On March 8, 2016, dozens of militants attacked Ben Gardane, a town near Tunisia’s border with Libya. The assailants clashed with Tunisian security forces at military and police posts, leaving at least 55 dead. Among the dead were militants, 12 members of Tunisia’s security forces, and seven civilians, including a 12-year-old girl.

The attack, which Tunisia’s president has called “unprecedented” and which he has attributed to ISIS, follows a suicide bomber attack in November, which targeted a bus of Tunisian presidential guards, killing 12. The November attack, later claimed by ISIS, prompted Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi to declare a 30-day state of emergency and impose a curfew in the country’s capital of Tunis. Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid dismissed the country’s security minister following the attack. On December 22, 2015, the state of emergency was extended for another 60 days and has been extended several times since, most recently on February 16, 2017. (Source: GOV.UK)

The spate of recent attacks, including a fatal terrorist attack at a hotel beach in June 2015, come as Tunisia works to quash violent extremist groups within its borders, particularly ISIS, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST), and Okba Ibn Nafaa. Tunisia is also continuing to grapple with its foreign fighter problem. The country has been called “the biggest exporter” of jihadist fighters to date, contributing an estimated 6,000 of its nationals to jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. There are also an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 fighting in neighboring Libya, and dozens of Tunisians fighting in both Mali and Yemen. On January 8, 2016, the Tunisian National Guard detained 11 Tunisian men and women near Ben Gardane who were attempting to enter Libya to join terrorist groups. Tunisian-born extremists also have been responsible for conducting and planning attacks in Europe in 2016 and 2017. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Overview

Islamic extremism threatens the existence of a democratic Tunisian government. Prior to the 2011 country’s revolution, homegrown Islamic extremist was minimal. Following the revolution, the increase in civil liberties coupled with the collapse of neighboring Libya brought near constant terrorist attacks to the country. Two terrorist groups, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST) and Okba Ibn Nafaa, are responsible for nearly all terrorist incidents within the country. Both were previously aligned with al-Qaeda but shifted their allegiance to ISIS in 2014. These terrorist groups have principally targeted secular political officials, foreign tourists, and the Tunisian military.

Thousands of Tunisians have filled the ranks of terrorist groups across the Middle East and North Africa.

Thousands of Tunisians have filled the ranks of terrorist groups across the Middle East and North Africa. U.N. experts estimated that approximately 5,500 Tunisians had traveled to Syria to fight in that country’s civil war, fighting alongside a variety of factions. By December 2015, this figure is estimated to have climbed to 6,000. An additional 1,000 to 1,500 Tunisians are estimated to have joined militant groups in neighboring Libya.

Islamic extremists continue to operate relatively freely inside Tunisia despite regular government raids against militants. The porous border with Libya has historically allowed for the free flow of weapons and fighters between the two countries. Beginning in 2015, the Tunisian government has made an effort to bolster its border security, and has even closed its border with Libya in March 2016, after a deadly attack on the Tunisian border town of Ben Gardane.

Public opinion in Tunisia is overwhelmingly against Islamic extremism. Tunisians have often argued that Islamic extremism is a foreign phenomenon that only manifested in the country after the 2011 revolution. Terrorist attacks within the country are often followed by massive counter protests of people marching against violence and in solidarity with the victims.

(Sources: BBC News, BBC News, AllAfrica, United Nations, Al Jazeera)

Radicalization and Foreign Fighters

ISIS-Linked Groups

There are a number of violent extremist groups operating within Tunisia’s borders and successfully recruiting Tunisians for foreign conflicts. Among these, ISIS stands out for its ability to recruit Tunisians both for its domestic and international operations. ISIS-affiliated groups in Tunisia include Ansar al-Sharia, Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, and Mujahidin of Kairouan.

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) is a violent, jihadist, Islamist group that seeks to implement sharia (Islamic law) in Tunisia. It works to achieve this goal by performing dawa (proselytizing, including both religious education and the provision of social services) domestically to increase its base of support for future violent jihad, enforcing strict modesty laws under the banner of hisbah (the duty to command moral acts and prohibit immoral ones, in accord with sharia), and carrying out jihad by instigating and executing violent attacks. Several of AST’s key leaders reportedly pledged their allegiance to ISIS in late 2014. Since then, AST has acted as the largest ISIS affiliate in Tunisia. The flow of Tunisians out of the country has been so great that even AST’s al-Tunisi lamented that the wars in Syria and Mali have “emptied Tunisia of its young.” Tunisians have been featured heavily in ISIS propaganda, and ISIS has regularly eulogized Tunisian fighters and suicide bombers.

AST claims to have recruited as many as 70,000 Tunisian members between April 2011 and January 2014.

The links between AST and ISIS appear to date back as early as February 2014, when AST deputy leader Kamel Zarrouk reportedly traveled to Syria to join ISIS. The Long War Journal reported that, “Zarrouk is known in his [Tunisian] neighborhood as someone who encouraged young people to go for jihad in Syria, which he considers to be the springboard for establishing an Islamic state from the Gulf to the ocean.” In July 2014, while speaking at a mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia, AST spokesman Seifeddine Rais swore loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The same month, Al-Monitor reported that a number of AST leaders had gone to Syria and pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. (Source: AllAfrica)

Since then, ISIS and AST have become increasingly entrenched. In a March 2015 ISIS video, a Tunisian militant named Abu Yahya al-Tounessi called on Tunisians to join ISIS in Libya: “We are coming to conquer back Tunisia. I swear you will not be at ease now with the Islamic State a few kilometers from you just across the border.” In April 2015, an ISIS-affiliated group called the “Tripoli Province” released a video threatening the Tunisian government, promising attacks to avenge Islamists imprisoned in the country. The video also urged Tunisians to come to Libya to fight with ISIS. “The Islamic State is only a few kilometers from you [Tunisia], we are coming,” a masked gunman says, “Brothers, come to Libya. Don’t be humiliated by the [Tunisian] dictators. Muslims have their own state now.”

AST had previously aligned itself with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and pledged alliance to al-Qaeda. Its leaders in the past have said that AST, the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, “the Islamic State of Iraq” and other mujahideen “all stand united against our enemies.” AST leader Abu Iyad al-Tunisi released a statement in June 2014 calling for ISIS to set aside its disagreements with other jihadist groups and “open their hearts to a new comprehensive reconciliation.” (Sources: Counter Extremism Project, Jadaliyya, Long War Journal, Reuters, Long War Journal, Al-Monitor)

AST founder and leader Abu Iyad al-Tunisi was a close associate of al-Qaeda. He fought alongside the group and the Taliban in Afghanistan even after the country fell to coalition forces in 2001. A Joint Task Force Guantanamo report found that al-Tunisi formed a unit called the “Jalalabad Group” and “volunteered to defend [bin Laden] and the embattled al-Qaeda fighters at Tora Bora.” Several of the group’s members were later detained at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. (Sources: Long War Journal, Weekly Standard, Long War Journal, Reuters)

We are coming to conquer back Tunisia. I swear you will not be at ease now with the Islamic State a few kilometers from you just across the border.Tunisian Militant Abu Yahya al-Tounessi

AST claims to have recruited as many as 70,000 Tunisian members between April 2011 and January 2014. AST youth wing leader Youssef Mazouz believes these recruits were attracted to AST because of its charity work, proselytizing campaign, and aid distribution to poor areas. As one student supporter of AST said: “They welcome people, they perform charitable works that the state doesn’t do: caravans bringing food aid, assistance, clothes, in every corner of the country in the poor neighborhoods.” AST also appears to attract recruits by capitalizing on popular frustration with the Tunisian government. (Sources: AllAfrica, Jadaliyya)

AST has held three conferences since April 2012 to spread its message and discuss the future of the group. Little is known about the first conference, which was attended by a few hundred Islamists. Upwards of 10,000 Islamists attended the second conference in May 2012 in the western city of Kairouan. AST leaders called on attendees to boycott the media, which they accused of slandering the Salafist movement. AST leader al-Tunisi advocated for the creation of an Islamic workers collective to challenge the secular Tunisian General Labor Union. In a massive show of force, Tunisian security forces blocked the third conference in May 2013, which organizers estimated would attract more than 40,000 attendees, even though the Tunisian government did not declare AST a terror organization until August 27, 2013. The ensuing clashes drew 40,000 rioters, and security forces shot and killed one bystander in Tunis. AST has not publicly held an annual conference since then. (Sources: Washington Institute For Near East Policy, Eurasia Review, Al-Monitor

Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade

Okba Ibn Nafaa, sometimes called the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, is a militant group that has been responsible for a majority of the Islamist attacks on the Tunisian military. The group pledged allegiance to ISIS in September 2014.

The Tunisian government has described Obka Ibn Nafaa as “veterans of the Islamist rebellion in northern Mali with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).” The Tunisian government blamed Okba Ibn Nafaa for the June 26, 2015, assault on Tunisia’s Hotel Rui Imperial Marhaba, which killed at least 37 people.

Okba Ibn Nafaa has been fighting the Tunisian army in the border region with Algeria since 2012. The group was responsible for a July 2014 attack on Tunisian military checkpoints near the Algerian border that killed 14 soldiers. In September 2014, the Tunisian government uncovered an Okba Ibn Nafaa plot to attack the October parliamentary elections. (Sources: Financial Times, Reuters, AllAfrica)

In late March 2015, Tunisian forces killed Okba Ibn Nafaa’s leader, Khaled Chayeb, a.k.a. Lokmane Abou Sakhr. Sakhr allegedly masterminded the March 18 attack on Tunis’s Bardo Museum that killed 21 people, including 19 foreign tourists. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal)

Mujahidin of Kairouan

In May 2015, a Tunisian jihadist group called “Mujahidin of Kairouan” swore allegiance to ISIS. The March/April 2015 issue of ISIS’s English propaganda magazine Dabiq included content and images that illustrated the group’s increasing pivot to Tunisia. The magazine focused on ISIS in Africa and featured a photo of the Tunisian “Mosque of Kairouan” on the cover. (Sources: Tunisia Live, Al-Arabiya, Clarion Project)

Al-Qaeda-Linked Groups

There are several Tunisian-linked networks tied to ISIS’s prime competitor, al-Qaeda. These groups include U.S.-designated Tunisian Combat Group (TCG) and foreign-based group Ansar al-Dine.

Tunisian Combat Group (TCG)

The Tunisian Combat Group (TCG), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, has worked closely with al-Qaeda. TCG co-founder and al-Qaeda commander Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi founded the group in 2000 with other al-Qaeda higher-ups, with the goal of bringing Tunisians back from Afghanistan to Tunisia to topple the Tunisian government.

Since its formation, TCG has been linked to a number of violent incidents. The group provided Belgian passports to the Tunisian al-Qaeda operatives who killed the Afghan anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001. In April 2001, a “dual TCG-al-Qaeda operative” was arrested in Italy for planning an attack against the U.S. embassy in Rome. The plot forced U.S. embassies and consulates across the country to close for the first time since the first Gulf War. (Sources: New York Times, Long War Journal)

Ansar al-Dine

Ansar al-Dine is affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in Northern Mali and Southern Algeria. Analysts estimate that Tunisians comprise roughly half of Ansar al-Dine’s 600-man force.

Recruitment and Radicalization

A number of factors have enabled violent extremist groups to prosper in Tunisia, chief among them being the country’s high levels of unemployment. Since 2011, unemployment has skyrocketed in Tunisia, leaving an estimated 200,000 Tunisians without jobs and providing violent extremist groups with a market of young, dissatisfied males which ISIS readily exploits. Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid has said that one of the most common and salient factors drawing Tunisians to ISIS—other than ideological alignment—are “economic reasons. They didn’t have jobs... They couldn’t have a normal life.” (Sources: International Business Times, Business Insider)

New freedoms in Tunisia following the revolution are also believed to have set the stage for ISIS’s relative domestic popularity. The country’s new freedoms mean that militants are able to preach and recruit freely. These freedoms, coupled with the fact that Tunisia’s new brand of democracy has come with these staggering unemployment, has left some revolutionary youth to lean towards alternative—occasionally extremist and Islamist—political systems. (Source: New York Times)

Ben Gardane has produced the largest number of Tunisia’s foreign fighters, despite the town’s population being less than 80,000 people.

There are also “pull” factors drawing Tunisians to violent extremism. Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia (ASL) has embedded recruiters within Tunisia, funneling civilians who want to fight in Syria into Libyan training camps. Tunisian citizens have trained in guerrilla tactics, bomb-making, and small arms, and have reportedly gone on to fight with secular and Islamist groups in Syria. While ASL and AST share almost the same name, the groups do not share a chain of command. They work together and share many of the same goals, but are separate groups. (Sources: Long War Journal, Atlantic, Wasat)

Ben Gardane in particular—the border town which suffered the March 2016 attack—is known both for its high rates of unemployment and its role as a major exporter of Tunisian foreign fighters. According to estimates, Ben Gardane has produced the largest number of Tunisia’s foreign fighters, despite the town’s population being less than 80,000 people. Within Ben Gardane, there are believed to be dozens of ISIS sleeper cells, and an illegal market of weapons and ammunition is known to have historically flowed through the city to neighboring Libya. (Sources: Soufan Group, Daily Maverick, Vice)

Although Ben Gardane has served as a gateway to violent extremist groups, Tunisians in the town are broadly credited with helping to quash the March 2016 attack, purportedly carried out by ISIS militants. (Source: Daily Beast)

In early 2016, news agencies began reporting on a major push by ISIS to recruit Tunisian women for suicide bombings in western Libya. Many Salafist groups in Tunisia, including AST, have also expanded their membership by recruiting through “preaching tents” on school campuses. These tents attract students by discussing popular topics, including how to support the revolt against the Syrian regime. In 2013, Salafists reportedly “controlled” 100-500 of the 5,000 mosques in Tunisia. (Sources: Al Chourouk, Combatting Terrorism Center)

A Reuters investigation on the Bardo Museum attack revealed that the two attackers were both radicalized in Salafist mosques and traveled to Libya for training. The younger of the two, 21-year-old Jabeur Khachnaoui, was initially radicalized at school. Salafists had set up a tent just outside of school grounds where they proselytized students and talked about “prayers, the headscarf and jihad.” Although it is unclear in the report, it seems that authorities closed the Salafist tent near the school only in the wake of the Bardo attack while the imam at the local mosque has only been “pressured into changing his rhetoric.”

Foreign Fighters

Tunisians hold both leadership and combatant positions in extremist groups across the Middle East and North Africa. (Source: U.S. Department of Defense)

Tunisian militant groups send high numbers of militants to fight in Syria, primarily with ISIS. By July 2015, approximately 5,500 Tunisians had reportedly traveled to Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s government. That same month, Tunisian Interior Minister Lofti Ben Jeddou reported that Tunisian security forces had prevented an additional 8,000 Tunisians from traveling to Syria to fight. As of late 2015, an estimated 6,000 Tunisians are believed to have joined jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. There are also an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 fighting in neighboring Libya, and dozens of Tunisians fighting in both Mali and Yemen. (Sources: Business Standard, New York Times, United Nations)

On February 1, 2017, German police arrested an asylum seeker from Tunisia suspected of plotting an ISIS attack in Germany and who was also wanted in connection to a 2015 attack in Tunisia that killed 20 people. In December 2016, another Tunisian man, Anis Amri, plowed a truck into a German Christmas market, killing 12 people. Germany has cited delays by Tunisia in providing documents necessary to deport suspected extremists. Documents for Amri were received only two days after his attack. According to media reports, in secret recordings made by German security services, Amri had offered to a hate preacher in October 2016 to conduct suicide attacks on behalf of ISIS (Sources: Washington Post, News Corp Australia Network)

Major Extremist and Terrorist Incidents

Islamist Riots and Protests

Throughout 2011 and 2012, AST launched a series of riots and protests in Tunisia. Incidents were triggered by events deemed blasphemous or insulting to Islam. The first incident came when AST organized a “Day of Rage” against a Tunisian TV station that had aired the film Persepolis as the film depicts God in human form. More than 300 Islamists marched on the broadcaster and attempted to set fire to their offices. A similar incident followed in June 2012 when an art exhibit in an upscale neighborhood in Tunis showcased an exhibit spelling Allah with insects. Thousands of Salafi protesters took to the streets, attacking police stations, courthouses, and secular party offices. These riots killed one person and injured 65 policemen. In September 2012, following the release of the controversial Innocence of Muslims film, AST organized protests at the U.S. embassy in Tunis. The protests quickly escalated, and the embassy and a nearby American school were overrun and ransacked. AST abandoned this tactic of protest in 2012 in favor of openly violent confrontations against the state.

(Sources: Washington Institute For Near East Policy, Eurasia Review, Reuters, War on the Rocks)

Attacks on the Tunisian Government

In 2013, AST launched an assassination campaign against the Tunisian government, targeting secular politicians. In February 2013, gunmen assassinated a prominent member of the leftist coalition Popular Front, Chokri Belaid, on the doorstep of his home. In July 2013, another secular Tunisian politician, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated. Brahmi was a member of parliament and in the People’s Movement Party, a member of the Popular Front political alliance. In August 2013, Tunisian security forces seized an assassination list allegedly compiled by AST. The list included the names of politicians, anti-Islamist media figures, and academics. In October 2014, Tunisian security forces uncovered a plot to assassinate Ahmed Nejib Chebbi, a vocal leader of the country’s secular Republican Party. The attack was allegedly set to occur just days before the country’s parliamentary elections.

Additionally, in September 2014, the Tunisian government uncovered an Okba Ibn Nafaa plot to attack the October parliamentary elections.

(Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Al-Monitor, Reuters, AllAfrica)

Attacks on Tunisian Military Targets

Islamic militants within Tunisia launch occasional operations against the Tunisian military. Okba Ibn Nafaa carries out the majority of these attacks, but AST has also carried out several successful attacks. Fighting is concentrated in the mountainous border area with Algeria, in the Kasserine region, where a number of jihadist groups are based, including Okba Ibn Nafaa and AST. The Kasserine region has become what one analyst has called “an informal headquarters” for jihadist groups due to the region’s proximity to the permeable border with Algeria, and the region’s dire economy. These conditions have proved fertile ground for extremist recruitment. Fighting has also taken place near Jebel Chaambi, the highest point in Tunisia, close to the city of Kasserine. (Sources: Tracking Terrorism, Long War Journal, Al Arabiya)

One of the largest terror attacks on the military in recent years occurred in July 2014. Approximately 60 Okba Ibn Nafaa militants armed with rifles and rocket-propelled grenades attacked Tunisian military checkpoints near the border with Algeria in the Jebel Chaambi area. The attack killed 14 Tunisian soldiers. The March 2016 attack on military and police posts in Ben Gardane has surpassed this death toll, claiming the lives of at least 54, including militants, soldiers, and civilians.  

Attacks on Tunisia’s Tourism Industry

Tourism is a major industry in Tunisia. In the first nine months of 2013 alone, revenue from tourism within the country exceeded $1.42 billion. Simultaneously, it is also the industry most vulnerable to terrorism. By 2015, annual revenue from tourism reached only $1.5 billion and in the first two months of 2016, tourism revenue was down 54 percent compared to same period in 2015. In 2015, 70 hotels in Tunisia were forced to close due to decreased demand, as tourist arrivals fell to 5.5 million, the lowest level in decades. In April 2016, Tunisia’s Tourism Minister, Salma Elloumi Rekik, urged European nations to lift travel warnings against Tunisia.  In October 2013, a suicide bomber attacked the Riadh Pal hotel in Sousse with no reported casualties. Security forces foiled the simultaneous attempt of a suspect targeting the mausoleum of former Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba. At the time, no group claimed responsibility for the attacks, but suspects arrested after the incident admitted to membership in AST. In April 2002, a natural gas tanker laden with explosives was detonated on the Tunisian island of Djerba inside El Ghriba synagogue. Fourteen German tourists, two French tourists and three Tunisian nationals were killed, and more than 30 others were wounded. Al-Qaeda claimed responsibility for the attack.

In March 2017, a Tunisian government representative said Tunisia was expecting a 30 percent increase in tourists visiting Tunisia in 2017. In that same month, the U.S. Department of State issued an advisory warning to U.S. citizens to avoid southeastern Tunisia along the Libyan border due to the threat of terrorism.

(Sources: BBC News, Guardian, Newsweek, Reuters, Reuters, CNBC, Reuters, U.S. Department of State)

Bardo National Museum Attack

At 12:30 p.m. on March 18, 2015, three Okba Ibn Nafaa militants opened fire on tourists unloading from buses in front of the Bardo National Museum. Many of the tourists were from two cruise ships, the MSC Splendida and the Costa Fascinosa, which were at port outside of Tunis. The attackers had originally planned to attack the Tunisian parliament, but opted to attack the museum because of its lighter security. Unbeknownst to the attackers, the guards at the museum were on a coffee break. The attackers followed fleeing tourists into the museum and took them hostage, precipitating a four-hour siege of the museum by security forces. In the end, 21 foreign tourists were killed from France, Spain, Colombia, Italy, Japan, Australia, Belgium, Poland, Britain, and Russia along with a Tunisian policeman. Two of the attackers were killed, but one managed to escape.

ISIS immediately took credit for the attack and promised more in the future. The Tunisian government pinned the blame on the ISIS-aligned militant group Okba Ibn Nafaa.

(Sources: New York Times, Straits Times, New York Times, Huffington Post, Reuters)

 

Domestic Counter-Extremism

Military Counterterrorism

Tunisia’s armed forces are currently engaged in a low intensity war against terror groups operating within the country. The Tunisian government regularly launches raids and operations to counter terror cells. For example, a February 2014 raid killed seven AST militants including the prime suspect in Chokri Belaid’s murder. A second raid two days later resulted in the arrest of four fighters, including a suspect in the assassination of Mohamed Brahmi. Over a two-day period in March 2014 near the Algerian border, 10 members of AST were killed and six were arrested. Then, in October 2014 after a 24-hour standoff between police and AST militants in the outskirts of Tunis, Tunisian security forces killed six militants, five of them women. These low level raids were punctuated by major anti-terror operations following terror attacks. For instance, the government launched airstrikes and ground operations after an Okba Ibn Nafaa attack in July 2014 that killed 14 Tunisian soldiers. (Sources: AllAfrica, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Financial Times, AllAfrica)

The United States sees Tunisia as a major partner in the war on terror.

In recent years, Tunisia has relied not only on military operations to counter violent extremism, but more comprehensive approaches, particularly within the contentious border town of Ben Gardane. Following the March 2016 attacks, Tunisia launched an effort to increase legal employment opportunities through the creation of a free trade zone in an effort to compete with the illegal smuggling economy that currently dominates in the town. At the same time, the government has matched this effort with more short-term efforts, including increased security forces in the town in an effort to clamp down on smuggling. Also following the attack, Tunisia closed the border with Libya and instated a temporary curfew on the citizens of Ben Gardane. (Sources: Asharq al-Awast, Al Jazeera)

The United States sees Tunisia as a major partner in the war on terror. In 2014, the United States pledged $60 million in military aid to the country to battle al-Qaeda-affiliated militants. On August 5, 2014, the United States said it would sell Tunisia a dozen Black Hawk helicopters, a deal valued at an estimated $700 million. In 2015, the U.S. announced it would triple its military aid to the country, begin training security forces in border defense, and give 52 Humvees and a patrol boat to the country. U.S. counterterrorism assistance to Tunisia has also included operational support. In February 2016, a U.S. airstrike on an ISIS training camp in western Libya targeted a Tunisian believed to have planned two deadly terrorist attacks in Tunisia in 2015. The airstrike is said to have killed the Tunisian, Noureddine Chouchanne, along with dozens of other foreign fighters. As of late June 2016, the U.S. reportedly had begun using a Tunisian air base to conduct drone strikes against ISIS targets inside Libya. A spokesman for the U.S. Africa Command acknowledged that “U.S. service members [are] working with the Tunisian security forces for counter terrorism and are sharing intelligence.” He said U.S. security assistance to Tunisia, to include equipment and training, has exceeded $250 million. In January 2016, Tunisia received two ships from the U.S. military to help combat illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. In February 2017, Tunisia took delivery of six U.S.-made helicopters to reinforce the Tunisia army’s reconnaissance and attack capabilities in “the war on terrorism.” (Sources: Al Jazeera, Yahoo News, Defense News, Newsweek, ABC News, Reuters, Agence France Presse)

The U.S. Department of State assesses that, in 2016, Tunisian counterterrorism efforts improved substantially, particularly in the areas of weapons seizures, arrests, and operations to disrupt armed groups. Still, the State Department said, Tunisia needs more time and international support to complete an overhaul of its military and civilian security forces. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

Countering Islamic Extremism

The Tunisian government has worked to combat Islamic extremism domestically. In November 2016, the Tunisia adopted a new strategy to fight “terrorism and extremism,” though few details of the plan were publicly released. A presidential statement said the plan had four main pillars: “prevention, protection, judicial proceedings, and retaliation.” At mosques, the government took steps to replace imams deemed extremist, though not all local communities acquiesced to the changes. In late 2015, the Ministry of Religious Affairs established a counter-narrative campaign, “We are Islam,” targeting youth on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. The campaign includes: a website with recorded sermons and religious seminars; government-funded awareness advertisements on public and private media; a helpline for youth with questions about religion; and placement of approved imams and religious instructors in mosques. As of June 2017, the Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research had allocated $1.2 million over five years to study the roots of radicalization among young people and how to combat it. The initiative is a partnership between research centers in several Tunisian cities and the ministries of interior, defense, and health. (Sources: U.S. Department of State, Al-Araby, Al-Monitor, IntelligenceBriefs.com, Al-Fanar Media)

Since the beginning of 2016, more than 15,000 suspected extremists have been monitored by Tunisian security forces, and Tunisians younger than 35 are no longer able to travel freely to Libya, Turkey, or Serbia, key transit points to Syria and Iraq. (Source: Deutsche Welle)

After the July 2014 Jebel Chaambi attack that killed 14 Tunisian soldiers, the Tunisian government launched a crackdown on mosques, radio stations, television networks, and websites sympathetic to AST and other jihadist groups operating in the country. The Tunisian prime minister’s office stated: “The prime minister has decided to close immediately all the mosques that are not under the control of the authorities, and those mosques where there were reported celebrations over the deaths of the soldiers.”

In late fall 2014, a new coalition government was elected in Tunisia and the Islamist party Ennahda lost its majority in the parliament. Reuters asserted that the new government has “taken a tougher line, going to court to take back mosques, sweeping up hundreds of suspected militants, and curbing militant websites that recruit for Iraq and Syria.”

In the fall of 2015, Tunisian security forces claim to have dismantled domestic jihadist cells that were plotting attacks against tourist sites in the country as well as public figures. The government has also reportedly arrested dozens of suspected extremists and discovered three weapons caches scattered throughout the country.

On November 17, 2016, Tunisia announced the arrest of four individuals suspected of planning to carry out attacks against commercial and police targets in Tunis and to assassinate prominent politicians and journalists, an Interior Ministry spokesman said. The suspects were arrested in the capital’s southern suburb of Ben Arous and had been communicating via Facebook.

In 2016, the Tunisian Directorate General of Prisons and Rehabilitation worked with the U.S. Department of State, in part, to establish community reintegration centers to better prepare newly released prison inmates and mitigate recidivism and radicalization. (Source: U.S. Department of State)

(Sources: BBC News, Al-Monitor, Human Rights Watch, Washington Institute For Near East Policy, Associated Press, Al Masdar)

Legislation

In a move that drew widespread criticism, the Tunisian Interior Ministry announced stricter regulations regarding the niqab in February 2014. The ministry stated, “In light of the terrorist threats that the country is witnessing and as some suspects and fugitives deliberately wear niqab for disguise and to escape from security units, the ministry… will tighten procedural controls on every person wearing a niqab within the framework of what is authorized by law.” The government cited the case of Abu Iyad al-Tunisi, who reportedly evaded capture by wearing a niqab. The government has yet to take action to enforce the policy. (Source: Al Jazeera

International Counter-Extremism

Tunisia is a member of the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative (TSCTI), an international, interagency partnership between the U.S. and eleven countries in the Sahel-Sahara region. According to United States European Command, “The goal of TSCTI is to counter terrorist influences in the region and assist governments to better control their territory and to prevent huge tracts of largely deserted African territory from becoming a safe haven for terrorist groups.” Through the program, the U.S. trains national forces in each partner country with the objective to increase communication and collaboration on counterterrorism issues in the region.

Tunisia regularly carries out joint operations with Algeria to combat terrorism on their border. In summer 2014, the two countries conducted one of the largest military operations in recent years along their common border. The operation involved 8,000 elite Algerian soldiers and between 5,000 and 6,000 elite Tunisian soldiers. The mission aimed to weed out specific terrorist threats and enhance general security along cross-border transit routes. The two countries also agreed to cooperate to combat terror recruitment in their respective countries and to work to deny funding for terror groups.

(Source: Middle East Monitor)

Public Opinion

In the past, Tunisian citizens have openly demonstrated against extremism. In February 2014, four extremist militants disguised as Tunisian security officials near the Algerian border killed three policemen and a civilian. The attackers also wounded three security officers. Subsequently, protests broke out in the northwestern Tunisian city of Jendouba. Officials estimate more than a thousand people demonstrated in solidarity with the victims.

Al Jazeera described the funeral of assassinated politician Chokri Belaid as “one of the largest outpourings of grief in Tunisian history, with an estimated one million people taking to the street.”  The protests following the assassination were the country’s biggest demonstrations since the 2011 revolution that ousted former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Protesters called for the toppling of the Islamist Ennahda-led government who they felt was complicit in the death.

Five months later, thousands of protesters poured into the street mere hours after secular politician Mohamed Brahmi was shot and killed. Protesters clashed with police at the headquarters of the Interior Ministry. Like the assassination of Belaid, many felt the government had a hand in the killing. The politician’s sister stated, “Ennahda killed my brother.” In cities across the country, citizens burned tires and blocked roads. In the city of Sidi Bouzid, where Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi self-immolated in 2010, two local Ennahda offices were burned. Later, at Brahmi’s funeral, “tens of thousands” of citizens gathered to protest against terrorism and call for overthrow of the Islamist-led government. (Sources: Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera)

Tunisia is free, terrorism out.Tunisian protesters after the Feb. 2015 Bardo Museum attack

Following the 2015 attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunis, tens of thousands of protesters rallied in Tunis against terror. Some protesters were chanting, “Tunisia is free, terrorism out.” French president Francois Hollande and Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, along with leaders from Poland, Belgium, Palestine, Algeria, and Libya joined protesters in Tunis 11 days after the attack on March 29. (Sources: BBC News, Al Jazeera)

On January 8, 2017, an estimated 1,000 Tunisians marched in Tunis to protest the return of jihadis from Syria, Iraq, declaring their opposition to amnesty for terrorists. Tunisia’s president has said that stopping the return of Tunisian fighters to Tunisia would be unconstitutional. (Source: Associated Press)

Nearly 85 percent of Tunisians polled in December 2016 said that Tunisian’s current economic situation was “somewhat bad” or “very bad,” and 66 percent said the government should treat employment as its top priority for Tunisian youth. Sixty-one percent said the government does not sufficiently promote policies that help youth. According to the International Republican Institute’s Center of Insights in Survey Research, the issue of youth was given greater importance due to the demographic’s vulnerability to violent extremism. (Source: International Republican Institute)