Tunisia Needs to Implement an Effective Strategy to Combat Militants

Tunisian forensics police inspect a Tunisian presidential guard bus at the scene of a suicide bomb attack in Tunis, Tunisia November 25. Reuters/Zoubeir Souissi

The terrorist attack that targeted the presidential guard in downtown Tunis on November 24, leaving 12 dead and several wounded, was unique for many reasons. It was the first successful suicide bombing in Tunisia, hitting a bus full of members of an elite unit of the security forces, just tens of meters from major institutions, including the Ministry of the Interior.

This was the third major militant attack in Tunisia since the new coalition was elected at the end of 2014 and a new government was formed in February 2015. Ever since the Bardo museum attack in March 2015 and the attack on tourists at a beach near Sousse in June, a hysteria has invaded Tunisian TV shows, with government officials affirming that they will take the right measures. But very limited action has followed.

Tunisia has yet to come up with a coordinated set of actions in the short and long term, a strategic response that includes security but also several other areas the current government has paid little attention to. This despite the fact that there is already a governmental strategic document that has been ready to use since 2014, and government researchers have produced seminal papers on a possible response.

Terrorism in Tunisia did not start in 2015. Neither did it start in the post-revolutionary era, as some critics of the Arab Spring would argue, many of them harboring a lot of nostalgia for the country's former dictatorships. In fact Tunisian militant, notably suicide bombers, were increasingly visible in jihadi circles worldwide even before the September 11 attacks.

On September 9, 2001, the Afghan political leader Ahmed Shah Mesoud was assassinated in northern Afghanistan by a Tunisian suicide bomber acting as a cameraman. Tunisian fighters were especially active in Iraq following the U.S. invasion in 2003, traveling to the country via Syria. Now estimates suggest that Tunisians outnumber almost any other nationality among the foreign fighters of the jihadi groups in Syria and Iraq. By the mid 2000s, a "terrorist route" started between Tunisia-Syria-Iraq, which became only more active, using Istanbul as a transit station after the Arab Revolutions. One of the key smugglers of jihadis through Syria was the Tunisian national Abu Umar Al-Tunisi.

According to the "Sinjar Documents" of 2007, a unique source that recorded the early days of Al-Qaeda in Iraq, Tunisian fighters ranked third among foreign fighters. They were especially visible in volunteering as suicide bombers. Among the most famous attacks led by Tunisians was the suicide attack against the Shiite al-Askari mosque in Samarra in 2006, which sparked sectarian chaos. Another famous suicide attack led by a Tunisian in Europe was the Madrid train bombings in 2004; Serhane Fakhet, a Tunisian engineering student based in Spain, was its alleged ringleader.

Tunisian militants were not only active outside Tunisia by then. A major example is the 2002 attack targeting German tourists at the Jewish synagogue on the Tunisian island of Djerba. The Soliman Group, linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), was one of the first groups to establish a base in the Tunisian mountains and use it to attack targets in the capital.

The Tunisians who were freed from prison right after the revolution in March 2011 were the main leaders and operatives establishing the armed branch of the Tunisian Salafi jihadi group Ansar al-Sharia. Its members are the main individuals and networks responsible for the latest attacks in Tunisia.

Before the Tunisian Revolt, the approach of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali's regime was strictly security oriented and, still, little attention was given to reorienting security forces towards anti-terror logistics, training and arming. The mind of the regime was more focused on persecuting political opponents.

The revolt provided an opportunity for serious debate about terrorism. As the director of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies (ITES), a presidential research institution, between May 2012 and June 2014, I established a research unit on Salafi jihadism. We published a report titled "Salafi Jihadism in Tunisia: Reality and Prospects" (in Arabic) and, therefore, there is an accomplished strategic document sitting in the offices of the prime minister, ready to use.

Starting February 2014, the chief of armed forces President Moncef Marzouki and the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa coordinated to form a team to work on a counter-terrorism strategy. That work was concluded by August 2014, but validation of the document continues to be delayed by the current ruling coalition.

The validity of the field work that went into the ITES report is highlighted by current events. The Interior Ministry announced the identity of the suicide bomber who attacked the presidential guard as Houssem Ibdilli. He is in fact the prototype discussed in one of ITES's studies by Jihed Haj Salem, titled "The Jihadist Youth in Douar-Hicher: Ethnographic Case Study."

The suicide bomber is not only from the same impoverished neighborhood of the Tunisian capital that is discussed in this field work, but he fits the characteristics of the archetypal jihadi. He was in his 20s, from a poor family. He left school early, and worked in precarious jobs, mostly within the networks of the informal economy. Ibdilli was a delinquent youth, often drinking alcohol and with no religious background before plunging very quickly into radicalism. In short, he was a youth with very limited hope in a forgotten and impoverished neighborhood who could be easily recruited with the promise of becoming a "martyr who is going to change the world."

Tunisia is in urgent need of adopting an informed national strategy against terrorism. This is not the case yet. Not because we can't, but because faith in a strategic response is marginal compared to the former instincts of temporary and security-oriented approaches.

Tarek Kahlaoui is a former adviser to Tunisia's first Arab Spring leader Moncef Marzouki and the former director of the Tunisian Institute of Strategic Studies. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Islamic History and Art at Rutgers University in New Jersey.