Friday, 27 March 2015

Why Tunisia?

         At midday on Wednesday, March 18, a bus filled with tourists drew up outside the Bardo museum in the heart of Tunisia’s capital city, Tunis.  As the visitors began to disembark, two gunmen armed with machine guns opened fire. Some were killed outright, some took what shelter they could find outside the museum, some fled inside.  The gunmen pursued them.  A three-hour siege of the building followed until the two attackers, later named as 20-year-old Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, aged 26, were killed in a gunfight with security forces.  They had slaughtered 23 innocent victims, and wounded about 50.

Responsibility for the attack, which the Tunisian authorities say was carefully planned, was claimed by Islamic State (IS).  If so, it demonstrates the determination of that brutal and bloodthirsty organization to extend its field of operations from the Middle East, where it is wreaking havoc in Syria and Iraq, to the African continent. 

The chaotic situation in the North African state of Libya has already proved a prime stamping ground for IS – at the end of 2014 they were setting up training camps in the east of the country.  And then, early in March, the Nigerian terrorist group Boko Haram declared its allegiance to IS, bringing its influence right into the heart of continental Africa. As for Libya’s neighbor, Tunisia, it had become the antithesis of everything that IS stands for, and thus a prime target. 

Tunisia had long been considered a moderate Sunni country, enlightened and progressive, but in 1987 it fell into the hands of radicals.   President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali began introducing extremist Islamist policies which went against the grain of popular sentiment.  So it was in Tunisia, back in December 2010, that the “Arab Spring” first erupted.  In the small town of Sidi Bouzid a young hawker named Muhammad Buazizi, barred by the authorities from setting up a vegetable and fruit stall in the local market, set himself on fire. His death ignited a wave of riots all over the country against the regime and the economic hardships. President Ben Ali ordered the protests to be harshly suppressed, and in violent riots 670 people were killed.

With the country in turmoil, President Ben Ali fled the country. Denied political asylum by France’s President Nicolas Sarkozy, Ben Ali was smuggled into Saudi Arabia. He was tried in absentia by a Tunisian military court and sentenced to 35 years in prison and a $65 million fine.

Meanwhile parliamentary elections were held in Tunisia. The Islamist party Ennahda (Renaissance) won a majority of seats, whether fairly or not was open to question. The secular parties, fearing that Tunisia would become Islamist and run according to sharia law, instigated popular protests demanding a new constitution and fair elections that would reflect the real wishes of the people. The two years of internal dissension that followed resulted in a constitution that combines Muslim religious values with universal and democratic ones.  It embodies principles established in the first Tunisian republic in 1956, notably democracy, women’s rights and a rejection of sharia. 

In June 2012, 88-year-old Beji Caid Essebsi, long a familiar figure in Tunisian politics. established a new, secular, anti-Islamist party called Nida Tunis. In the elections that followed the resignation of the Islamist prime minister, Rashid Gannouchi, Nida Tunis won a majority in the parliament and Essebsi was elected Tunisia’s new president.

But by becoming a parliamentary republic dedicated to democratic and secular values, Tunisia had, in the eyes of IS, become an enemy eminently worthy of attack – thus the terrorist outrage at the Bardo museum.  That attack was symbolic as regards both its location – adjacent to the parliament building – and its target, Tunisia’s key industry, tourism. 

Two factors make Tunisia especially vulnerable. 

First, huge quantities of arms are finding their way into the country.  Libya, its neighbor to the east, is in total chaos, a hotbed of competing jihadist groups while its recognized government cowers in Tobruk. In border regions, Islamist militants from Tunisia link up with criminal groups involved in arms and drugs trafficking, and easily acquire these weapons.

Secondly, some 1,500 Tunisians attached to the outlawed Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia and aligned with IS, are training in Libya, preparing to overthrow Tunisia’s democratic administration.  IS in Iraq and Syria has already attracted high numbers of Tunisian fighters, hundreds of whom have already returned home.  This hard core of extremists, allied to those currently in training, represent an ever-present danger to the state. 

“Counter-terrorism policy has failed to keep up as militants have changed their strategy,” said Badra Gaaloul, who heads a security think-tank in Tunis. “The militants have shown that they're installed in our city and our neighbourhoods and can carry out attacks in broad daylight in a place where there's plenty of security. Security and intelligence officials realise how serious it is – that there's a great risk to Tunisia – but they lack co-ordination and experience."

Some deficiencies may be tackled by new anti-terrorism legislation that was ready for discussion as the attack on the Bardo museum began. Rather in the spirit of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted, the draft law would allow policing in urban areas to be assigned to the military, and give the security forces greater leeway to crack down on radicalisation.

About 400 suspected terrorists were already in custody before the Bardo attack. Oxford historian Mark Almond speculates that the jihadists might have wanted to provoke the government into a brutal crackdown. They might then have been able to pose as martyrs of a secularist dictatorship, rather than criminals hunted by a democracy’s police.

President Essebsi has promised to be “merciless” in bringing the perpetrators to justice, but Almond believes he needs to be smart too. He was elected by assuring Tunisians that he represented the best of the secularist past, and would shepherd them to a secure future. Safeguarding the public must indeed be a vital priority for the Tunisian government, but the key weapon against Islamist terrorism might well be the revulsion felt by ordinary secular Tunisians for the murderers of innocent visitors, and disgust at the economic chaos it creates for the nation, tied as it is to the tourism industry. Is it this, rather than additional security measures, that might render the terrorists truly vulnerable?  The will of the Tunisian people has certainly prevailed against all the odds in the past.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 29 March 2015:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 28 March 2015:

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