Spring/Summer 2014
Number 26

Dispatches - Tunisia’s Security Quandary

Mark Mosely

PARIS—In many regards, Tunisia’s current security predicament has been the result of ill-considered policies pursued by successive governments before and after the 2011 “Jasmine” revolution. Regional developments did not always help either.

Terrorist incidents during the autocratic rule of president Zine Abidine Ben Ali were essentially limited to two main episodes: a 2002 suicide attack by an al-Qaeda operative against the Jerba Synagogue and a 2006 jihadist incursion near the village of Suleimane, less than 20 miles south of the capital city, Tunis. Nevertheless, it is clear in retrospect that Ben Ali’s security approach, which was based on zero tolerance of Islamism at home and “encouraging” extremist elements to leave the country, was in itself inadequate to deal with regional and global manifestations of the terrorist threat.

Ben Ali’s rule, however, was followed by much worse. After Ben Ali’s fall from power in January 2011, the undiscerning policies pursued by successive interim governments since have proven downright catastrophic.

Relying on emergency powers, President Fouad Mebazaa and Prime Minister Mohamed Ghannouchi issued a decree freeing individuals imprisoned for “political or trade union activities” shortly after their assuming office. The hastily-issued decree went into effect on February 2nd, 2011. Many of the beneficiaries of the pardon were members of the al-Nahda Islamist movement. But the list of the freed “political prisoners” included many hard-line Salafists and convicted terrorists imprisoned after the 2006 incidents. Authorities even pardoned Seifallah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad), a notorious al-Qaeda recruiter previously extradited from Turkey. In the months that followed, notorious terrorists (such as Tarek Maaroufi, founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group, who was sentenced in Belgium to more than 50 years in prison) exploited the opportunity and returned from Europe as well.

It is not clear how the Salafists and terrorists with blood on their hands came to be included on the list of “political prisoners” to be pardoned by Tunisia’s new government. It is even less clear how dangerous elements were put back out onto the street without precautionary procedures to keep track of their activities. What is obvious, however, is that the scope of this pardon was massive—and its effects potentially ruinous. In September 2011, for example, London’s Guardian newspaper was already speaking of no fewer than 1,800 Salafists that had been “freed from prison after the revolution.”

What made the situation even worse were successive prison breaks, which allowed thousands of criminals to escape. By the end of January 2011, there were an estimated 9,500 fugitives who had escaped from the Tunisian penal system in the midst of the revolutionary tumult. The trend continued for months to come. On April 29, 2011, alone, 1,000 inmates escaped from the Kasserine and Gafsa jails, in the country’s rebellious southwest. There were no confirmed statistics regarding how many of the escapees were put back in jail. Anecdotal evidence shows that at least some of them managed to cross the border illegally into Libya, with that country’s chaos providing either a safe haven or a venue for transit. Meanwhile, Salafist groups became an attractive outlet to hundreds of the young and unemployed criminal elements who stayed home.

The timing could not have been any worse for the country’s security services, which were in a state of utter disarray after the revolution. Instead of initiating security reforms which would have gotten the police out of the business of harassing opposition activists but reinforced their ability to deal with terrorism challenges, the new government then introduced a number of measures that had a debilitating effect on the country’s security agencies.

Because of either incompetence or revolutionary fervor, government leaders failed to see that most of the networks used by Ben Ali for admittedly repressive purposes were nonetheless crucial in combating terrorism and intelligence gathering. So when the Interior Ministry decided to disband the State Security Service in March 2011, it was happy to describe the move as a “definitive break” from the oppressive practices of “the political police.” But, combined with other personnel firings, the decision deprived the ministry of experienced senior cadres and sowed widespread doubt among law-enforcement and intelligence officers. Revolutionary politics also led to the abolition of a vast network of lower-level civil service auxiliaries, known as Omdas, who since independence have been the eyes and ears of the Ministry of the Interior in the hinterland.

These and other abrupt decisions left a gaping hole in the security and intelligence-gathering infrastructure, especially in rural areas and sensitive border zones. With the subsequent fall of the Gadhafi regime in neighboring Libya, Tunisia’s common border became a nightmare, and Libya’s unsecured weapons started to flow into Tunisia with the complicity of Salafists on both sides of the border. The army, already overstretched, could not fill the void.

Throughout 2011 and 2012, Salafists intensified their activities. They tried to intimidate the population in general, and secularist elites in particular, into changing their way of life. Hateful preachers were brought in from abroad to buttress the call for a Sharia-compliant society.

The government, led by the Islamist party, al-Nahda, was reluctant to crack down on ultra-conservative hooligans. Salafists were, after all, religious “revivalists” facing “secularist hostility.” Al-Nahda also thought it could co-opt Salafists into the political mainstream, or at least appease them.

But the Salafists, even those who had formed political parties, showed little interest in electoral democracy. Many of their grassroots activists continued to harass artists, ransack bars, and commit various acts of vandalism. Tensions mounted in the country, but—because of a lack of clear policies—security forces were reluctant to crack down on radical Islamic elements. The Salafist factor was also a matter of political balance within al-Nahda itself, where an ultra-conservative wing shared ideological affinities and political ties to Salafists.

The September 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis rendered this precarious status quo absolutely untenable. After the attack, the al-Nahda-led administration was suddenly confronted with the anger of the U.S. government and with a public perception of ineptitude. The attack also put to rest all illusions about the true objectives of the country’s Salafists. For months, Salafist theoreticians and other political apologists tried to blur the lines by claiming Tunisia’s holy warriors were “only” interested in jihad abroad (as if that in itself could be justified). But there had been clear signs from the start that they were interested in the home turf, starting with a bloody showdown with the National Guard in May 2011. The embassy attack removed all lingering doubt.

But Salafists remained relevant—and potent. During this period, religious hardliners were taking advantage of the great confusion at home and the chaotic situation in Libya to smuggle weapons from south of the border and stock them in Tunisia for future use. They also started hundreds of “charities” through which they could organize underground activities and collect funds. Ansar al-Sharia was perceived as the “rising star” among such groups.

In 2013, domestic and regional developments eventually pushed the Tunisian government to designate Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist organization. That year alone, the group was suspected of involvement in the assassination of two secularist leaders, suicide bombing attempts in Sousse and Monastir, and the slaughter of soldiers at Mount Chambi, on the border with Algeria. But the failure of the Ministry of the Interior to act upon a warning from the CIA about a plot to kill leftist politician Mohamed Brahmi added to the climate of distrust and suspicion within the security establishment and further complicated the task of fighting terrorism.

The deterioration of the security situation and rising street tensions in Tunis after the ouster of Egypt’s Muslim-Brotherhood-dominated government in the summer of 2013 finally convinced al-Nahda to sit down with its political rivals and offer to relinquish executive power. By late February 2014, Tunisian interior minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou, a member of the newly-appointed caretaker government of Mehdi Jomaa, was boasting that the black flags of al-Qaeda, morals police, and sidewalk tents of Salafi “daw’a” were all gone. More importantly, 1,400 terrorism suspects had been brought to justice.

That is undoubtedly a good start. But the decisions taken by successive governments after the revolution caused damage which will take time to reverse. Until that happens, Tunisia will have to reckon with hundreds of suspicious charities, scores of mosques under Salafist control, and an undetermined number of dormant extremist cells inside the country. Jihadist websites likewise continue to be accessible to aspiring terrorists, in the absence of proper legislation banning them.

But far and away the most imminent and clear danger is that of jihadists returning from Syria. Mostly operating under the banner of al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra, their exact number is unknown, but estimates vary between 2,000 and 5,000. At least 400 fighters are said to have returned to Tunisia in 2013 alone. That same year, about 8,000 would-be fighters were reportedly prevented from joining the jihad in Syria by Tunisian authorities.

Regional factors will determine whether Tunisian authorities are able to stem the flow of terrorists from the region, gain effective control over the country’s borders, and eliminate terrorist strongholds in its western mountains. But at least one variable will depend on the will of Tunisia’s new rulers alone: that of shaping and implementing the right security policies at home.

Mark Mosely is a North African affairs specialist based in Europe.