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Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
From Al-Qaida to ISIS, A Blind War on Terrorism Will Mean Endless War
From Al-Qaida to ISIS, A Blind War on Terrorism Will Mean Endless War
Tunisian special forces take position during clashes with militants in the southern town of Ben Guerdane, near the Libyan border, on 7 March 2016. AFP/Fathi Nasri

Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack

The Islamic State (IS) attack into the heart of the south-eastern Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane opens up a new zone of conflict. This alarming spillover from Libya 30km away requires a fresh response from Tunisia’s political elite, still struggling to steady the country after three major terrorist attacks last year.

Beginning at dawn on 7 March, dozens of IS fighters stormed into the city and attempted to overwhelm the city’s key security installations. They were countered by virtually all regular and specialised units of the police, National Guard and army. Several hundred troops surrounded the city, taking up positions to defend targeted buildings and scouring neighbourhoods for the assailants.

The death toll was heavy: 36 jihadis, eleven members of the security forces and seven civilians were killed. Although the attack has not been officially claimed by IS yet, it is likely linked to the 19 February U.S. airstrike on an IS camp 170km away in Sabratha, in north west Libya, that killed over 40 alleged members of the group, mostly Tunisians.

The Ben Guerdane attack was repulsed by security forces but marks a new departure. It is unprecedented since the “Gafsa coup” of 27 January 1980, when a raiding party armed by Libya and supported by Algerian military intelligence took control of the central Tunisian city of Gafsa and called for a popular revolt. Tunisia should expect further attacks and prepare to mitigate their impact by bearing in mind seven key points:

  1. This was no simple “terrorist” attack. It was a simultaneous assault on an army barracks, the local headquarters of the National Guard and the city’s police station, accompanied by three targeted assassinations of a customs officer, a police officer and a member of the counter-terrorism unit of the National Guard. It was an attempt at a local insurrection, coordinated by some 50 members of IS sleeper cells in Ben Guerdane. The term “terrorist” would obscure the political objectives of the assault: win the support a part of the city’s notoriously rebellious population by inciting an insurrection even as it takes military control of the city. IS broadcast a revolutionary jihadi message from mosque speakers at dawn and attempted to distribute weapons. In this respect, this week’s attack resembles the events of Gafsa in 1980.
     
  2. On this occasion, IS forces were insufficiently numerous and made tactical mistakes despite their knowledge of the terrain. But Tunisia’s armed forces will not always have a numerical advantage. Tunisia’s army, National Guard and police should redouble their vigilance and rapidly draw operational and strategic lessons. A few kilometres from Ben Guerdane, Zarsis, a nexus of illegal migration towards Europe, or Djerba, a touristic hub and centre of Tunisia’s Jewish community, could be targeted. In the west of the country, jihadis operating in the forested mountains along the border with Algeria could take advantage of any new crisis to attack nearby Kasserine or reach as far as central Sidi Bouzid.
     
  3. The attempted insurrection in Ben Guerdane is not just a Tunisian-Libyan affair, but a regional problem that demands a regional response – in particular a significant reinforcement of Tunisian-Algerian political and security cooperation. The mental geography espoused by IS does not adhere to the borders established in North Africa in the twentieth century. Experts on the group say IS members dream of re-establishing the historic borders of the Aghabid dynasty (800-901), which ruled a semi-independent emirate roughly based on the ancient Roman province of Africa Proconsularis, including Tripolitania (western Libya), most of modern day Tunisia and the eastern half of Algeria. In this vision, Ben Guerdane is a strategic nexus point of a “liberated” zone that would tie south-eastern Tunisia to western Libya. The city’s business life has long been dominated by a parallel economy based on an informal foreign currency exchange market and smuggling; it could become a convergence point between jihadis and regional criminal networks.
     
  4. Tunisia’s political class and its media must absolutely avoid any attempt to take advantage of the attack to settle scores or revive the Islamist-secularist divide. A calm examination of facts is necessary, not polemics.
     
  5. A new national discourse is needed to address regional and social divides, particularly a sentiment of historical exclusion in the south of the country. The attacks over the past year – on the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March, a tourist resort in Sousse in June, and the presidential guard in November – have weakened the old discourse of “national unity” advanced by the political class. Tunisia will have to do more to preserve the culture of compromise and civil society inclusion in 2013-14 that helped political activists of the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet win the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
     
  6. Security forces should react in a measured manner when questioning Ben Guerdane residents who may have lent logistic or other support to the IS raiding party. The scale of the attack means they could number in the hundreds. A wave of mass and indiscriminate arrests accompanied by police brutality could polarise families, feed into residents’ frustrations, and increase support for IS in the future.
     
  7. The Tunisia-Libya border cannot be secured without the close collaboration of the local population, especially the smuggling cartels operating in the area. Trying to combat these at the same time as jihadis would dissipate energy and likely feed local resentment of the state, since so much of the local economy depends on this smuggling. In order to secure their cooperation, Crisis Group has argued that the government should consider the creation of free trade zones at the border that would legitimise at least part of the border trade.

A French version of this article was published by Al Huffington Post Maghreb.

From Al-Qaida to ISIS, A Blind War on Terrorism Will Mean Endless War

Originally published in World Politics Review

Mission accomplished? That was doubtless then-President Barack Obama’s expectation as he anxiously watched a team of American Navy SEALs kill al-Qaida’s leader, Osama bin Laden, six years ago. It was clearly Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi’s hope last month when he visited the city of Mosul, newly liberated from the self-proclaimed Islamic State. 

But consider this: Al-Qaida had some 400 combatants on Sept. 11, 2001. Today it is stronger than ever, with several thousand adherents in countries from the Arabian Peninsula to Southeast Asia. If Western powers like the United States and the United Kingdom and their regional partners like Iraq continue to frame the countering of violent extremism as an existential “war on terror” that ends only when the last terrorist has been killed, the campaign against the Islamic State will be no more successful than the fight against al-Qaida. 

We are not doing everything wrong, and the terrorists are not doing everything right. In hindsight, the Islamic State paid a high price for the short-term public relations benefit of holding territory and calling itself a state, since it was bound to be defeated in a pitched battle against the powerful coalition assembled against it. The jihadi group also made a mistake in committing such barbaric atrocities, as alienation began to outweigh intimidation among the populations it controlled. And the coalition against the Islamic State was probably right to apply some military pressure to break the militants’ aura of invincibility, which was a powerful recruitment tool. 

The question that needs to be answered now is who is learning quickest from past mistakes. So far, the terrorists seem to have the edge. The Islamic State learned from al-Qaida that sophisticated terrorist attacks in the enemy’s heartland are useful if they draw the enemy into protracted wars that create the kind of chaos that terrorists need to thrive. Bin Laden probably did not plan on 9/11 bringing the U.S. to Afghanistan, let alone Iraq, but al-Qaida opportunistically capitalized on both wars. The Islamic State brilliantly exploited the U.S. occupation and aftermath, gaining support from Sunnis who suffered the atrocities of Shiite militias, and from officers of the Iraqi army summarily dismissed as a result of a poorly conceived policy of de-Baathification. Now al-Qaida has learned from the Islamic State’s gruesome later mistakes, softening its hard-line stance and toning down its global agenda to gain support with movements driven by local grievances, notably in Yemen.

Read the full article at World Politics Review.