Briefing Note: Jihadi Threat in Tunisia
01 Jul 2015
June's ISIS-claimed attack in Sousse, following the Bardo Museum assault in March, shows the threat Tunisia faces from jihadism. This briefing note examines the context of radicalisation in the country.
On 26 June 2015 a Tunisian national, Seifeddine Rezgui, launched an attack on a resort near Sousse in which 38 people were killed, mostly British tourists. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack. The attacker was not previously known to the Tunisian security services, but was reported to have travelled to Libya for training at the same time as two of the Bardo museum gunmen. Rezgui studied at university in the town of Kairouan and it is understood that it was during this period that he became engaged with extremist groups. In a direct response to the attack, the Tunisian Prime Minister, Habib Essid, announced the closure of 80 mosques in the country that were accused of "spreading venom."
Recent attacks such as these on tourist infrastructure in Tunisia provide graphic evidence of the significant threat domestic and international Islamist-jihadi groups pose to the country. The worsening situation in Libya, the large number of Tunisian foreign fighters joining ISIS, the presence of jihadi groups launching attacks from the Chaambi mountains and the threat posed by violent Salafi groups are among the challenges the country faces. Compared with many countries in the region Tunisia has seen a relatively stable transition from dictatorship to multi-party participatory democracy. But with the regional geopolitical situation deteriorating, it is likely that Tunisia will face significant security threats for the foreseeable future.
Tunisia remains the biggest success story of the Arab uprisings of 2011; the fact that an attacks such as Sousse and the Bardo Museum attract so much international attention is testament to the country's strong position, and stands in stark contrast to daily atrocities in Syria or neighbouring Libya. But Tunisia's peaceful transfer of power in February 2015 belies the growing danger that violent Islamist groups pose to the country.
Between 3,000 and 5,000 Tunisians are thought to have travelled to Syria.
Though Ennahda, a moderate Islamist party, gained the most politically from the revolution, a more uncompromising form of Islamism gained prominence on the street. Ennahda sought accommodation with its secularist rivals, including those linked to the former regime (its leader, Ghannounchi, declaring that "a political transition is no time to govern with a relative majority of 51 per cent; it is a time for consensus"). However, Salafi groups – previously underground – used the opportunity provided by the chaos following the revolution to seize control of mosques. These groups saw the fall of Ben Ali as a vital opportunity for the Islamisation of the Tunisian state.
The Salafi movement broadly falls into two camps: quietist groups that seek the transformation of society through proselytisation and good works, and jihadi groups that have sought to change the state through violence. The latter include Ansar al-Sharia, which is believed to have been behind the assassinations of two prominent opposition figures, Mohamed Brahmi and Chokri Belaïd, in 2013 as well as an attack on the US embassy in Tunis in 2012.
The Chaambi Mountains, near the Algerian border, have been the focus of ongoing efforts by government forces to drive out several jihadi groups who have a presence there, including the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, which broke away from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and inclines towards ISIS.
However, the threat to Tunisia is not solely internal. Violent Salafis, or salafi-jihadis, have been particularly active in setting up a supply route of Tunisian fighters to Syria. Between 3,000 and 5,000 Tunisians are thought to have travelled to Syria, more than any other country, often to fight for groups such as ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra. When one takes into account the country's population of 10.6 million, this figures dramatically higher than elsewhere in per capita terms. Of these, a September 2014 estimate held that over 400 had returned to Tunisia.
Meanwhile, on the country's eastern border the deteriorating situation in Libya is providing a battleground for Tunisian jihadis that is much easier to access. Despite extensive policing of the border, there is a substantial flow of fighters to the conflict, in which ISIS has emerged as a leading player. On 17 March 2015, one of Tunisia's most wanted men – thought to be behind the Brahmi and Belaïd assissinations – was killed in Libya, fighting for ISIS.
This article was originally published on 18 March 2015, and updated on 1 July 2015.
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