For the second year in a row, Tunisia’s usually peaceful observance of the holy month of Ramadan has been marred, this year by murderous terrorist attacks on Army troops near the western border with Algeria, one in the Chaambi Mountains and another in the town of Sakiet Sidi Youssef.
Since April 2013, a total of 34 Tunisian soldiers have been killed and scores injured in deadly attacks perpetrated by al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) fighters operating in the mountains, 140 miles west of the capital city of Tunis. But the toll of the July 16th incident was the heaviest ever suffered by the Tunisian Army in any terrorist attack since the country’s independence in 1956. At least 15 soldiers were killed and more than 20 injured in simultaneous attacks against two encampments of young troops breaking the daylong Muslim fast. Ten days later, two more soldiers were killed 60 miles farther north.
In slightly more than a year, terrorist tactics have grown in lethality and have become dramatically more brazen. A “qualitative shift” was already evident by the end of May when armed assailants attacked the family home of Minister of the Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou, in the city of Kasserine, by the Chaambi Mountains, killing four policemen on sentry duty. AQIM’s Chaambi attack was the first time terrorists used rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs) against Tunisian targets.
Carrying out the May and July attacks seemed to require a higher level of tactical preparedness, especially prior intelligence gathering about intended targets and greater synchronization between AQIM and Tunisia’s “Ansar Al Sharia of Tunisia.”
In both attacks, there was also a quest for the “spectacular” and for propaganda dividends. After the May attack, AQIM issued its first claim of responsibility for any attack in Tunisia since the 2011 uprisings that toppled the Ben Ali regime. In its statement, the group warned Tunisian authorities that “an open war on Islam and Muslims, aimed at pleasing America, France, and Algeria, will be quite costly.” Furthermore, there was a daily trickle of propaganda photos on social media, in the wake of the Chaambi attack.
In an attempt to manipulate “religious symbols,” the July attacks (much like a similar strike, last year) were timed to coincide with the month of Ramadan and the anniversary of the Battle of Badr, a military expedition by the Prophet Muhammad in 624 AD. In Algeria (but also in Iraq) al-Qaeda affiliates had in the past sought to carry out terrorist operations during Ramadan and to dub some of their suicide attacks “Badr raids.” In conformity with its self-assigned mission of “restoring” a purist vision of Islam to the region, AQIM named its group of fighters the “Uqba Ibn Nafaa Brigade,” after a Muslim general who led the conquest of the Maghreb in 670 AD.
During the last three years, Salafist radicals seized the opportunity of post-revolutionary upheaval in Tunisia to organize. Lawlessness in Libya and porosity of borders in the region allowed them to establish training camps in the country’s backyard. As terrorist and trafficker networks intertwined, they could more easily smuggle all kinds of weapons , including RPGs and MANPADS, into Tunisian territory.
Since the beginning of the year, according to Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa, no less than one thousand terrorism suspects have been arrested and a dozen attacks on borders posts thwarted.
If there is any silver lining in all of this, especially after the July 16th attack, it is that Tunisians seem to be coming to terms with the indigenous roots of the terror problem. In an implicit admission of the domestic background to terror activities, the government moved in July to freeze the activities of 157 associations suspected of supporting terrorism. It also closed down 21 mosques under the control of fanatical preachers while also shutting down unlicensed radio and television stations and kindergartens. The geography of ensuing arrests and mop-up operations after the Chaambi attack reinforced the suspicion that homegrown jihadist constituencies were involved. The minister of defense even took it upon himself to acknowledge that 25 of the terrorists who had attacked the home of the interior minister last May had come from Kasserine proper and only six from the Chaambi Mountains.
In the midst of these attacks, Prime Minister Jomaa complained that security forces are stretched too thin as a result of protests and disturbances they have been obliged to monitor. The military is sorely underequipped. “If our forces had the right equipment, we could have avoided the casualties incurred during the last attack,” he said. Many suspect the country’s anti-terrorism effort to lack more than just adequate equipment. Experts see a need for a more integrated security approach and enhanced intelligence, training, and international cooperation programs to make up for a long period of hesitation to confront terrorism.
As all of these domestic and regional risk factors are likely to persist if not worsen, the next few months leading to parliamentary and presidential elections this fall will be fraught with dangers. The (not altogether unlikely) nightmare scenario in the minds of many Tunisians is that tactically sophisticated terrorists will shift from military and security targets to civilian targets in urban areas.
Political leaders have warned against outside “regional plots” that would aim at disrupting the democratic process. Some analysts surmise that competition between al-Qaeda’s local franchises and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) over the same jihadist turf in North Africa could lead to a surge in terror across the region. But politicians have increasingly acknowledged the role played by Tunisians within this regional nexus of terror. Beji Caid Essebsi, the leader of the main secularist political party, Nida Tounes, recently pointed out that 11 out of 32 terrorists who attacked the In Amenas gas installation (south of Algeria) in January 2013, were Tunisian. A troublingly disproportionate number of Tunisians have often taken part in terror incidents around the world, including the killing of Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud in Afghanistan on the eve of the September 11th attacks and the 2004 Madrid train bombings. For decades, Tunisian authorities have acted as if this was someone else’s problem. But when Nizar Naouar, a Tunisian émigré in France, rammed a gas tanker truck into a Djerba synagogue, in April 2002, he dispelled the illusory notion that chickens don’t have to come home to roost. With terrorists trickling back home, initial complacency and short-sightedness about Tunisians taking part in jihad in Syria, Iraq, Mali, and elsewhere have mostly given way to a deep anguish about the distinct possibility that droves of war-hardened fighters will one day return to Tunisia. Government figures show that 8,000 Tunisians have been prevented from joining jihad in Syria just in the last year. Scores of smuggling rings for aspiring jihadists have also been dismantled in recent months.
Terrorism is emerging as a politically polarizing issue and a potential determinant of the coming electoral campaign. The intense debate over who is responsible for the country’s mounting vulnerability to terrorism will surely not abate soon. On it could hinge the November and December elections, and political protagonists know that. If leaders of Ennahda, the main Islamist party, are expressing concern over the “unfair” exploitation of the terrorism issue at their expense, leftists and liberals are not shying away from putting the onus on Islamists. “Ennahda needs to rid itself of the advocates of extremism within its ranks at any cost,” Zied Krichen, a secularist columnist, recently wrote.
A few political voices are trying to galvanize common resolve against terrorism across party affiliations. This is useful. But without meaningful and genuine national reconciliation, calls for a “united front” against terrorism will likely continue to ring hollow to many, leaving uncertainty hanging over Tunisia’s transition. It remains to be seen whether concern for national security can prove to be a stronger pull than electoral jockeying or political polarization.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of communication. Between 2007 and 2010, he oversaw the preparation of a Global Terrorism Report for the government of Tunisia. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States from 1981 to 1995 and is currently an international media analyst.