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Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Seven Ways to Steady a Tunisia under New Attack
Report 148 / Middle East & North Africa

Tunisia’s borders: Jihadism and Contraband

Unless the permeability of the country’s borders is addressed, cross-border trafficking will increase jihadis’ disruptive potential and intensify the corruption of border authorities.

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Executive summary

Tunisia is embroiled in recurrent political crises whose origins in security concerns are ever more evident. While still of low-intensity, jihadi attacks are increasing at an alarming rate, fuelling the rumour mill, weakening the state and further polarising the political scene. The government coalition, dominated by the Islamist An-Nahda, and the secular opposition trade accusations, politicising questions of national security rather than addressing them. Meanwhile, the gap widens between a Tunisia of the borders – porous, rebellious, a focal point of jihadism and contraband – and a Tunisia of the capital and coast that is concerned with the vulnerability of a hinterland it fears more than it understands. Beyond engaging in necessary efforts to resolve the immediate political crisis, actors from across the national spectrum should implement security but also socio-economic measures to reduce the permeability of the country’s borders.

The security vacuum that followed the 2010-2011 uprising against Ben Ali’s regime – as well as the chaos generated by the war in Libya – largely explains the worrying increase in cross-border trafficking. Although contraband long has been the sole source of income for numerous residents of border provinces, the introduction of dangerous and lucrative goods is a source of heightened concern. Hard drugs as well as (for now) relatively small quantities of firearms and explosives regularly enter the country from Libya. Likewise, the northern half of the Tunisian-Algerian border is becoming an area of growing trafficking of cannabis and small arms. These trends are both increasing the jihadis’ disruptive potential and intensifying corruption of border authorities.

One ought neither exaggerate nor politicise these developments. Notably, and against conventional wisdom, military equipment from Libya has not overwhelmed the country. But nor should the threat be underestimated. The war in Libya undoubtedly has had security repercussions and armed groups in border areas have conducted attacks against members of the National Guard, army and police, posing a significant security challenge that the return of Tunisian fighters from Syria has amplified. By the same token, the aftermath of the Tunisian uprising and of the Libyan war has provoked a reorganisation of contraband cartels (commercial at the Algerian border, tribal at the Libyan border), thereby weakening state control and paving the way for far more dangerous types of trafficking.

Added to the mix is the fact that criminality and radical Islamism gradually are intermingling in the suburbs of major cities and in poor peripheral villages. Over time, the emergence of a so-called Islamo-gangsterism could contribute to the rise of groups blending jihadism and organised crime within contraband networks operating at the borders – or, worse, to active cooperation between cartels and jihadis.

Addressing border problems clearly requires beefing up security measures but these will not suffice on their own. Even with the most technically sophisticated border control mechanisms, residents of these areas – often organised in networks and counting among the country’s poorest – will remain capable of enabling or preventing the transfer of goods and people. The more they feel economically and socially frustrated, the less they will be inclined to protect the country’s territorial integrity in exchange for relative tolerance toward their own contraband activities.

Weapons and drug trafficking as well as the movement of jihadi militants are thus hostage to informal negotiations between the informal economy’s barons and state representatives. Since the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, such understandings have been harder to reach. The result has been to dilute the effectiveness of security measures and diminish the availability of human intelligence that is critical to counter terrorist or jihadi threats. In an uncertain domestic and regional context, restoring trust among political parties, the state and residents of border areas is thus as crucial as intensifying military control in the most porous areas.

In the long term, only minimal consensus among political forces on the country’s future can enable a truly effective approach to the border question. On this front, at the time of writing, an end to the political crisis seems distant: discussions regarding formation of a new government; finalising a new constitution and new electoral law; and appointing a new electoral commission are faltering. Without a resolution of these issues, polarisation is likely to increase and the security situation to worsen, each camp accusing the other of exploiting terrorism for political ends. Overcoming the crisis of trust between the governing coalition and the opposition is thus essential to breaking this vicious cycle.

Yet the current political impasse should not rule out some immediate progress on the security front. Working together to reinforce border controls, improving relations between the central authorities and residents of border areas as well as improving relations among Maghreb states: these are all tasks that only can be fully carried out once underlying political conflicts have been resolved but that, in the meantime, Tunisian actors can ill-afford to ignore or neglect.

Tunis/Brussels, 28 November 2013

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.