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Terrorism in Tunisia: Some Recent Context

Jonathan Githens-Mazer
Commentary, 19 March 2015
International Security Studies, Terrorism, Terrorism, Middle East and North Africa
Shocking as it may be, the latest terrorist attack on Tunisia is not a new phenomenon. This does not necessarily mean that Tunisia will descend into the kind of destabilisation seen in neighbouring Libya.

Tunis, 18 March 2013 - Today’s attack on the Bardo complex in Tunis is shocking in its violence – but not surprising for those who know this small but symbolically important state in North Africa.

Tunisia was the starting point for the Arab Spring in 2011, and is hailed as the model for peaceful and inclusive transition to democracy. Despite these successes, there are warning signs – not least in the allegations that Tunisia is the single largest contributor of foreign fighters in Syria.

Terrorism and Violence in Tunisia since 2011

Since the Arab Spring in 2011, there have been several significant attacks and ongoing low intensity conflicts in Tunisia. These include:

  • In 2013, two prominent opposition politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, were assassinated in relatively quick succession.  Their deaths were attributed to supporters of Ansar Al Sharia Tunisia (AST), a group affiliated with its namesake in Libya, who is alleged to be responsible for the death of US Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens in Bengazi in 2012.

 

  • There has been an ongoing insurgency in the west of Tunisia along the Algerian border in the Mount Chaambi national park, and nearby town of Kasserine, and where as recently as this past February four policeman were killed.

 

  • Tunisia’s large contribution of foreign fighters to the conflict in Syria. Anecdotally, there are said to be thousands more Tunisians being prevented from travelling abroad to fight in Syria. Many Tunisians share deep concerns that the return of Tunisian foreign fighters from Syria will destabilise the process of democratic transition in the country.

 

  • Over the past year, concerns have particularly been building about the potential for spillover from the brutal and internecine conflict in neighbouring Libya. The concerns about Libyan spillover also link to Libya’s role as departure points for Tunisians seeking to travel to Syria, and for Tunisians fighting with armed Islamist militias in Libya. These problems are exacerbated by cross border smuggling and violence. Ironically, the conflict in Libya has helped to buttress a shaky Tunisian economy through an influx of refugees, but has also created social tensions around the influx of Libyans driving up rents and putting pressure on infrastructures in urban centres like Tunis. There have been discoveries of large arms caches on the Tunisian side of the border earlier this month.

Tourism: Tunisia’s Soft Underbelly

Tourism provides a key opportunity to earn and retain foreign currency (given that the Tunisian Dinar is a closed currency) for Tunisia. It is particularly important for the affluent coastal regions of the East coast, running from Nabeul to Monastir, which rely on tourism.

After the 2011 revolution, there was a 50% decline in tourism, and only recently has the sector started to recover, yet prior to this attack have still not achieved anything like pre-revolution levels.

Other parts of the country, especially the Southwest, such as the desert Oases of Tozeur and Tamerza (where many hotels have closed) have suffered from the twofold decimation of tourism, and the dramatic decline of global phosphate prices over the past five years.

Nearby industrial towns such as Redeyef and Metlaoui have seen severe civil strife and violence, and are still reported to suffer from a severe of investment in basic infrastructures such as hospitals and schools.

Making Sense of the Senseless

This attack on the Bardo should be interpreted as a double provocation. It not only generates international headlines, but also will destabilise the Tunisian economy. Forcing an economic crisis on Tunisian society will heighten existing political and social tensions.

Many young Tunisians (who already suffer from world’s highest youth unemployment rate at over 40%) already are questioning the relative value of a revolution that has not delivered on hopes and dreams, and openly question the value of a struggle for democracy that has failed to put bread in their bellies or money in their pockets.

While destabilisation of the Tunisian economy will have been a slow-burn strategic aim for this attack, a more immediate goal will be to provoke an  overreaction on the part of the government and security forces.

One of the desired outcomes from the strategic perspective of the terrorists will be to heighten existing tensions between those who may find themselves caught up in any crackdowns after these attacks. This means that these same youth who find themselves in unemployment, and questioning the value of revolution and politics will be further alienated from a state that they may perceive as not taking their interests into account.

Ultimately it is important to remember that Tunisia is not a domino, ready to fall to the ideas of a radical Islamism that groups like ISIS are seeking promote, but rather a Petrie dish which, under the right conditions, could support this kind of radicalisation. This attack cultivates the conditions necessary for this radicalisation. It is not only an attack on humanity and decency, but also a concerted effort to destroy a peaceful, inclusive democratic transition, and to destabilise the keystone case of success for the entire Arab Spring.

 

Author

Jonathan Githens-Mazer
Associate Fellow

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