Terrorism & Radicalization In Tunisia

Analysis 4 December 2018
Terrorism & Radicalization In Tunisia

The think tank Institute for Strategic Analyses starts publication of a research project “Fighting terrorism & radicalization in Europe’s neighborhood: How to scale up EU efforts” by the European Policy Centre (EPC) and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung (FES) EU Office to keep its English-language readers informed of new trends, developments and methods of fighting terrorism.


Over the past seven years in Tunisia, there has been an unprecedented surge in jihadist organizations and cells of all sorts. The threat posed by extremism in Tunisia is one of the multiple symptoms (rather than the cause) of the current instability and disorder in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region. Jihadist groups raise security‑related issues. Their progress highlights, nevertheless, the need to develop a comprehensive political response.

To mitigate radicalization, governments must engage in a long‑term effort that combines military and security operations with policies promoting and sustaining socio‑political development, equality, and inclusiveness. The study of Tunisia helps to understand how radicalization and terrorism can escalate in the context of a difficult political transition. It shows that the country’s democratic institutions should adopt reforms to adapt to new kinds of threat.

Against this backdrop, the European Union (EU) is implementing policies and initiatives that are crucial both to Tunisian institutions and the EU itself, since the instability in North Africa directly threatens the European continent. Cooperation with third countries is essential to guarantee the security of the European Union. Radicalization is not tied to a single cause.

It is the result of the compound effects of multiple drivers that have social, economic and political roots. Against this background, Tunisia needs to shift its security and counter‑terrorism policies. The priority is security sector reform. This chapter aims at analyzing how reforms should take place, highlighting the connection between security sector reform and democratization.

It will review the prospects for an effective counter‑terrorism strategy in a reformed environment. It will also look at how to reinforce cooperation between the EU and Tunisia in some areas.

Terrorism in Tunisia is a relatively new phenomenon. Until 2011, the country had only been affected by occasional episodes of terrorism. Over the past seven years, it has become the most critical threat to the country’s stability and its process of democratization. The types of threats vary depending on whether they originate from inside or outside the country. Moreover, today’s principal security threat, the radicalization of thousands of Tunisians, builds on different drivers.

The analysis of Tunisia since 2011 shows that, in the beginning, external factors were prominent in explaining the emergence of jihadist terrorism. Between the end of 2012 and the summer of 2014, the terrorist attacks near the city of Kasserine (Jebel Chaambi area) at the border with Algeria reflected the ambition of al‑Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to expand its range of action in North Africa. The Algerian‑born jihadist group tried to exploit the political and institutional crisis that unfolded after the fall of the Ben Ali regime and the start of the transition phase.

More specifically, between the end of 2012 and the spring of 2013, a jihadist cell affiliated to AQIM, namely Uqba ibn Nafi, organized a series of attacks against security forces, primarily the National Guard. Between 2013 and 2015, the organization killed more than 70 Tunisian security forces. The deadliest attack took 15 lives on 26 July 2014. At the time, it was the worst terrorist attack in Tunisian history. From a technical point of view, Tunisian security forces were not prepared to respond effectively to such ambushes against soldiers. The Tunisian National Guard had no experience in dealing with this kind of guerrilla‑style terrorism.

The internal reform of the security apparatus, combined with international support from the United States (US), Algeria and – above all – the European Union, have improved the training of Tunisian security forces and made it readier to face the jihadist threat in the field.

Meanwhile, another threat to Tunisia’s security has emerged with the radicalization of thousands of young people. It led to the creation of hotbeds of radicalization and the dissemination of Salafism, an extremist jihadist ideology. On more than one occasion, this radicalization led to terrorist attacks against security forces or strategic targets, such as touristic sites and Western citizens.

Unlike the first wave of terrorism, this second phase – in part still on‑going – is characterized by a close correlation between the socio‑economic structural characteristics of the country, the political evolution of the transition process and the development of radical ideologies within Tunisia.5 The response of the authorities to the climate of insecurity ‑ mostly based on a security‑driven approach and the repression of the Islamist/Salafist forms of dissent ‑ failed to address these factors.

Among youth and in the peripheral areas of the country, there is a general perception of marginalization and exclusion from political decision‑making processes. The economic downturn has further worsened the condition of thousands of young Tunisians. The country faced a very high unemployment rate and a general impoverishment due to massive indebtedness and the devaluation of its currency. These factors have also fueled the resentment of citizens towards the institutions.

The variety of dynamics at play explains the multidimensional causes of Tunisia’s security threats. On the one hand, there are the security aspects, linked to the attempts of different groups and cells to attack by military means the security forces. On the other hand, there is the potential threat posed by radicalization.

To fight the latter, a comprehensive response is needed, involving different institutional stakeholders (Ministries of Interior, Defence, Justice, Education, Economy and Religious Affairs among the most important ones), as well as civil society actors, to build a preventive strategy aimed at avoiding new cases of radicalised individuals, by tackling the root causes of radicalization. In general, different studies and surveys highlight a nexus between high expectations that have been disappointed by the post‑revolution Tunisian government and continued grievances over the lack of economic opportunities, institutional corruption and harassment by security forces.

The leading causes of radicalization are mostly linked to the marginalization of particular regions and segments of society, as well as the repressive response of the authorities and the security forces towards Islamists or anyone accused of sustaining radical views. Regarding the first set of causes, one of the main problems is the enormous regional disparity between the Eastern coastal regions and the Western and inner ones. The rates of poverty and youth unemployment are much higher in the latter than in the former, and the levels of access to essential services such as health and education are lower.

For example, 92% of Tunisia’s industry is concentrated in the three main cities of Tunis, Sfax and Sousse, which in turn produce 85% of the total GDP of the country. In some eastern areas like Zaghouan and Monastir, the unemployment rate is about 5%, while in Gafsa it surpasses 30%.

The average poverty rate in Tunis and the eastern regions is about 4%, whereas in the central‑western regions it is higher than 15%. These inequalities reflect themselves in the access to public services: in Tunis, 85% of the population lives within a 15 minutes radius of the nearest bus station, whereas in the western regions the percentage drops to 54% of the population. 77% of all the hospitals are within an hour radius of the main urban centers, and only one in a hundred is located more than two hours from an urban centre.

As a result of these push factors, radicalization is one of the most debated issues in the country. It remains one of the most crucial threats to its security and stability. Tunisians make up the largest group among the foreign fighters that have joined the so‑called Islamic State (ISIS). According to official data from the Tunisian Ministry of Interior and the UN, about 6,000 Tunisians fought among the ranks of jihadist groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

Both in absolute number and in relative terms, Tunisia is the country that provided the most foreign fighters. There were 550 foreign fighters per one million people. Many young Tunisians followed a process of radicalization through the web or peer relations.

According to a study published in 2017 by the Tunisian Forum for the Economic and Social Rights (FTDES), 58% of the radicalised Tunisians have been indoctrinated thanks to books or the Internet, and almost 12% by friends or relatives.12 Contacts with radicalised individuals in prison constitute another possible driver of radicalization.

Unfortunately, there is not enough reliable data on this. According to data given by the Rescue Association of Tunisians Trapped Abroad (RATTA), Tunisian security forces prevented 12,000 individuals from leaving the country and reaching jihadist groups in Iraq, Syria and Libya. In 2015, Tunisia experienced three major terrorist attacks.

At the Bardo Museum in Tunis, at a tourist resort in Sousse, and in a bus carrying police officers in downtown Tunis. In 2016, the security forces prevented an attack in the border city of Ben Guerdane. It had been planned by a cell of dozens of ISIS‑affiliated jihadists from Libya shortly after the U.S. bombed the Libyan city of Sabratha, where it had discovered a training camp of mostly Tunisian jihadists.