How to manage the threat of return? Militarization versus prevention
The attack on Ben Gardane, which led to the death of fifty combatants among the ranks of Islamic State, accelerated the militarization of the Tunisian border with Libya through the construction of a 200-km long barrier made with sand banks and water trenches to prevent the passage of vehicles and cut smuggling flows. However, the effect was rather counterproductive. Instead of curbing criminal activity and the smuggling of hazardous materials and substances (such as drugs, explosives, weapons), military border control resulted in more corruption. These involved the armed forces, which went from being responsible for the fight against organized crime and the illicit trade of drugs and weapons, to be involved in the management of the entire illegal border economy. The corruption generated within the Tunisian security apparatus has not only shaken the credibility of one of the few institutions in the country that still enjoyed some popular acceptance thanks to their role during the revolution, but has rather brought about further distrust between army, police and national guard, in their competition to obtain a slice of the cake.
Since the failed assault on Ben Gardane, Tunisia has not suffered any large-scale attacks, although it has maintained a low but steady level of insurgency aimed at the security forces. Yet, on March 9, the Libya Herald published an abstract from the recent report by the UN panel of experts on Libya, which once again highlighted the adverse effects that the growing tensions in the west of Libya could have on the return of jihadists to Tunisia. The fear that these waves of returnees might reinforce the establishment of extremist networks at national level, by taking advantage of the discomfort and despair of south-eastern communities which have seen collapse their only means of subsistence, recalls the memory of the armed insurgency in Algeria during the nineties with the return of the veterans from the Afghan jihad.
The Soufan Group estimates that about 800 jihadists have already returned to Tunisia. To envisage the reception of the thousands who at some point will try to enter the country, it doesn’t help that the Tunisian penitentiary system has an occupation between 150% and 200% (according to official figures of 2017), and that many pro-human rights organizations claim that the current conditions of internment might have had a fundamental role in creating the breeding ground for radicalization. The need to find alternative solutions to the imprisonment of the returned jihadists, either via surveillance or house arrest, is a controversial issue where no consensus has been reached yet, not to mention the absence of a national prevention and counter-radicalization program that works on the neutralization of recruitment centres. To ease tensions, the Tunisian Minister of Justice has recently announced the intention to build new prisons and reorganize the existing ones, an urgent matter that shouldn’t remain only in empty words. However, it is to acknowledge that the construction of new prisons doesn’t make much sense if it is not accompanied by the will to implement a social program that works at family and community levels to engage in early warning and detection of radicalization processes.
Corruption, poverty and (in)security: the keys to understanding the institutional crisis
Both the mass media and the government authorities fail when trying to put all types of illicit traffic that somehow seem to threaten state security under the same umbrella. Since the fight against terrorism has become a national priority, it should be essential to make a clear distinction between normal smuggling networks and the flows of violence and organized crime. If we add the lack of a concerted effort to address the regional disparities that have plunged the south-east of the country into a well of political and economic marginalization, to criminalize the underground economy only serves to exacerbate the alienation of the local population.
The lack of socio-economic prospects and the threat of terrorism have certainly played against the secular-islamist coalition that resulted from the 2014 elections. It doesn’t help that in February of this year, the European Commission took the rather controversial decision to add Tunisia to the European blacklist of third countries thought to be at ‘high risk’ of money laundering and terrorist financing. The consequence was the resignation of the governor of Tunisia’s Central Bank, which, together with the resignation of the head of the Supreme Council of Justice and the dismissal of the Director of National Security within the Ministry of the Interior, are far from encouraging indicators to expect an easy solution to the current institutional crisis.
The result of this political attrition probably won’t take long to be seen, either through the configuration of the new executive that seems to be on the way and may result in the change of the prime minister, or through the results of the next local elections, scheduled for May 6. The forthcoming elections will be the first local elections to be held after the revolution, which, after several postponements from the government, have raised fears among activists who see them as an attempt by the old regime to curb the promises made after the revolt. Generalized disenchantment is likely to lead to low participation rates. The result of the elections should not only bring the much-anticipated decentralization of the central power towards the regions of the south and the interior, but should also serve as a political barometer of what can be expected for the presidential and legislative elections in 2019, where we will hardly see a re-election of the current government coalition.
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.