Tunisia's Rear-Admiral Akrout: 'National security inseparable from intelligence'

"After 2011, the prevailing conditions in Tunisia helping, there were many attempts to open up the intelligence services," said the former senior presidential adviser for National Security.
Thursday 01/10/2020
Rear Admiral Kamel Akrout  (TAW)
Rear Admiral Kamel Akrout  (TAW)

TUNIS--Rear-Admiral (R) Kamel Akrout is a former senior national security adviser to the late Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and served as a member of the National Security Council, chaired by the president, until 2019. In this capacity, he has left his mark in the design of the country's national security and intelligence institutions.

The senior Tunisian official has since retired, but he is remembered by most Tunisians as a loyal presidential aide who discreetly but efficiently worked to offer a new vision for the state's handling of national security-related matters.

The admiral had a long career in the military as a senior navy officer, including serving as Naval Academy commander and assuming the overarching position of head of military intelligence.

He completed military training in US, German and Greek military academies and completed his graduate university studies at the US National Defense University specialising in international security and counterterrorism.

With his military and academic background, the Tunisian military leader is well equipped to steer the course of the new and promising Tunis-based think tank IPASSS (Institute for Prospective and Advanced Strategic and Security Studies).

Today, he is in a unique position to address some of the delicate issues rarely discussed by former or current military and intelligence officials, specifically the position of national security and intelligence in Tunisia's democratic transition.

INTERVIEW

The Arab Weekly (TAW): You played an important role in the shaping of the National Security Council and the intelligence services. Has this effort been successful? What structures have you ultimately opted for?

Rear Admiral Kamel Akrout (AKA): After the 2014 presidential election and following my appointment as senior advisor to late President Beji Caid Essebsi, I was called upon to shape the National Security Council (NSC).

Two decrees crowned this work, namely government decree No. 2017-70 of January 19, 2017, relating to the creation of the National Security Council (complete architecture), and government decree No. 2017-71 of January 19, 2017 relating to the creation of the National Intelligence Centre (NIC). The latter, although it is organically under the tutelage of the head of government, works for the benefit of both the NSC and the prime minister's office. Its head is appointed by the president of the republic and he is a member of the NSC. Unfortunately, this centre has yet to see the light of day.

TAW: But why hasn’t the National Intelligence Centre seen the light of day?

AKA: This centre was not activated for lack of political will, although its activation will be very beneficial for both the sector (intelligence services) and the NSC. Sometimes, politicisation of everything is counterproductive and does not lead to the desired outcome because of partisan calculations. Intelligence is a very useful tool; every decision-maker does everything to have it as a lever within his or her reach, especially with the political system that currently exists in Tunisia.

TAW: According to the texts, what are the functions and attributions of the NSC and the NIC? What links do they have?

AKA: Like everywhere else, we used to see compartmentalisation, rivalry, antagonisms and a kind of competition between the intelligence services. In Tunisia, intelligence is divided between the defence and interior departments. And even in the Ministry of Interior, you have the National Guard on one side and the National Police on the other. As a result, we thought of creating a national intelligence agency (Centre) called to work much more on the strategic intelligence aspect, because what counts in fact is not the collection of information but rather the analysis and the synthesis (of the collected information) and this in order to extract the essential and help decision-makers make the right decision.

What the intelligence centre essentially does is ensure “the mission of coordination between the various national intelligence agencies." It is responsible for collecting analyses and reports from the various intelligence departments and creating mechanisms for the exchange of information between these departments, which is likely to break down the barriers between these departments and strengthen cooperation, as well as the development of strategic options and intelligence priorities and submit them to the NSC for decision.

TAW: What is the relationship between national security and intelligence?

AKA: National security is inseparable from intelligence. In fact, in order to understand the major contemporary issues, whether military, geopolitical, strategic or even economic or technological, the National Security Council needs intelligence services which provide it with clear visibility, prepare it for the right decision and allow it to anticipate; and, to this end, the intelligence services afford the NSC to have a tool for assessment, advance notice, decision preparation and action. That’s why we cannot talk about national security without talking about intelligence. Sun Tzu said, “Foresight does not come from the mind or the gods; it comes only from intelligence obtained from those who know the situation of the adversary."

TAW: How did the concept of national security materialise in Tunisia during the mandate of President Caid Essebsi?

AKA: The concept of national security in Tunisia underwent remarkable evolution during the Beji Caid Essebsi era. What facilitated this development was article 77 of the 2014 Constitution. Thus, we witnessed the creation of the National Security Council, its permanent secretariat, its fifteen permanent committees and the National Intelligence Centre.

The composition of the High Security Council as mentioned in the 1990 decree included general directors and members of the High Council of the Army. The level is rather politico-strategic-operational. In the new structure, the level is now politico-strategic. The reason for this choice was that, during our first meetings in 2015 and 2016, the presence of ministers and their subordinates was rather ineffective. After 2017, we started seeing more fruitful exchanges. This does not prevent the Council from sometimes inviting security officials or senior military officers to answer very specific questions.

With the president, we have opted for government decrees (70 and 71) instead of opting for laws, because the procedures for implementing the latter are very long and complex. As proof, you have the draft laws on intelligence, cybercrimes and especially those regarding the state of emergency still pending.

TAW: Some voices in Tunisia and abroad have warned against the risk of seeing the fight against terrorism lead to the reconstruction of an authoritarian political system that would be detrimental to freedoms and human rights. Does this risk really exist?

AKA: The fear of a slippage in the fight against terrorism and the maintenance of order is real because such a slippage is always possible, especially if the relevant legislations and laws are not precise and leave free rein to a lot of interpretation. This was the case of the Security Law of 2003, which unfortunately also made it possible to track down and harass political opponents. I remember during the first meeting of the National Security Council on February 12, 2015, one of the decisions that was taken during that meeting was to speed up the adoption of the Counter-Terrorism Law (CT) and to insist on respecting human rights in the application of that law, and I am talking here about Law 26 of 2015 which was adopted a few months later. This law is a lot better than that of 2003. Not only did it preserve the rights of the accused but it also protected the forces working in the field of CT.

On the other hand, I do not understand the logic behind continuing to work with Presidential Decree No. 50 of 1978 regulating the State of Emergency, which is rather outdated, while there has been a more up-to-date bill (Bill No. 91 of 2018) waiting to be discussed and adopted in the People’s Representatives Assembly since 2018.

In short, and in my opinion in this area of ​​CT struggle, there should be zero tolerance not just towards terrorists but also towards those who support them and find justifications for their actions.

TAW: What are the major challenges facing Tunisia in terms of national security in your opinion?

AKA: In my opinion, the major challenges facing Tunisia in matters of national security are varied. They include:

  • Internal socio-economic and political problems
  • Terrorism
  • The situation in Libya
  • Cross-border smuggling, mainly of arms and drugs
  • Illegal migration, mainly from sub-Saharan Africa
  • Foreign interference.

TAW: In all countries of the world, intelligence work is often an activity protected by secrecy. But the experts of these services in the West, whether they are in office or retired, maintain relations with public institutions, especially research centres and the media. In our country, are we getting rid of old understandings concerning the usefulness of this activity for the interests of the country? Can these services today operate in some degree of transparency and openness?

AKA: In fact, intelligence has been since antiquity an essential tool to win the war. It is now a necessary instrument for the development of the country and for attaining its aspirations in a world where Tunisia must face a growing diversity of threats and challenges ranging from terrorism to economics.

Indeed, whoever masters intelligence also masters power, because intelligence is undoubtedly a tool of domination and an essential stake that everybody dreams of controlling so that they can control their adversaries.

Before 2011, intelligence was too perceived in our country as a taboo, which nobody wants to talk about, like everywhere else in the Arab world; somehow, it disturbs and scares; it conjures up stories of abuse and aberration and sometimes brings back bad memories to some.

After 2011, the prevailing conditions helping, there were many attempts to open up the intelligence services, either by the services themselves or under pressure from civil society, who demanded more transparency and more parliamentary control.

Personally, I am for openness but for transparency to a possible extent, because these services could never be effective in full transparency.

During the tenure of former President Beji Caid Essebsi, a bill related to intelligence services was submitted to the prime minister's office, which was the procedure in force before submitting it to the Parliament. That bill has remained on hold. It essentially aimed to regulate the activity of these services, protect both the agents and the citizens and bring the services under parliamentary control.

TAW: Can we hope one day to see the experts of our security and intelligence institutions establish structured relationships of trust and mutual benefit with researchers in think-tanks and help the emergence of a body of journalists specialising in national security questions?

AKA: In developed countries, think-tanks are a very important open source of analysis and study, and often there is direct cooperation between intelligence services and these think-tanks. Since 2011, in Tunisia, there has been a sort of more freedom in this area. So we can now find think-tanks specialising in security matters, defence and open source intelligence studies. In my opinion, we will soon see the emergence of journalists and media specialising in this field, like in all democratic countries.