The Middle East has been facing in the last years a chaotic situation and a redefinition of balances is becoming now more and more urgent. About a month ago, a new terrorist attack at some military installations at the border with Libya affected Tunisia, a country that is generally considered the unique Arab Spring successful story.
With a dysfunctional internal security apparatus, Tunisia’s response to the increasing and even more devastating jihadi attacks has been ad hoc. The indiscriminate terrorist attacks in Tunis and Sousse, respectively in March and June 2015, as well as frequent assaults against the police, the National Guard and the army over the past two years (mostly in areas along the country’s borders) are evidence of the significant advancing of jihadi groups present in the country. Since then, the authorities struggled to confront this threat and develop a public policy on security.
After the terrorist attack in the Sousse resort, the government declared the state of emergency and approved the highly criticized law against terrorism and money laundering, casting a shadow over the transition process started in 2011.
On the one hand, the decision clearly satisfied the seriousness of the security situation in the country, while on the other its highly repressive nature raised many controversies. The legislation seemed to disavow effects of the democratic principles enshrined in the new Constitution, including the reintroduction of the death penalty for those responsible for terrorist attacks. Critics of the terrorism bill say that it jeopardizes basic constitutional rights, for example giving the right to investigators to detain potentially innocent suspects without access to a lawyer for fifteen days, rather than three, spreading the fear that it may be undermining the political progress that has already been made.
On the other hand, it is worth recalling the difficult environment in which the law has been approved. Tunisia has been the target of several brutal attacks in the past year, representing therefore the culmination of an escalation in violence that continued affecting the country from then onwards.
Local media report daily of attacks, affecting primarily armed forces mainly in border areas. These dramatic events seem to be confirmed by the finding that Tunisia is the country that exports the largest number of volunteers among the ranks of Daesh. Although it is impossible to have precise figures, a report published last year by the United Nations estimated that there were around 3,000 Tunisians voluntarily enrolled in the last years. This, of course, leads to the conclusion that the country itself offers a fertile ground for spreading Daesh forces: the terrorist threat is heavy and comes in the large part from hinterland areas, where serious economic problems affect the majority of the population, and by declaring the state of emergency, some liberties were suspended and exceptional powers were granted to the police and the military.
Last year attacks clearly show a newly defined strategy of Daesh namely a “Southern strategy”, aimed at two different intertwined prospects. In the first one, the attacks can simply be read as an attempt to destabilize the only Middle Eastern country that has managed to create an institutional and political balance, albeit precarious, since the advent of the Arab Spring. On the other hand, what makes Tunisia the perfect target is its geographic position, and at this moment, its proximity to Libya. Recent reports show that thousands of Tunisians militants receive combat training in Libya, and although many remain there, others return to Tunisia or are sent to Algeria.
Moreover, Tunisia is marked by an anemic growth according to the World Bank, representing a further challenge for a country with a burgeoning youth population and one of the highest percentages of foreign fighters that left the country to join Daesh.
At this time, the overall balance of the transition still seems very uncertain; nevertheless, some elements appear encouraging. Due to the high alert in terms of security, the major parties in the country, moderate Islamists of Ennahda and the laity of Nidaa Tounes, have been able to put aside their mutual distrust on behalf of broad political agreements, aimed at securing the country; there is now an endemic corruption and widespread poverty of the inland regions fueling the growth of the already radicalized Tunisian terrorism and the disillusionment of the promises of the Arab Spring, which did not succeed in cutting down the high unemployment rates; extremist movements were therefore adept at conveying the widespread popular discontent, relying on the lack of state governance.
To date the main Tunisian extremist group remains Ansar Al Sharia, officially born in 2011 in the context of the Arab Spring with the intent of exploiting the implosion of the old regime and ensuing political instability in order to promote a political and social transformation of the country throughout a strict application of the sharia.
The most alarming activity carried out by the group has always been the recruitment of foreign fighters and its transfer into the comprehensive jihadist networks in Syria and Iraq. According to official Tunisian government estimates, about 4,000 Tunisians were recruited in the Daesh and Al-Nusra ranks, making Tunisia the first provider of foreign fighters. From the collapse of the regime, however, the organization seemed to witness a downsizing. The key event was the attack on the convoy of the Army on the Mounts Chaambi in 2013, in the aftermath of which the government ordered the state of emergency. An additional tightening took place in August 2013 with the official classification of Al-Nusra as a terrorist organization, after which most of the members of the group were forced to secrecy.
The latest attacks in Tunisia highlighted the risks Tunisia is facing from home-grown militants drawn to Syria, Iraq and Libya, and who have threatened to bring their war back home. This threat culminated with the 7th March attack on Ben Guerdane, the third one since the new coalition was elected and the new government was formed in February 2015, and which led President Beji Caid Essebsi to extend the already proclaimed state of emergency for a period of three months from March 23, 2015. Nevertheless, most critics argue that Tunisia has not come up with a coordinated set of actions yet, lacking a clear and strategic response that includes security as well as socio-economic sector.
However, the phenomenon of the widespread and rooted terrorism in Tunisia has some peculiarities that can not be addressed through a merely security approach. In fact, especially in the south of the country the jihadist cells are able to establish a symbiotic relationship with the local population, receiving logic assistance and greater control of the territory. In the Tataouine province the informal trade is estimated to occupy about 20% of the working population, representing therefore one of the main sources of income. A similar situation characterizes also the Kasserine areas in the west and the El-Kef area.
Thus there is an interweaving of smuggling and jihad presence, which guarantees the existence of the poorest sections of the population and, at the same time, provides men and equipment needed to terrorist cells to thrive. Therefore, an exclusively security approach in the fight against terrorism is likely to exacerbate even more the already existing social tensions, creating ideal conditions for fostering that same phenomenon of radicalization that needs to be fought in the first place.
Like other countries in the region, Tunisia is fighting the challenge of global terrorism. The strategy’s objective in the first place is to carry on the police interventions against terrorist cells on the border with Algeria and Libya. Furthermore, measures to prevent terrorist infiltration have been implemented, including an electronic system to control the border with Libya and the barbed wire along the same to prevent the smuggling network. Another important measure is the cooperation of military and intelligence with the EU, particularly Italy and France, and with neighboring countries such as Algeria.
An absent economic development and a growing poverty have had as a main consequence the radicalization of many young people, who, out of despair, joined terrorist groups for economic reasons.
The challenges are many and the political responsibility is shared by all, both political parties and civil society. The role played by Ennahda is therefore crucial, being the only stable political party on the political scene.
Tunisia needs more than ever a true economic support plan. To invest in a democratic model a real economic investment is needed and the European partners are crucial in this respect.. The fate of the Northern shore of the Mediterranean is linked to the fate of the Southern flank; the success of the democratic model in Tunisia and especially the success of the political and diplomatic solution in Libya would help to achieve stability in the region, definitely facilitating the fight against terrorism.
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