BRIEFS

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 14 Issue: 3

CAN TUNISIA’S JIHADISTS CAPITALIZE ON COUNTRY’S ECONOMIC CRISIS?

Two militants were killed and at least one member of the Tunisian security forces was injured on February 1 during clashes in Gabes province (al-Bawaba, February 2; al-Arabiya, February 2). The clashes began after three militants armed with assault rifles accosted local shepherds and in an attempt to steal their food. The shepherds then alerted the military who pursued the militants. The incident indicated that the militants were not from the area and were not able to rely on local contacts for support. Unlike many other recent incidents, the latest clashes did not take place in mountainous areas near the Libyan border, but rather in sparsely-populated desert-like areas, located closer to the Libyan border. Previously, in January, the Tunisian authorities said they had arrested nine extremists in Bizerte in northern Tunisia who were recruiting fighters to travel to join the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (Al-Arabiya, January 27). The incidents show that Islamist militants in the country remain active, both seeking to operate domestically in guerrilla fashion in rural areas, and also working to provide manpower to Islamic State abroad.

These events occurred against a backdrop of social unrest elsewhere in the country, primarily over poor economic conditions and the country’s chronic lack of jobs and opportunities for young people. Protests resulting from the unrest were concentrated in the country’s poorer inland areas and were often led by unemployed graduates focused on provincial cities, and saw protesters seizing some local government buildings and blockading highways. In addition, on January 25, thousands of Tunisian police joined the protests, largely to ask for higher pay, a request partly motivated by the realization that they are now priority targets for Islamist militants (Al-Arabiya, January 25). Although this led to the country declaring an overnight curfew, casualties among both protesters and the security forces were light, primarily resulting from the Tunisian authorities opting to avoid the use of force against protesters out of the fear of escalating the situation and to steer clear of comparisons to to Ben Ali, the country’s former strongman who was forced out by protests in 2011.

However, while the protests do not constitute a mortal threat to the government and are largely directed against the economic situation than against the country’s democratic system of government, they underline that the country’s poor economic situation may be exacerbating youth susceptibility to Islamist radicalization. Tunisia Prime Minister Habib Essid, gave a revealing interview in September 2015 for the Council on Foreign Relations in which he said that the country’s radicals were generally motivated by either ideology or by money. He said: "Some of them, they think that through jihad they can go to paradise and things like that. […] but the most important part of them, they’re there for economic reasons. They didn’t have jobs” and "they couldn’t have a normal life”; as a result have turned to jihadist groups who can offer to pay them a regular salary. [1] Given the high levels of unemployment in Tunisia — the World Bank estimates youth unemployment at 37.6 percent and graduate unemployment at 62.3 — much will depend on whether the government is able to take steps to effectively address these problems, and secondly whether the Islamic State and other militant groups will be able to find a way to capitalize on this discontent (The National, January 27). So far, youth dissatisfaction in Tunisia has been mainly directed against politicians and political parties, rather than against the country’s new democratic system itself. However, this could change if the Islamic State is able to convince Tunisia’s youth that democracy has failed them and that terrorist group’s promised theocracy holds the solution to Tunisia’s problems.

Notes:

[1] "Assessing Tunisia’s Opportunities and Challenges: A Conversation with Habib Essid", Council on Foreign Relations. September 30, 2015. http://www.cfr.org/tunisia/assessing-tunisias-opportunities-challenges/p37055

ISLAMIC STATE ARRESTS WORLDWIDE ILLUSTRATE GLOBAL THREAT

A fresh wave of arrests of suspected Islamic State militants around the world, as well as the reported disruption of a range of intended plots, indicates the growing global reach of the group. In one of the most significant incidents, six individuals were arrested in the French city of Lyon. French media reported that some of them were believed to be planning attacks against targets in France, although no weapons were found, suggesting that the attack may not have been imminent (RFI, February 2). This followed growing evidence of links between French Islamist radicals and the Islamic State, most notably through the group’s online release of a video showing some of the perpetrators of the November 2015 Paris attacks with other Islamic State members in either Iraq or Syria prior to the attacks (France24, February 25). Some of the footage reportedly showed the attackers beheading and shooting prisoners. Further underlining the links between domestic militancy in France and groups abroad, a leading French member of Islamic State, Salim Benghalem, was sentenced in absentia by a French court to 15 years in prison (France24, January 7). Benghalem, who is believed to be in Syria, is thought to be a key link between various French radicals, and has been linked to Said and Cherif Kouachi, the brothers who carried out the Charlie Hebdo attack in Paris in January 2015, and to Mehdi Nemmouche, who attacked a Jewish Museum in Brussels in May 2014 (Ibid.).

In other countries, migrant workers have also been arrested, illustrating another (so far) overlooked aspect to the Islamic State threat. In Singapore in January, 27 migrant construction workers from Bangladesh were deported for having links to Islamic State and al-Qaeda (Straits Times, January 20). Upon their return to their home country, 14 of the men were charged by Bangladeshi police for their with links to Ansarullah Bangla Team (ABT), a local militant group that has carried out a range of low-level attacks over the last year (Channel News Asia, January 21). Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs had said that they were not planning attacks overseas but in Singapore, raising the possibility that they were planning attacks on their eventual return to Bangladesh. Similarly, on January 28, the United Arab Emirates deported three Indian migrant workers who were believed to have been radicalizing others and planning attacks in India, while working in the UAE capital of Abu Dhabi (New India Express, January 30). Separately, a UAE national on trial in Abu Dhabi recently confessed to fighting for Islamic State and Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria, although he denied planning to expand terrorist attacks into the UAE and to declare a branch of the caliphate there (Gulf News, January 31).

Meanwhile, through Western countries, arrests of Islamic State supporters and activists have continued. In Germany, a Syrian citizen who was pursuing his PhD was arrested by the police for allegedly putting a video online in which he explained his support for Islamic State and in which he described the United States as "the figurehead of heresy" and of the country’s Arab allies as "worse than pigs" (DW, February 3). The preceding week, in an unrelated development, police in southern Italy arrested a 25-year-old Moroccan man on suspicion of previously attempting to travel to Syria to join Islamic State; he had previously been deported from Turkey (DPA, January 25). In the U.S., police in North Carolina charged a 19-year-old teenager with allegedly attempting to provide material support to Islamic state (UPI, February 2). Further afield, in Rwanda, the police arrested an imam in the capital of Kigali on the suspicion of recruiting for the terrorist group (Reuters, January 30). He was later shot dead “while trying to escape,” meaning that the extent of his activities may not be fully known. These – along with a slew of other arrests – strongly illustrate both the growing spread of Islamic State influence and the extensive international cooperation that will be needed to effectively disrupt its activities.