There are fears in Tunisia that the country is facing a new wave of terror attacks following the killing on Sunday July 8th of six members of the security forces. A police unit from Gar Dimaou in the Jendouba region, close to the Algerian border, was ambushed during a regular patrol.
According to a report by the Counter Extremism Project, terrorism poses a threat to the very existence of a democratic Tunisian government. Before the Tunisian revolution in 2011 - which sparked the so-called Arab Spring - homegrown Islamist extremism was minimal.
Following the revolution, an increase in civil liberties coupled with the collapse of neighbouring Libya saw a string of attacks on the country. Two terrorist groups, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST) and Okba Ibn Nafaa, have been responsible for nearly all of them. Both organizations were previously associated with al-Qaeda but shifted their allegiance to Isis in 2014. These terrorist groups have principally targeted secular government officials, foreign tourists, and the Tunisian military.
U.N. experts estimated that approximately 5,500 Tunisians travelled to Syria to fight in the country’s civil war alongside a variety of different factions. By December 2015, this figure is estimated to have climbed to 6,000. An additional 1,000 to 1,500 Tunisians are estimated to have joined militant groups in neighbouring Libya.
According to The Economist, the flow is now reversing with fighters making their way home as the groups they had joined are pushed back.
The Tunisian interior ministry says 800 have already returned; Isis has encouraged them to carry out attacks in Tunisia and has claimed responsibility for several atrocities. Last March a large group of Tunisian Isis members crossed the border from Libya to stage an assault on Ben Gardane that left dozens dead. Tunisian security forces say they fear the possible “Somalification” of the country.
These returning fighters continue to operate relatively freely inside Tunisia despite regular government raids. The very long and porous border with Libya has historically allowed for the free flow of goods, weapons and fighters between the two countries.
The Tunisian government has made a big effort since 2015 to bolster its border security, and even closed its border with Libya in March 2016 after a deadly attack on the border town of Ben Gardane.
The Global Terrorism Index showed Tunisia falling to 4.62 in 2016 from 4.96 in 2015. The Index averaged 2.69 from 2002 until 2016, reaching an all time high of 4.96 in 2015 and a record low of 0.92 in 2006. The Index ranking for Tunisia is now expected to rise once again.
According to an analysis by Tracking Terrorism, fighting is concentrated in the mountainous border area with Algeria, in the Kasserine region, where a number of jihadist groups are based, including Okba Ibn Nafaa and AST.
The Kasserine region has become what one analyst has called “an informal headquarters” for jihadist groups due to the region’s proximity to the permeable border with Algeria, and its dire economy. These conditions have proved fertile ground for extremist recruitment. Fighting has also taken place near Jebel Chaambi, the highest point in Tunisia, close to the city of Kasserine.
AST and Okba Ibn Nafaa showed in 2105 they have the ability to launch attacks in the Tunisian capital and in other major cities.
“With the fall of Isis in Syria and its defeat in Iraq, local extremist groups in Tunisia are seeking to re-establish themselves as a vital effective force to spread violence again in their home country,” says Anne Wolf, North African affairs expert and political risk analyst at West Point’s Combating Terrorism Centre.
Wolf says that with the increasing activity of Tunisia’s returning fighters, the Tunisian government must increase coordination with neighbouring countries, especially Algeria.She acknowledges that deep mistrust between countries in north and west Africa continues to undermine cooperation, despite the fact that transnational threats from AQIM and al-Murabitun require a regional response.
“If cooperation can be achieved, Tunisia could launch the wide-ranging political, socio-economic and security reforms that are needed to tackle the root causes of radicalization, establish reintegration programs for fighters returning from Syria, and pave the way for an effective strategy against jihadists currently operating in Tunisia,” said Wolf.