On 18 March 2015, as people were appreciating Tunisia’s cultural heritage at the famous Bardo Museum in Tunis, three men went on a shooting rampage, trapping people inside the museum for three hours. Twenty-two people were killed – all foreigners, mostly European tourists – and over 50 were injured. When Islamic State (IS) claimed responsibility for the attack, it said: “[The attackers] have spread terror among Tunisian infidels and their hosts from crusader countries, and have spilt the blood of dozens of them.” [1] This violent episode vividly captured the international community’s attention, and threatened to destabilise the ‘success story’ of the ‘Arab Spring’. 

While Libya, Yemen and Syria descended into chaos and civil war, and Egypt returned to authoritarianism, after the 2011 uprisings Tunisia was able to hold successive elections, draft a new constitution and move away from the dictatorial model that dominated the country for decades. In the eyes of western countries, Tunisia demonstrates the potential for nations in the Arab world to take a democratic path. Yet increasing insecurity caused by violent groups has turned it into a potential security threat for European democracies, significantly disturbing both Tunisia’s transition process and how the West approaches it. 

While the Bardo attack reverberated across the international community, Tunisians had already been badly shaken by successive waves of violence since 2012. Militant groups have been targeting the state under an apparent strategy to elicit repressive responses by the authorities, delegitimise the democratic process, and enhance the alienation of potential recruits. [2] Groups have also targeted civilians perceived to support security actors. In particular, local shepherds in the mountains near Algeria have suffered retaliatory attacks after they complained to the police about their security and livelihoods being affected by violent groups who established strongholds there during the turmoil that followed the uprisings. [3]

Tribute to victims of the Bardo National Museum attack: Then European Parliament President Martin Schulz visits the Bardo National Museum. Photo: European Union 2016 – European Parliament

Tribute to victims of the Bardo National Museum attack: Then European Parliament President Martin Schulz visits the Bardo National Museum. Photo: European Union 2016 – European Parliament

In 2013, attacks against security forces intensified throughout the country, [4] and the escalation of violence culminated in the political assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, two leading figures in Tunisia’s secular left wing politics. These killings, claimed by IS [5], sparked the most serious political crisis in Tunisia since the uprisings. [6] However, the Bardo attack brought a new dimension: larger-scale violence against civilians, specifically tourists, which targeted the heart of Tunisia’s economy. 

Three months later, on 26 June 2015, came another large-scale attack. A Tunisian student appeared on Sousse’s seafront, carrying a beach umbrella to hide a Kalashnikov assault rifle. In a few short minutes, he transformed the sunny beach into a scene of carnage, as he shot sunbathers and residents of the resort hotel nearby. Thirty-eight people were killed, all of them foreigners. Thirty were British nationals. Thirty-nine others were wounded. Again, IS claimed this attack “against the crusaders who combat the caliphate.” Pointing to its recruitment strategy, the group warned that, “in Tunisia there are a lot of Muslim men who care a lot about jihad in Libya, Iraq, the Levant, etc.” [7]

These attacks against foreigners were presented as retaliation for the West's actions in the Middle East. And, like the attacks against the state, their knock-on effect would be to weaken the democratic transition process, enhance people’s grievances against the government, and capitalise on the challenges people face in their lives – ultimately entrenching divisions and attracting recruits. [8]

Amid severe unemployment, the weakening of the tourism sector – which provided nearly 14 per cent of Tunisian jobs in 2014 [9] – has put many jobs at risk. Tourism had already slumped since the 2011 uprisings, but the Bardo museum and Sousse attacks were a hammer blow: 440,000 British tourists travelled to Tunisia every year before the Sousse attack; 90 per cent have since stopped coming. [10] Violent armed groups gained from this destabilisation, which notably increased the pool of people from which they could recruit: we were told that some of those who lost their jobs following the Sousse attack joined violent groups in search of an income. [11]

Port El Kantaoui Beach, Sousse. Photo: Tony Hisgett

Port El Kantaoui Beach, Sousse. Photo: Tony Hisgett

More attacks then followed. While they continued to target the Tunisian security sector, some were significantly bigger in scope. On 24 November 2015, a suicide bomber killed 12 members of the Tunisian presidential guard on a bus in the centre of Tunis. This attack was conducted by a 28-year-old resident of Tunis, and also claimed by IS. 

By this time it was clear that these violent attacks were connected to the situation in Libya. Just like 70 per cent of Tunisian defendants in terrorism cases reviewed by the Tunisian Center for Research and Studies on Terrorism (CTRET) [12], the gunmen in the Bardo Museum and Sousse attacks had both trained in Libya [13], where IS and other groups have profited from state collapse and fragmentation to establish training camps for fighters. The explosives used in the attack against the presidential guards were also traced to Libya. [14] Indeed, members infiltrated smuggling networks that support the border economy to transport weapons and fighters between the two countries. They have also exploited the rivalries between militias and smuggling networks that compete for access to resources in order to establish bases along the border in Libya. [15]

The security threat from Libya grew graver still on 7 March 2016, when IS forces attacked and tried to capture the Tunisian border city of Ben Guerdane from Libya. Minutes after seizing Ben Guerdane’s local mosque, armed militants were heard through the mosque’s loudspeakers announcing the start of an attack. Fighters spread throughout the city, ambushing army barracks and police posts, as others chanted that IS had come to free the town from the “tyrant” army. [16] The fighters had counted on local support, but residents sided with the Tunisian military and police who clashed with the militants for three days until they were able to regain control of the city. During this period, seven civilians, 13 members of the security forces and 46 militants were killed. [17] Residents of Ben Guerdane later recounted having recognised some of the fighters who had attacked from Libya as they in fact originated from the border town. [18]

Since the fall of Ben Ali, between 3,000 and 7,000 Tunisians are said to have joined groups fighting in Syria, Iraq and Libya, in particular. [19] They represent one of the largest contingents of ‘foreign fighters’ [20] in those countries. [21] The extent of this phenomenon is so striking that even the leader of the militant group Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia (AST) lamented that the wars in Syria and Mali have “emptied Tunisia of its youth.” [22]

The extent of recent attacks in, and international recruitment from Tunisia illustrate how strong violent groups have become in the country, most notably AST. While it has no formal affiliation with other violent groups in Tunisia, membership is porous and different groups sometimes act jointly. [23] AST was born within the Tunisian prison system, where inmates started planning its creation in 2006. After their release as part of a general pardon following the 2011 uprisings [24], they put their plan into action. AST was able to operate relatively freely in the first years of its existence and claims to have recruited 70,000 members between April 2011 and January 2014, thanks to its charity work and its capacity to capitalise on people’s frustrations with the Tunisian government. [25] Several people we met highlighted the organisational skills of such groups: one said they operated “like a state within the state”; others claimed that they were better organised than the state and raised questions about the origin of their funding. [26]

The extent of recent attacks in, and international recruitment from Tunisia illustrate how strong violent groups have become in the country.

While AST’s action was initially largely non-violent [27], this changed after 2011. The Tunisian government held AST responsible for assassinating Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, designating it a terrorist organisation. [28] Later in 2013, AST declared loyalty to Al Qaeda and several of its leaders then pledged allegiance to IS in 2014. [29] But although there have been attacks, many experts see the country as primarily a land of preaching and recruitment. 

Nonetheless, these violent events have had real impacts in Tunisia as well as on the country’s relations with western countries. Following the Sousse attack, the United Kingdom (UK) and Germany advised their nationals against “all but essential travel” to Tunisia [30], which precipitated the dramatic fall in tourism. The travel advice – given to safeguard tourists – also exerted an economic pressure that encouraged the Tunisian government to take ‘serious measures’ to tackle insecurity. [31] Western governments backed these measures by significantly increasing their security assistance to Tunisia. [32]

Western security support also reflected concerns in Europe over the threat posed by violent individuals of Tunisian nationality or origin following attacks in European capitals. It was a French Tunisian man who drove a truck through a crowd in Nice on 14 July 2016, killing 86 people and injuring 458. The man who drove a truck into a Christmas market in Berlin on 19 December 2016, killing 12 people and injuring 56, was also a Tunisian national. While western governments have been supportive of Tunisia’s democratic transition since 2011, more recent events have increased their stake in Tunisia’s stability. 

People we spoke to in Sidi Bouzid, Medenine, Sidi Hassine and Tunis generally felt that security had improved [33]: Tunisia has not seen large-scale attacks since early 2016. But they also noted that the Tunisian government’s western-backed responses have had problematic impacts on the country’s most significant structural challenges. These challenges pose both an immediate and a long-term threat to the country’s peace and to those with a stake in it. The next section outlines the challenges facing Tunisia and concludes that addressing them requires a different, more strategic approach to sustainable peace and stability that balances short-term security imperatives with a greater focus on long-term, peaceful transition.

Header photo: Extra security and police patrol the beach of the Imperial Marhaba Hotel in Sousse, Tunisia. Photo: Alpha Press

Footnotes

1. Courrier International (2015), ‘Tunisie. Attaque du Bardo : une double revendication’, 20 March

2. International Crisis Group (2016), ‘Jihadist Violence in Tunisia: The Urgent Need for a National Strategy’, briefing n. 50, 22 June

3. Nadhif A (2017), ‘Tunisia’s poor population face death by terrorists’, 14 June

4. Inkyfada (2015), Terrorisme en Tunisie: Carte interactive des événements après le 14 janvier

5. Gall C (2014),  ‘Tunisia: ISIS Fighters Claim 2 Killings’, 18 December 

6. This happened simultaneously to the discrediting and ousting of the Muslim Brotherhood government in Egypt.

7. Haqaeq online (2015) ‘In a statement allegedly published by IS, the organisation claims responsibility for the Sousse terrorist attack and publishes a new photo of the perpetrator’, 27 June

8. International Crisis Group (2016), op. cit.; Fahmi G, Meddeb H (2015), ‘Market for Jihad: Radicalization in Tunisia’, Carnegie Middle East Centre, 15 October; Meddeb H (2016), ‘Les caractéristiques de la violence jihadiste en Tunisie’, text of presentation made at the workshop ‘Prévenir la violence extrémiste en Tunisie’, Tunis

9. World Travel and Tourism Council (), ‘The Economic Impact of Travel & Tourism 2015: Tunisia’, p 4

10. Wintour P (2016), ‘Tunisia urges UK tourists to return 18 months after Sousse beach attack’, 6 December; Following the Sousse attack, the UK advised its citizens against all travel to Tunisia through the foreign travel advice page provided by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO). This advice was lifted in August 2017.

11. Interviews with civil society representatives, Tunis, October 2016

12. Inkyfada (2017), ‘“Terroristes” en Tunisie : Que révèlent les dossiers judiciaires ?’, 4 January

13. ibid.

14. Amara T (2015), ‘Tunisia says suicide bomber carried out bus attack claimed by Islamic State’, 25 November

15. Meddeb H (2017), ‘Precarious resilience: Tunisia’s Libya predicament’, Middle East and North Africa Regional Architecture, 5 April, p 7

16. Amara T, Markey P (2016), ‘Border attack feeds Tunisia fears of Libya jihadist spillover’, 13 March

17. Agence France Presse, ‘Tunisie: 10 jihadistes et un soldat tués dans des opérations à Ben Guerdane’, 9 March

18. Amara T, Markey P (2016), op. cit.

19. Most estimates put this figure at 5,500. For instance, see: Souli S (2016), ‘Tunisia: Why foreign fighters abandon ISIL’, 3 March; Malka H, Balboni M (2016), ‘Tunisia: Radicalism abroad and at home’, June

20. The term ‘foreign fighters’ is imperfect, not least because it does not differentiate between people who are actively fighting and others who travelled to territories held by IS in order to take part in the construction of the caliphate. However, we use this expression in this report for clarity purposes as it is the most commonly used terminology available to refer to people who have travelled to join violent groups abroad.

21. OHCHR (2015), ‘Foreign fighters: Urgent measures needed to stop flow from Tunisia – UN expert group warns’, 10 July

22. Counter-Extremism Project (2017), ‘Tunisia: Extremism and Counter-Extremism’

23. In addition, while groups go by the name Ansar al-Shariah in Libya, Egypt and Yemen, they are not formally affiliated and do not have a centralised command structure. However, it has been established that AST and Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) share operational, financial and logistical links. See: Zelin A (2012), ‘Know your Ansar al-Sharia’, 21 September

24. A General Amnesty law was passed in 2011, which pardoned a number of prisoners of the Ben Ali regime

25. Counter-Extremism Project (2017), op. cit.

26. Participants in focus group discussion with youth, Sidi Hassine, February 2017; Participants in focus group discussion with adults, Sidi Hassine, February 2017

27. Werenfels I (2015), ‘Going “Glocal”: Jihadism in Algeria and Tunisia’, in Steinberg G and Weber A (eds.), Jihadism in Africa. Local causes, Regional expansion, International alliances (Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik), p 63

28. Al Jazeera (2013), ‘Ansar al-Sharia blamed for Tunisia killings’, 27 August

29. Counter-Extremism Project (2017), op. cit.

30. Yerkes S (2016), ‘One year after Sousse, it’s the economy—not security—that worries Tunisians’, Brookings Institution, Foreign Policy Trip Reports, 30 June

31. Interviews with civil society representatives and international officials, Tunis, October 2016

32. For instance, see: evolution of American security aid to Tunisia: For further analysis on international support to security in Tunisia, please see Section 4.

33. Focus group discussions, Sidi Bouzid, January-March 2017