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Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation
Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack

Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation

The growing link between cartels and armed jihadi militants along Tunisia’s borders with Algeria and Libya, combined with heightened ideological polarisation, could form an explosive mix ahead of Tunisia’s legislative and presidential elections.

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I. Overview

Since the December-January 2010-2011 uprising, Tunisia has successfully overcome successive political crises, yet seems less able to absorb the impact of major jihadi attacks. Despite the success of a national dialogue that significantly reduced tensions and helped begin 2014 on a note of optimism, leading to a significant reduction in political tensions, concerns are growing again. At the heart of this anxiety are an increase in violence along the Algerian border; the chaotic situation in Libya; the advance of radical Islamism in the Middle East – all made all the more acute by an alarmist anti-terrorist discourse. An echo chamber for the deadly conflicts agitating the region, Tunisia needs to approach the issue of terrorism in a calmer and depoliticised manner. The battles against terrorism and organised crime are inextricably linked. The government would gain from adding to its security measures new economic and social initiatives that would ensure that border communities are on the side of the state. 

Since 2013, the alliance between arms and drugs traffickers and armed jihadi cells appears to have considerably strengthened in the border regions. The activities of the major illegal trade networks are encouraging violence that much of the media is quick to blame on terrorists. This violence could reach dangerous levels, particularly should a worsening of the Libyan conflict lead to serious economic and political consequences for Tunisia. 

The social crisis in the south, the lasting alliance between cartels and jihadis, the exacerbation of ideological polarisation by regional developments and the approaching elections could form an explosive mix. Voters and candidates in the forthcoming parliamentary and presidential elections – scheduled for 24-26 October (parliamentary), 21-23 November (first round, presidential) and 26-28 December (second round) – are fearful that the electoral process could fail and that Tunisia could suffer the same fate as other countries in the region. The deepening security crackdown, combined with the reprisals carried out by weakened jihadi groups, risk forming a vicious circle. The independent, so-called “technocratic” government of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa is playing on the resonance of anti-terrorist sentiments. This is recasting the anxieties of the educated middle class toward a fear of religious extremism. In this context, the risk is that a major terrorist attack would promote further ideological polarisation between Islamists and secularists.

In order to deflect another crisis, the authorities would benefit from carrying out two principal measures. The first is to strengthen the state’s presence in border regions through socio-economic development policies whose impact would be quickly noticed by local communities. The second is to implement an effective and calibrated counter-terrorism strategy, in contrast to sensationalist media treatment that only serves to increase anxiety about jihadis and indirectly promotes confusion between different strands of Islamism.

Regional and international ideological trends on the question of political Islam impact Tunisia, but need not determine the country’s future. After its initial report “Tunisia’s Borders: Jihadism and Contraband” (November 2013), this briefing analyses the new reality of threats on the Tunisia-Algeria and Tunisia-Libyan borders and offers suggestions to attenuate risks.

In the near term, it is crucial for the main political, trade union and civil society forces – both Islamist and non-Islamist – to maintain a consensual approach to public security and for the authorities to adopt a calmer anti-terrorist discourse in order to prevent renewed polarisation in the event of a major attack on the country. Similarly, it would be desirable that the government, or the one that will follow it, increase security cooperation with neighbouring Algeria, pursue the creation of a new National Intelligence Agency, and dialogue with contraband cartels in order to persuade them to stop trade in dangerous goods, and possibly encouraging some to collaborate with the Tunisian state on the security front. Such measures would ultimately help keep border communities from becoming irrevocably alienated from the state and be tempted, in the medium term, to challenge it directly by joining militant groups.

Tunis/Brussels, 21 October 2014

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.