using an updated legal system to deal with such insurgents within the proper legal framework. Equally important, it must also refrain from turning Tunisia into another Egypt, where human rights and civil liberties are challenged. We are likely to see some of that happen. Already the President is under intense pressure to escalate the repression against law-abiding citizens who may have different views but operate within the law.

Pressure for the 89 year old president is mountain. Among the various grievances stated by his constituents and the secular movement is that he is accused of not being able to fix the economy, which is resulting in the relocation of foreign companies in safer sites like Morocco. Now with tourists leaving in droves, they say, the demise of the economy is likely to accelerate. Part of the problem is not specific to terrorism per se, but often due to overzealous and powerful labor unions that are pushing for more demands from a country that is financially bankrupt. On the political front, pressure is mounting on the president to crackdown on the Islamist parties. Although the first target is an extremist party called Hizb Ettahrir, many secularists would like to see the Ennahda party banned again.

The President is also pressured to reform government, starting with a cabinet reshuffle that would “eliminate the terrorist and mafia elements” from the administration, as a commentator put it. Lobbying is underway to enact a new anti-terror law, or at least resuscitate the Ben Ali regime’s 2003 laws, technically still in effect that ban religious parties, such as Ennahda.

Meanwhile, secularists and supporters of Essebsi are calling on him to crackdown on associations accused of “actively and passively financing terrorism.” One type of organizations called League for the Protection of the Revolution is particularly targeted by these calls. Mosques and houses of worships are not spared by the call for more repression, with Imams eventually subjected to severe legal actions if they have questionable sermons.

Although Tunisia has made major strides toward democracy, the rock, in the form of a proliferation of terror groups, and the hard place, with the secularists calling for an escalation of repression, put President Essebsi in a very difficult position. He will have to make major historical decisions to save his country from further chaos, but a strategy that would exit Tunisia from the crisis has not be articulated yet.