Tunisia is currently going through a very delicate phase in its development. Political tensions are intensifying with the presidential and parliamentary elections scheduled for the end of 2019. The two parties that formed the coalition government, Ennahda and Nida Tounes, are campaigning in open competition against each other. The socio-economic indicators are alarming, with the Tunisian dinar losing 40 percent of its value over the euro in the last two years; the cost of living increasing by a third; and unemployment levels still among the highest in the world. The social discontent was made evident by the hundreds of protests and strikes that paralyzed the country last January. In this context, the security situation is also a cause for concern. The risk that Tunisia could be destabilized in this vulnerable phase is substantial. Although there have been no attacks on the scale of the multiple 2015 attacks against the Bardo Museum in Tunis, a resort in Sousse, and a bus carrying military personnel in Tunis, there continues to be a latent threat.
There are several signs that point to the threat level remaining high. On July 8, 2018, six members of the National Guards were killed in an ambush at Ghardimaou, in the governorate of Jendouba (Kapitalis, July 8 2018). On October 3, two explosions in Abd el-Adim, in the Jebel Chaambi area, killed two soldiers (Kapitalis, October 4, 2018). On October 29, a female suicide attacker named Mena Gebal blew herself up in Tunis in the central Avenue Habib Bourguiba, injuring at least 15 police officers (Mosaique FM, October 29, 2018). On January 3, during a counter-terrorism operation in Jilma, in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid, five terrorists barricaded themselves in a house and detonated their explosive belts (Tunisie Numerique, January 3). In recent months, Tunisian security forces have arrested dozens of people suspected of planning terrorist attacks in the country, seizing weapons, ammunition, and explosive material throughout Tunisia. In the last three years alone, 1,270 people have been held on charges of terrorism, according to official data provided by the Ministry of Justice.
The Evolution of the Threat
Compared to the first manifestations of terrorism between 2012 and 2013 and the large-scale attacks of 2015, the current terrorist threat seems to be less coordinated. Nonetheless, it is not less dangerous. Unlike in other regions—such as Egypt or the Sahel countries—in Tunisia, there is not a structured organization framing the militants and providing training and equipment. Rather, there are several cells operating all around the country, without a high level of interconnection. However, they have contacts with local and transnational criminal networks, allowing them to procure weapons and explosives. The threat is highest in urban centers and along the border areas with Algeria and Libya.
In the Kasserine and Jebel Chaambi areas on the Algerian border in northwestern Tunisia, small cells possibly linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) continue to operate, falling under the name of the Uqba ibn Nafi’ Brigade. Although between 2012 and 2013 this group was primarily responsible for attacks in Kasserine and Jebel Chaambi—which caused the death of more than 70 soldiers—hostilities have decreased since 2015 due to the response capacity of the Tunisian security forces. However, improvised explosive device (IED) explosions continue to occur, indicating that there are still resilient elements jeopardizing the security of local rural communities. In recent months, fighters resorted to raiding stores and private homes trying to find resources for their activities, being debilitated after losing at least 100 fighters in the last four years. Last December, terrorists assaulted a bank in Sbiba, in the governorate of Kasserine, robbing 320,000 Tunisian dinars, more than $100,000 (Webdo.tn, December 15, 2018). Unlike in 2012, when militants in this area were mostly Algerians, now they are largely Tunisians.
This conflict currently resembles more of an internal insurgency than a terrorist campaign. The fighters operate across the mountains in Kasserine, Kef, and Jendouba and operate in small groups of no more than a dozen people, using the tactics of rural guerrillas. It is likely that these areas will continue to serve as a refuge for these cells, but the security forces have dealt several blows to them.
The Tunisian border with Libya holds different dynamics than those on the Algerian border. This border is used more as a corridor for arms trafficking and the passage of militants than as an operational base. In fact, there is a greater level of coordination between traffickers and jihadists, making the Libyan border particularly sensitive. Here, in March 2016, a group of at least 70 armed militants tried to take the town of Ben Guerdane, which later contributed to the strengthening of security measures there. A fence has been built along the border, with monitoring systems provided by the United States and training by the British security forces. Thanks to these countermeasures, traffic in the area is more controlled, but the situation in Libya continues to pose a potential threat to the internal security of Tunisia. Moreover, according to many sources, dozens of Tunisian jihadists and former members of Ansar al-Sharia are still present in Libya and could return to their country of origin.
These potential terrorists add to the more than 800 foreign fighters who have already returned to Tunisia and the hundreds of radicalized citizens still present across the country. The latter category causes the greatest concern for security. The risk of a tactical shift from guerrilla warfare to large-scale attacks and the threat from “lone wolf” terrorism is high. The social tensions of recent months contribute to a climate of general violence, which can easily be exploited by recruiters and radicalized Tunisians.
Counter-Terrorism Answers and Possible Scenarios
Compared to six years ago, the Tunisian security forces have certainly made significant progress in the sector of counter-terrorism. Cooperation with Algeria at a regional level and with major international actors (including the United States, France, United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, and Russia) has enabled the Tunisian security apparatus to be better equipped and more effective in the fight against terrorism, especially in the border areas. Special Meharist units (dromedaries, or camel, cavalry) are hired to patrol the desert areas in the south of the country. With traditional means and without adequate knowledge of the territory, it is almost impossible to patrol these areas.
The Tunisian authorities are also making some progress in overcoming the historical internal divisions between police, the army, and the National Guard forces that risk undermining the effectiveness of counter-terrorism actions, especially in border areas. Interior Minister Hichem Fourati announced last January the imminent creation of a unified command composed of police forces and the National Guard, having the sole task of fighting terrorism (Marsad, January 8). This command will be established first in Kasserine, and should later be enacted in Jendouba and Kef. The Tunisian government has conducted military operations in these mountainous border areas near Algeria since 2014. The army has exceptional power to combat terrorism here.
On February 4, the President of the Republic Beji Caid Essebsi extended by 30 days the state of emergency that has been in force in the country for more than three years (Tunisie Numerique, February 4). This measure is intended to give the security forces extraordinary powers to fight terrorism. On the other hand, however, this kind of measure could increase social tensions, and impact the protests related to the declining socio-economic state of the country. The risk is that clashes between police and protesters may occur and radicalize more Tunisians, constituting new threats to state security. The draft law on the state of emergency currently under discussion by the parliament could give further powers to the security forces without the need for a legal mandate (Tuniscope, February 20).
The threat to security is directly linked to the discontent that continues to spread among a large part of the population. Together with the fight on the border with Libya and Algeria, it is necessary for the Tunisian authorities to guarantee security in the urban centers, where it is possible that terrorist activities such as the suicide bombing of October 29 will be repeated.