Tunisia struggling to cope with jihadist threat
Tunis - Tunisian authorities have stepped up their struggle against the jihadist threat since a suicide bomber killed 12 presidential guards in the centre of Tunis.
Some 20 people were also wounded in the November 24th attack on a bus not far from the Interior Ministry. The assault represented a new phase in the radical Islamist campaign to overthrow what is arguably the most promising democratic experiment in the Arab world.
Security forces announced scores of arrests, dismantled jihadist cells and uncovered a number of weapons caches but they are yet to assuage fears of a population worried about attacks by jihadists at home and from next-door Libya.
Authorities seized weapons caches, including explosive belts, assault rifles, ammunition and detonators, in the coastal region of Sousse and the southern area of Medenine.
“The discovery of the two caches and the arrest of a would-be bomber who confessed to suicide bombing plots targeting police and military facilities as well as government buildings in Sousse and Medenine suggest that the terrorists are readying for a ruthless and pitiless bloody stage of terrorism,” said Alaya Allani, a professor at Manouba University and an expert on radical Islam.
A reshuffle in the top echelons of the security apparatus was also announced. Five years after the uprising that toppled the regime of president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, authorities are still dealing with repercussions of haphazard decisions that led to the dismantling of security services long accused of being a tool of political oppression but now increasingly credited with having been an efficient shield against terror threats.
The disruption of security institutions after 2011 is seen by many as having given time for jihadists to develop bases for an insurgency, place recruiters into mosques and set up cells in populous city neighbourhoods. Jihadists were able to recruit foot soldiers and hoard weapons smuggled from Libya.
“The worst mistake was the disbandment of the intelligence service, which mustered a good knowledge of radical Islamists who had been under close watch and surveillance,” said Fayçal Cherif, of the Tunis-based International Centre for Security and Military Studies.
Experts see a continuing security risk for Tunisia from Libya, which could become a haven for Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
The Tunisian Interior Ministry said the explosives used in the attack against the presidential guards was the same used to make suicide belts from Libya that were seized in 2014.
“The mark of Libya in recent terrorist attacks in Tunisia is clear. The weapons were from Libya and the training of the jihadists who staged them occurred there as well,” Allani said.
Some Tunisian jihadists in Libya are thought to have returned from Syrian and Iraqi battlefields. About 5,000 Tunisian jihadists, including 700 women, have been said to be fighting for ISIS and other jihadist groups in Syria and Iraq since 2011.
As Western countries target ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the French defence minister warned that the ISIS threat could expand to Libya.
“We see foreign jihadists arriving in the region of Sirte who, if our operations in Syria and Iraq succeed in reducing the territorial reach of Daesh, could tomorrow be more numerous,” Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told the Jeune Afrique weekly, using the Arabic acronym for ISIS.
Tunisian authorities are taking no risks. A day after the November 24th attack, they closed the border with Libya and closed Tunis- Carthage International Airport to Libyan planes.
Allani, Cherif and other analysts said security forces were doing well in the battle against jihadists but such efforts should be part of a comprehensive strategy that includes reforms in the education system and economic development of poor regions along with shaping an enlightened religious discourse in a globalised world.
“They (jihadists) have a clear strategy that guides them towards the goal they set: win the decisive battle in the field through attacking the state shields — police and the military… to help them achieve the goal of dismantling the state,” said Cherif.
He argued that the government is trailing the jihadists in forging a comprehensive counter-strategy to weed out jihadists and roll back the influence they wield.
“Terrorism is the number one threat to our democratic project and the second threat is the economic and social crisis” that hampers development, said parliament member Khaled Shawkat of the ruling Nidaa Tounes party.
“The terrorist threat is still present as long as the Libyan wound is bleeding and the terrorist dormant cells nurtured by a fragile situation at home,” said Allani.