Over the past decade, Tunisia has been known as the sole “Arab Spring” success story, considering its steady path towards democratisation. Regrettably, it has also been among the MENA countries most exposed to homegrown jihadist radicalisation and domestic terrorism. Since the toppling of President Ben Ali, between 3.000 and 7.000 Tunisians have reportedly joined terrorist groups fighting in Syria, Iraq, and Libya, placing Tunisia among the countries with the highest number of foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs) per capita in the world.
Nowadays, Tunisia’s jihadi movement is a long way from what it had been at its pinnacle between 2011 and 2016 when national authorities faced one of the most substantial jihadist mobilisations in the Arab world following the 2011 turmoil. However, despite an overall decrease in the number and lethality of Islamist terrorist attacks in recent years, the country led by Kais Saïed remains (and will likely remain) vulnerable to the threat of jihadism, a menace shaped by a range of old and new challenges.
The Declining Trajectory of Jihadist Violence in the Country
President Kais Saïed’s power grab on July 25th of last year led some observers to speculate about the possibility of jihadists capitalising on the coup and Tunisia’s uncertain political and socio-economic situation in order to mount new attacks in the country. All the more so after the Islamic State (IS) dedicated the newsletter Al-Naba 297 editorial on July 29, 2021, to the political unrest driven by Saïed’s decision to suspend parliament and dismiss the Prime Minister. In the leading article of its weekly magazine, the terrorist organisation portrayed Tunisia’s juncture as further evidence that promoting Islam through either democracy (the explicit reference being to Ennahda’s “Muslim Democrats”) or “any other disbelieving methods” of the “Tunisian Tyrant” (i.e., President Kais Saïed) is not successful. Similarly, the editorial stressed that jihad is the only way to achieve a true Islamic state based on the Shari’a. However, despite some attempts by local cells linked to IS and Al-Qaeda (AQ) to plan and execute attacks in Tunisia, none of these jihadist groups’ affiliates have been able to go much beyond inflammatory rhetoric since President Saïed’s coup de force.
Steadily on the rise since the 2010-2011 uprising, jihadist violence in the country peaked in 2015 with three spectacular attacks claimed by IS before beginning its decline in March 2016 with the failed attempt of seizing control of the border town of Ben Guerdane by an IS commando. The decrease in violence in the country is primarily linked to the military setbacks suffered by the most prominent jihadist organisations in the Middle East and Libya – the country where the deadly 2015-2016 attacks against Tunisia were organised – and to the government’s increasing security crackdown on jihadists. Improvements in defence strategy and counterterrorism capabilities also played an important role. According to a June 2021 International Crisis Group report, the overall number of jihadist attacks between 2020 and 2021 was far lower than in the previous decade. From March 2016 to March 2021, jihadists carried out five operations (three of which were claimed by IS) in urban areas near Tunis and cities along the eastern coast, causing 16 victims. Such figure stands in striking contrast to the registered 214 casualties due to attacks during the 2011-2016 period. Between 2016 and 2021, jihadist violence in rural areas took place exclusively in the mountainous zones along the Tunisian-Algerian border, killing 11 soldiers and national guards. These small-scale, unsophisticated operations (involving the use of improvised explosive devices, IEDs) were perpetrated by two armed groups known as Katibat Uqba Bin Nafi (KUBN) and Jund Al-Khilafa (JAK), affiliated with AQ and IS, respectively. Since 2016, such small organisations – predominantly active in Tunisia’s northwestern governorates – have lost two-thirds of their members, dropping from 250 fighters to around 60. The armed forces have also eliminated many of their successive leaders; hence, the groups are currently in a weakened state further plagued by financial and logistical problems, especially in terms of supply provision. They mostly rely on thefts of livestock and food reserves from isolated firms, which alienates them from local populations and decreases their chances of support.
Tunisia’s Multifaceted Terrorist Challenges
Despite recording a significant decrease in the number and lethality of terrorist attacks over the last five years, Tunisia continues to face multiple and heterogeneous challenges linked to violent extremism. Recently-foiled plots in the country confirm the still effective organizational and operational capability of jihadist groups. Moreover, the risk of attacks perpetrated by so-called “lone wolves” scattered across the national territory continues to mar the security landscape. However, Tunisia will also have to grapple with a host of other issues. First, although the jihadist ideology has progressively lost its appeal vis-à-vis younger generations –a change for the better – a set of factors, including unmet socio-economic vulnerabilities and political expectations, still remain unaddressed. These might continue to fuel grievances, thus pushing some particularly disenfranchised individuals towards radicalisation.
Secondly, the IS Caliphate's territorial defeat has not remotely phased out threats to Tunisia. On the contrary, the IS’ downfall has uncovered several risks. The return of Tunisian FTFs — currently still in Iraq, Syria, and Libya — may trigger new waves of violence in the country. Moreover, the fact that several Tunisian IS members and their families are still detained in prisons and camps in northeast Syria and Libya, living in degrading conditions, might expose them to further radicalisation processes. Future prison breaks aimed at freeing IS operatives (including Tunisians) to strengthen the ranks of the organisation’s sleeping cells in Syria and Iraq could equally impact the country’s security, albeit less directly. Throughout the years, the government has made almost no progress in repatriating FTFs. Here, local communities’ reluctance toward such measures has played a crucial part. Approximately 800 Tunisians returned home between 2011 and 2016, some of whom had been sentenced to up to eight years in prison.
Tunisia’s jails entail additional risks for national security. They have traditionally been notorious radicalisation hubs, where convicted returnees create ties, share their knowledge and experiences, and radicalise other inmates. The state’s handling of detention conditions is likely to play a major role in countering violent extremism. Overcrowded Tunisian prisons, ruled by strict repressive measures (including torture), may indeed continue to serve as a breeding ground for old and new jihadist fighters. Hence, the future of the jihadi movement in the country could also depend on whether terrorist offenders can be effectively rehabilitated and reintegrated into society. On this score, it is fair to say that despite the adoption of a less “hard-security” approach through the 2016 National Strategy Against Extremism and Terrorism (revolving around four axes, notably Prevention, Protection, Judicial Proceedings, and Retaliation) there is still significant room for implementing more effective disengagement and deradicalization programmes, both in and outside prisons.
Overall, terrorism and counterterrorism have had considerable implications for Tunisia’s domestic security. Over the last few years, harsh governmental measures to tackle domestic terrorist activities and radicalization pathways have often been criticized for failing to safeguard so-called “human security”. To exemplify, many human rights groups have strongly denounced restrictions — including Saïed’s recent extension of a controversial state of emergency — as de facto human rights violations and widespread abuses. In Tunisia more than in other contexts affected by terrorism, the nexus between state security and human security is key. Not only are restraints and limitations on civil society likely to curb efforts to counterterrorism (as civil society is fundamental to address and prevent radicalisation risks); but they might also contribute to worsening the authoritarian drift ushered in by Saïed, ultimately undermining the achievements made so far in the country’s counterterrorism framework.
Deteriorating Security in the Sahel: a Growing Concern for Tunisia
There is a final element that adds a layer of complexity to the jihadist threat landscape in Tunisia. For several years, AQ and IS members have been moving to areas where state control is weak, particularly in the Sahel region. In this territory, it has been easier for these organisations to regroup, reorganise, and wage their jihad. According to several experts, around 100 Tunisians are fighting in the Sahel today, in addition to almost 600 fighters who are still part of jihadist militias in Libya, especially in the southern region of Fezzan. The steady increase in their numbers in the Sahel is likely to strengthen Tunisian-Malian jihadist bonds, which have existed for over a decade. As long as Tunisians fill the ranks of jihadist groups in Libya and south of the Saharan desert, these connections (manifesting themselves in new supply routes and funding sources) could be reactivated and lay the groundwork for new attacks in their country of origin. Although nothing seems to indicate that this is the case for the time being, the issue deserves closer attention, given the enduring crisis in Libya and the strategic shifts (and uncertainties) in the Sahel’s Western counterterrorism strategy resulting from political instability, European forces’ redeployment in this area, and the arrival of a few hundred Russian Wagner mercenaries in Mali earlier this year.
Against this backdrop, Tunisia’s partnerships with Western allies show the extent to which the country is committed to addressing the potential spillover effects of political instability and insecurity in this area. In the past few years, the country has also enhanced its counterterrorism infrastructure as a byproduct of Western assistance while strengthening cooperation with several partners on different security-related issues. NATO’s re-engagement in countering terrorism in its so-called Southern Flank was discussed at the recent Madrid Summit. On this occasion, the Alliance put a spotlight on the Sahel’s deteriorating security landscape, stressing that Tunisia (and Mauritania) are important partners in developing NATO’s “building defence capacity”. Together with other African countries, in June 2022, Tunisia took part in the US-led annual joint exercise known as Africa Lion to improve interoperability with international partners and counter transnational threats — including terrorism — in North Africa and Southern Europe. Furthermore, the country cooperates with NATO’s Operation Sea Guardian (which followed Operation Active Endeavour, 2001-2016) for counterterrorism surveillance activities in the Mediterranean, and is committed to enhancing regional security in the area within NATO’s Mediterranean Dialogue. Tunisia’s participation in these initiatives confirms its rising concerns for the future stability of the Sahel region and the southern shore of the Mediterranean. As the threat of new extremist violence seems to be looming, the country does not want to be caught unprepared.