Fixing Tunisia’s terror problem should begin at home

The latest terror attack in Tunisia, it’s most deadly to date, has turned attention to the strength of the Islamic State’s foothold in Libya and sparked fear of a massive spillover into Tunisia. Shortly after the March 7 attack in Ben Gardane, President Beji Caid Essebsi expressed concern that ISIS is actively trying to establish an emirate on Tunisian soil. While that outcome is not likely in the near future, there is no question that ISIS’ expansion in Libya has direct implications for Tunisia’s security.

Reports of ISIS’ increasing presence in Libya should worry the Tunisian government and people. Two terrorist attacks last year—at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and at a beach resort in Sousse—were perpetrated by Tunisians who had traveled to Libya to train with ISIS. Now, after establishing a more secure base within Libya, ISIS is reportedly encouraging foreign fighters to travel there instead of Syria or Iraq. This provides Tunisians, who already make up the largest national contingent of foreign fighters within ISIS, with an express lane into the arms of the Islamic State. 

The Tunisian government is taking this issue seriously. During the most recent attack, the Tunisian security forces (as well as residents of Ben Gardane) acted swiftly and thoroughly to stop the violence and prevent further casualties. The Tunisian government declared a curfew in the town and shut down major border crossings with Libya. Both President Essebsi and Prime Minister Essid issued harsh statements, with Essebsi vowing to “exterminate terrorist rats.” The United States, European Union, and the United Nations also responded with typical statements of condemnation and condolence. 

But while there is a clear consensus regarding the need to address Tunisia’s security threat, to successfully do so both Tunisia and the international community should reframe the problem and concomitant solutions in three ways: 

First, recognize that this is just as much a Tunisia problem as a Libya problem. Many have blamed Tunisia’s continuing security challenge on unrest in Libya and the growing presence of ISIS close to the Tunisia-Libya border. While there is no question that ISIS’ stronghold in Sirte is a threat to Tunisia, the terrorists carrying out attacks on Tunisia’s soil are almost exclusively Tunisians, not Libyans. Tunisian officials have acknowledged that almost none of the perpetrators of the Ben Gardane attack came across the border from Libya, rather they were Tunisians living in Tunisia. They have also noted that Tunisians are taking on higher level positions within ISIS in Libya, and that its base in Sirte has encouraged some of the thousands of Tunisians who traveled to Iraq and Syria to return to North Africa, posing a more direct threat to Tunisia. Therefore, efforts to prevent Libyans from flooding Tunisia’s borders will be ineffective at preventing future terrorist attacks. Rather, the international community should work with Tunisia on their side of the border to prevent Tunisians from going to Libya in the first place. 

Second, don’t rely too heavily on border control measures. With U.S. and European support, Tunisia recently completed a 125-mile long fence along the Libyan border. While the Tunisian defense minister recently praised the success of the fence, noting the Tunisians had seized 2.5 billion articles of illegal material between December 2015 and January 2016 alone, the border fence is no panacea for Tunisia’s security problems. First, the fence only covers half of the border and appears more like a trench or a berm (i.e. an impediment), rather than a wall (i.e. a fool-proof barrier). Second, there are rumors of both physical holes built into the fence to maintain smuggling routes as well as frequent bribes for border guards. Many of Tunisia’s border towns depend on the smuggling economy to survive. While illicit goods (drugs, weapons, and people) should be prevented from entering, Tunisia must find a way to replicate the cross-border trade of non-illicit goods. Third, as mentioned above, preventing Tunisians from going to and returning from Libya will have no impact on the members of Tunisian sleeper cells who have never left. Security forces should therefore prioritize intelligence collection and disrupting communication between Tunisian extremists at home and abroad. 

Third, to eradicate the terrorist threat, treat Tunisia’s security problem holistically. The pattern of terror attacks within Tunisia over the past year has not only harmed Tunisia’s security but also damaged its economy and has the potential to threaten Tunisia’s democratic transition. The first two attacks in 2015 directly targeted the tourism sector. While last week’s attack was aimed at a military installation, it will still likely deter foreigners from visiting Tunisia, dealing another blow to Tunisia’s tourism sector. 

Continuing to neglect the people of Tunisia’s interior and southern regions, in particular, is likely to fuel ISIS recruitment.

Widening the lens

Because Tunisia’s terrorist problem is largely homegrown, the Tunisian government, with support from international donors, needs to address the root causes of Tunisia’s outsized foreign fighter problem. This involves addressing Tunisia’s economic situation and prioritizing economic reform measures that will provide jobs and dignity to Tunisia’s large population of educated but un- and under-employed youth. Continuing to neglect the people of Tunisia’s interior and southern regions, in particular, is likely to fuel ISIS recruitment. 

Another fear is that in the face of continued security threats, the Tunisian people may begin to demand, or at least tolerate, harsher security measures at the expense of freedoms. Tunisia has demonstrated tremendous resilience in the face of challenges to its transition. I am optimistic that the political leaders will do everything they can to keep Tunisia on the democratic path. But, one would forgive Tunisia for putting security first, leaving much needed economic reforms and democratic consolidation on the back burner. However doing so is likely to sustain the problem Tunisia is trying to solve rather than stop it. Rather, Tunisia and its international supporters should focus their efforts on solving Tunisia’s long-standing economic grievance issues and refrain from any measures such as crackdowns on political opposition or extended states of emergency that will likely do more long-term harm than good.