Fighting Terrorism & Radicalization In Europe’s Neighborhood: How To scale Up EU Efforts: Tunisia
The think tank Institute for Strategic Analyses continues 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.
The Tunisian response to the terrorist threats
Tunisian post‑revolutionary governments have addressed the terrorist threat by focusing primarily on the security‑related aspects. Much has been done, therefore, to upgrade the equipment and armaments of armed forces. Thanks to cooperation with foreign partners, especially Algeria, Tunisia also regained control of its western borders. On the eastern side, the construction of a protective fence made the border with Libya less porous.
However, what the Tunisian authorities have not yet managed to do effectively is elaborate a long‑term strategy aimed not only at containing the destabilisation attempts coming from outside and the effects of radicalisation affecting Tunisians, but also at preventing new cases of radicalisation by addressing the causes that determine it.
This aspect is the most important one, yet at the same time, it remains neglected. Little has been done to prevent radicalisation or de‑radicalise people. Even when it comes to the involvement of moderate and institutional
imams in attempts to de‑radicalise and re‑integrate radicalised individuals, Tunisia has not reached the level of effectiveness witnessed in other countries, such as Morocco.
Over the past years, Morocco underwent a series of reforms by updating religious textbooks, opening a public institute for the training of imams and establishing a de‑radicalisation programme.
In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks that hit the country in 2015, the Tunisian authorities suspended over 150 religious organisations accused of having colluded with terrorist organisations and arrested more than 1,000 people. However, these punitive measures were not accompanied by a constructive approach aimed at involving the religious community in a
comprehensive counter‑radicalisation programme.
The same is true for returning foreign fighters. When the Tunisian government announced the establishment of a reintegration programme for returnees who had not directly fought or killed people, an influential coalition of police unions,
political conservatives and anti‑Islamist parties, with the support of public opinion, came together to block the initiative.
In 2015, Tunisia approved a new law on terrorism (Law 22/2015) that replaced the one that had been enforced under the Ben Ali regime. The debate on and promulgation of the law took place during one of the most high‑strung moments of the country’s transition, immediately after the two attacks against the Bardo museum and Sousse. The law thus focused exclusively on the security aspects of counter‑terrorism, leaving aside almost entirely the prevention dimension.
Some measures in the law, such as the reintroduction of the death penalty and the extension of precautionary custody, went so far as to toughen earlier legislation.
Meanwhile, it does not provide a clear definition of terrorism, which can create uncertainty about which organisations should be considered terrorist cells, depending on different interpretations of the law. In recent years, reported incidents of abuse, torture, arbitrary arrests, and brutal tactics resemble the practices of the previous regime.
All this contributes to undermining both the legitimacy and effectiveness of Tunisia’s security forces. Reforming the security system and making the security forces more organised, effective and accountable are necessary steps to advance in the fight against terrorism. Tunisia must also develop a long‑term approach that can address the causes of radicalization sustainably and thus prevent terrorism.
The security sector reform: Restoring trust and clarifying roles
While Tunisia has completed a series of deep political and institutional reforms, it has so far failed to take on the essential task of reforming the security sector, a vital component of any democratic transition. Security sector reform (SSR) goes hand in hand with building public trust
in the state and its institutions. It can also boost Tunisia’s ability to manage internal and external threats.
However, the persistent jihadist threat and society’s overall sense of insecurity has put extreme pressure on the government and its security forces, who are carrying out their mission under a state of emergency. Such a context undermines the security sector reform process. Several reports show that Tunisia risks reverting to the methods and tactics of the Ben Ali era.
For several decades, some branches of the Tunisian security forces have resorted to censorship, repression and strict social control. In particular, the Internal Security Forces (ISF) played an essential role in allowing Ben Ali to retain power thanks to one of the most invasive mukhabarat (intelligence) and police services in the Middle East and North Africa. Unlike its counterparts in the region, Tunisia’s traditional army held a secondary role compared to the ISF. In post‑colonial countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq or Syria, the army controlled the political power.
Before 2011, the ISF employed 200,000 people compared army’s 37,000. According to data presented at the to the 12th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in 2010, Tunisia has one of the world’s highest ratios of law enforcement officers per capita – one for every 80 inhabitants, compared to an average of one police officer for every 240 inhabitants. The Ministry of Interior became the top employer and the most influential institution in Tunisia.
During the Ben Ali era, Tunisia was considered the police state par excellence. In the aftermath of the ‘Jasmine revolution’ in 2011, the two security priorities were to overcome the ISF’s widespread unpopularity and restore the credibility of the armed forces in the eyes of the population and the international community. First, a change in the role of the security forces
was needed. During the Ben Ali era, the ISF was focused almost exclusively on protecting the government from its people. While this is typical of an authoritarian police state, in a democratic environment, security forces are expected to protect the population from internal and external threats and to ensure compliance with the rule of law.
However, a series of unexpected events, such as the threat from active jihadist cells in the Jebel Chaambi area, along Tunisia’s border with Algeria, complicated the overall security situation, hampering the political transition and the security sector reform. The situation even worsened when the Tunisian jihadist cells undertook direct attacks against tourists and civilians in urban and tourist areas. The biggest challenge for the Tunisian authorities is to break this vicious circle by providing responses that are both effective and respectful of human rights and the rule of law.
Ensuring Tunisia’s long‑term security requires a transparent redefinition of roles within its law enforcement forces to establish a clear chain of command and quickly respond to the security threats, especially in rural and border areas. The border regions have the highest level of criminal activity.
There are many technical and political challenges associated with changing the balance of power and the budget allocations among different ministries and government agencies. When it comes to responsibility for counter‑terrorism operations in the peripheral and rural areas, the overlap of roles can compromise the operations themselves.
At the very least, according to interviews with officials and analysts from the Ministry of Defence, it exacerbates the rivalries between internal and external security forces. As a remnant of the Ben Ali regime, the army continues to perceive its internal security counterpart with distrust. During the operations in the Mount Chaambi region, the army units combating jihadist cells refused to follow the leadership of the security and border agency affiliated to the Ministry of Interior.
According to interviews conducted by the author with representatives of the Ministry of Defence, there remains a climate of mistrust that can be detrimental to the effectiveness of security operations.
To reform Tunisia’s security sector and make it more effective in the fight against security challenges, a redefinition of roles is needed. The problem arises predominantly in rural areas. A practical solution could be the creation of a joint operational force putting together elements from the different branches under the auspices of the Head of the State and not under the responsibility of the Ministries.
Another crucial aspect of SSR is determining the institutional and political responsibilities for change and reform. In the 2014 Constitution, there is an overlap of constitutional powers between the offices of the prime minister and the presidency. In some cases, the absence of clear leadership has been intentional, to avoid an Egypt‑type scenario with a military strongman potentially able to overthrow a legitimate government in a period of security crisis.
Thus, the Ennahda‑led government that held power between 2012 and 2014 did not create the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. However, the lack of a coordinating figure contributes to the fragmentation of the security sector and has prevented the implementation of an effective military strategy.
A clear chain of command is necessary to overcome this situation. Tunisian lawmakers must first establish a clear distinction between the president and the head of government on their roles and prerogatives in the security field. Second, the judiciary must officially install the Constitutional Court. Since the parliament voted for its creation in 2014, it has not yet been entrusted with its full powers. Third, in order to define a more efficient chain of command and to
better coordinate the different branches of Tunisian security forces, the appointment of a Joint Chief of Staff is a priority.