Speculation over counterterrorism is once again rife, following the US coordinator of anti-terrorism and violent extremism, Nathan Sales’ visit to Tunisia. The US coordinator met with Tunisian Interior Minister Hisham El-Fratti to discuss Tunisian-American security cooperation and developing mechanisms to combat terrorist crimes.
Sales also had a meeting with Tunisian Minister of Justice Ghazi Jribi, which was attended by the US Ambassador to Tunisia, Daniel Rubinstein. According to the Tunisian Ministry of Justice Sales stressed the need to strengthen cooperation to coordinate the efforts of the two countries in dealing with terrorist crimes, based on national laws and legislation as well as international agreements in the field. The US Department of State indicated that the visit, which will include Algeria later, aims to focus on the exchange of information on foreign fighters.
During his tour of the Maghreb, Sales also discussed the issue of foreign terrorist fighters and the policy of establishing a steady conversation with them. Thousands of young people in Tunisia and Libya were trained to fight in the ranks of terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq from 2011 to 2016. The number of Tunisian fighters in Syria and Iraq reached about 3,000 in 2015, not including the fighters who organised the operation known as Nasra al-Sham, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. The number of fighters in the ranks of Libyan jihadist groups between 2011 and 2017 reached about 1500 fighters, according to a study published by the Washington Institute for Near East Studies in January 2018.
The United States fears the spread of ex-combatants advocating and supporting the transfer of their combat experience to young people in the countries they returned to or targeting US and Western interests. Some fighters in these groups have American citizenship and the American authorities fear their return. The 2015 report of the United States Congressional Task Force concluded that the United States failed to stop the flow of foreign fighters into terrorist groups in both Iraq and Syria, foremost among them advocacy organisations. The report pointed out that 250,000 foreign fighters had entered Iraq and Syria since 2011 and that during the past nine months about 7,000 fighters have joined these terrorist groups. Although most of the new recruits come from the Middle East and North Africa, thousands of Western fighters have been able to travel to the region, including 250 Americans, more than half of whom joined the advocacy organisations last year, among them 30 girls, the report said.
However, the security cooperation between Tunisia and the United States is not limited to the control of fighters returning from the battlefields of Iraq, Syria and Libya. This cooperation will also enable US forces to train Tunisian military forces in the fight against terrorism. There has also been debate over the existence of US military bases in Tunisia, a claim which the Tunisian authorities have always denied, saying US aircraft use Tunisian military bases.
In a memorandum published on its website the US Embassy has revealed the volume of security and military cooperation between the two countries, noting that "more than $100 million has been directed to security assistance since 2011 to develop the capabilities of the Tunisian Ministry of Defence and counter terrorism.” This involves training courses for the Tunisian military and providing them with equipment that would enable them to develop their readiness for surveillance, deployment and border protection. US security assistance to Tunisia since 2011 includes more than $50 million worth of partnership programmes with the Ministries of the Interior and Justice to help develop their operational capabilities. In cooperation with Congress, the US administration sought to increase the support provided to the Ministries of the Interior and Justice, including $7 million under the International Programme for Drug Control and Law Enforcement, aimed at reforming the security, judicial and prison systems. In parallel with the aforementioned US assistance, the foreign military sales programme has facilitated the acquisition of 8 Black Hawk UH-60M helicopters by Tunisia. These are designed to counter regional threats, boost Tunisia’s defence capability and support counterterrorism operations.
Finally, US interest in the Maghreb region and sub-Saharan Africa is growing. Key areas of interest are the level of security threats in the region, which threaten US diplomatic and economic interests and, in particular, terrorist groups in Africa using Tunisia as a base for their operations and the growing influence of African terrorist groups in Somalia, Nigeria, Mali, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya.
The US Department of Defence has developed a simulated wargame, piloted in 2016 by students and faculty members of US military colleges within the "Special Marine and Air Strategic Program". According to an investigation published by The Intercept magazine in October 2017, the game is based on a West Africa - Maghreb conflict which involves counterrorism operations led by Washington against jihadist groups in the region, following attacks by these groups on the United States.