With the popular uprising in January 2011, Tunisia toppled the longstanding presidency of Ben Ali and started a new roadmap eager to dismiss the constraints of the past. Seven years later, the only democracy of the Arab world is moving steadily on the edge of a transition that has not ended yet. The nascent democracy, which was to become the paradigmatic example in the Maghreb and the Middle East that authoritarianism is not a sine qua non of government, finds itself now endangered by economic instability and rising social tensions, especially in the border areas with Algeria to the west and Libya to the south of the country. In addition, praiseworthy progress in terms of democracy since the Jasmine Revolution contrasts with upsetting figures that profile Tunisia as the country that, in proportion to its population, has exported the most terrorists to the international sphere of the jihad.
The tourism sector has suffered a sharp decline since the 2015 attacks in which 55 foreigners died. Tunisia doesn’t appear to be able to withdraw from a state of emergency that is extending itself indefinitely and has seen the status lifted only 16 months out of the years since the revolution succeeded on January 14, 2011. The current state of emergency has been ongoing since November 2015 following a suicide bombing against members of the Presidential Guard, and was extended by the Tunisian President last March 6 for another seven months. It is a preventive measure that relates to the decline of the Islamic State in the different theatres of international conflict and the consequent expectation of a massive return of combatants to the country, which threatens to destabilize Tunisia’s fragile democracy.
Radicalism and foreign fighters after the revolution
The Tunisian jihadist phenomenon is certainly not a new incident, as it dates back to the nineties with the participation of many Tunisians in the Afghan jihad. Though, it is from the revolution onwards that it finds the space to resettle in Tunisia. One of the first exponents of this new wave of terrorism is the Ansar al-Sharia militia, created in 2011 by ex-combatants who profited from the general amnesty of the first democratically elected government, taking advantage of Ennahda’s initial benignity towards Salafist Islamism and the lapse in security originated by the dismantling of the previous regime.
Thanks to Ennahda, political Islamism, strongly repressed during the dictatorship, became one of the most attractive political options for all those who wanted to break away from the past. While seeking compromises between both the demands of Islamist voters and their secular government partners, Ennahda allowed Ansar al-Sharia (an Islamist militia) to enjoy unprecedented freedom of movement during its first two years of government. That gave enough time for the terrorist organization to engage in a successful campaign of proselytizing and to create interest in radicalization and considerable recruitment. Illegalized in 2013, some of its members joined the Oqba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, the Tunisian branch of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which has since competed with the Islamic State for the notoriety and claim of attacks in the region.
There are no exact figures on the number of Tunisians who have been swelling the ranks of the Islamic State in Syria, Libya or Iraq in recent years. There has been talk of up to 7,000 combatants, although in 2015 a working group of the United Nations estimated it at 5,000 people and the latest report of The Soufan Group placed it at only 3,000. Despite the last conservative estimate, real numbers are likely to exceed it, as after the government took control of the airway to Syria via Istanbul, many jihadists abandoned the country crossing the land border to Libya.
[Note from the author: The Soufan Group makes an estimation taking into account, among others, assessments of the government. Experts agree that it is hard to define an exact number, given the complexity to quantify runaways by illegal or informal means]
From informal economy to jihad: what role does smuggling play?
The porosity of the borders with Algeria to the west and Libya to the southeast facilitated, for decades, a very fruitful smuggling trade. The Ben Ali regime turned a blind eye in a tacit agreement with the traffickers, who on the contrary refrained from dealing with alcohol, drugs and weapons. It was a win-win situation: traders managed cross-border flows, and the government did not have to worry much about the development of a region that, in the absence of other options, subsisted due to the informal economy.
However, the collapse of the state in Libya aggravated the social and security situation in the southern Tunisian border area. Changes in power in the Libyan tribal militias modified the structure established by the mafias who traditionally controlled and organized contraband and its smuggling routes, altering tribal hierarchies and former cross-border markets. The incorporation of new actors into the equation has since opened the way to trade in prohibited goods, such as alcohol and drugs, in parallel to the establishment of contacts with terrorist organizations.
If at first the border crossings facilitated the direct departure of jihadists to Libya and Syria, in a subsequent stage they served to channel the arrival of combatants to the training camps from where they would be sent to the different fronts of war in Libya, or back to Tunisia to commit attacks like the one of Bardo in March 2015 or Sousse in June of the same year. One of these training camps was located in Sabratha, a Libyan city situated 70 km from the Tunisian border and branch of the Islamic State, which has largely been managed by Tunisians and local smugglers. From there, and probably spurred by American air raids that killed fifty of them, dozens of combatants left in March 2016 to attempt the takeover of Ben Gardane in southern Tunisia with the aim of establishing a wilayat (Arabic name meaning ‘province’ that Islamic State supporters use to design its territorial claims) of the Islamic State.
Elena López Werner is a political scientist and holds a Master in International Relations from the University of Barcelona. She is specialised in jihadist terrorism and security. Currently living in Tunisia.