The post-Arab Spring democratisation process in Tunisia has been one of the more hopeful stories of the region’s revolutions. But unfortunately today the country is fast becoming a buffer zone for Daesh and other extremists.
Tunisia’s transition to democracy has been one of the least tumultuous of the post-Arab Spring countries. Despite this, it has exported the most foreign fighters to Daesh and now is struggling to deal with a growing insurgency.
For country with a population of under 12 million, Tunisia has seen more than its fair share of terror attacks, the most recent took place when an unemployed female suicide bomber detonated her explosives in the centre of the capital, Tunis.
The price of democracy
Though the modernisation adopted by the country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, marginalised conservatives during the country’s 60 years of secular regimes, it helped as a foundation for the country’s democratic aspirations later on. The 2011 revolution paved the way for religious conservatives, specifically Ennahda party, to gain significant political ground.
But for the minority frustrated by both the secular and so-called ‘Islamist modernists’,radical outlets have presented themselves as the best solution for their frustrations. The continued failures of the government to address Tunisia’s rampant corruption, labour unrest, tepid economy and high unemployment ratesare factors that have contributed to some Tunisians choosing the gun over the boat.
According to the Soufan Group, around 6,500 Tunisianshave fought alongside Daesh in Iraq and Syria and 12,000 potential jihadists have been prevented from going to fight by Tunisian authorities.
Since the weakening of Daesh, one-third of foreign fightershave returned to their respective countries with over 400 Tunisian fightersreturning from Syria as hardened militants with combat experience – seriously jeopardising the country’s security.
Hundreds of Tunisian militants currently make up the 600-strong Ansar al Dine rebel group linked with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) active in North Africa.
As well facing the challenges of reintegrating returning fighters, an ongoing threat is taking precedence: Tunisia’s continued insurgency problem.
Just months after the revolution ignited in 2011, AQIM began their operations in the western city of Kasserine. An offshoot of that group then morphed into the Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi group in 2013.
The enforced military zone in the area allowed the Tunisian army to conduct its clearance operations of militants and their arsenal, but their presence only pushed the group to expand further.
By 2014, the group fractured and a break-away faction aligned with Daesh and renamed itself Jund al-Khilafah (JAK-T). A year later, the terrorist attacksin Sousse and in the capital plunged the country into a state of emergency paving the way for greater powers for the defence and security forces.
The threat from within
High unemployment rates and poverty define the socio-economically turbulent governorates of Kasserine and Kef where AQIM and JAK-T have mainly operated. The cities’ youth have been driven to regular protests against their declining socio-economic conditions – others have escaped into the mountains to join the militant campaigns in Sidi Bouzid, Jendouba, and Gafsa.
Since 2013, Tunisian militants have carried out a number of attacks on high profile figures, popular tourist attractions(dealing the country a major economic blow), police stations and army posts.
A number of the country’s post-revolutionary reforms have also weakened the security apparatus needed to deal with terrorism. Despite Tunisia’s reactionary securitisation attempts, one side of its border, with Libya, still remains porous. Libyan-trained fighters their finding little challenge hopping the border, and on the other border, Tunisian militants esily escape into Algeria to avoid capture.
Due to the widespread use of torture under the rule of ousted president Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, many Tunisians are weary of providing the security services with intelligence that can identify potential threats. This is to the detriment of the service which, despite it being larger than the country’s army, is rendered ineffective to deal with the mounting problem.
A solution from next door
The response by the security services against terror suspects has reiterated how remnants of Ben Ali’s regime still define the apparatus of the country.
Since 2015, a National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, National Security Council, and a National Intelligence Center have all been utilised as part of greater counter-terrorismand intelligence coordination efforts.
Tunisia is also part of the US-backed Trans-Sahara Counterterrorism Partnership along with Algeria, Morocco and six other regional states in the region, that encourages counterterrorism cooperation in the region with some notable successes.
Algeria’s own seasoned counter-terrorism strategies have also proven beneficial for Tunisia to learn from. Its brutal civil war in the ‘90s between militant groups and the army forced Algeria to develop a strategy based on reconciliation to successfully transition the country into peacetime.
Its successful counter-terrorism measures have enabled Algeria to lead intelligence and security cooperations in the region and joint exercises, security coordination and intelligence swaps on either side of the border has helped Tunis to identify and respond to terror threats.
However this fraternal help can only go so far as Algeria’s own precarious socio-political situation, and inevitable presidential transition, will most likely alter the security situation when national priorities takes precedence over regional cooperation.
The ultimate solution for Tunisia is to avoid reducing counter-terrorism to the elimination of militants. The factors which provide fertile conditions for these groups to grow and to operate need to be addressed in order to remove the need for these groups to continue to exist, and threaten the country’s democratic aspirations.