Tunisia’s costly battle against its militants

Tunisia’s streets filled Oct. 26 with voters keen to participate in the national elections for the 217-member National Assembly, but while the country’s political and ideological center rejoices, the shadow cast by its extremist border militias is not receding.

With parliamentary elections ending and preparations in place for the country’s first democratic presidential elections next month, Tunisia is enjoying international praise for having experienced a “peaceful revolution leading to promising stability.”

Meanwhile, senior Tunisian politicians, including Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, defeated in the elections, say Tunisia offers “a stark contrast to the extremes of terrorism and military intervention seen elsewhere in the region.”

But as the Independent High Authority for Elections was making its final arrangements on Oct. 23, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry announced that security forces had stormed a house west of Tunis that allegedly belonged to a “terror group,” using tear gas, stun grenades and live fire and killing six people, five of whom were women.

Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said one of the women had fired on special forces with a Kalashnikov, and that the group was recruiting fighters for the war in Syria. (More fighters have joined the Islamic State (IS) from Tunisia than any other country.) However, Ben Jeddou also confirmed that two children had been present inside the house, and that one of them sustained a head injury.

The government claims that the operation was one of the many this year aimed at countering the influence of extremist militant groups such as the Tunisian wing of Ansar al-Sharia and Katibat Uqba Ibn Nafi, which operate across the country but are primarily based near the border with Algeria and in the foothills of Jebel Chaambi.

In July, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry began its latest push against the Chaambi militants after one of the armed groups attacked a military checkpoint and killed 15 soldiers. Just two weeks earlier, National Guardsmen in the town of Gafsa had arrested more than a dozen people accused of being part of the Ansar al-Sharia network.

More than 100 arrests were made in July in a program that is ongoing against “hard-line Islamists,” headed by National Security Service Director Waheed al-Tojani.

The crackdown on the Chaambi militants has had strong public support since the assassinations of leading secular opposition politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi last year. The men are believed to have been murdered by alleged Ansar al-Sharia member Kamel Gadhgadhi, who was killed by security forces in February.

On Oct. 14, state forces arrested Hafedh Ben Hassine, the brother of Ansar al-Sharia leader Abu Iyadh along with 11 associates, and on Oct. 16 a man named Alaeddine Tahri, whom the Interior Ministry accuses of being a senior member of the associated Uqba Ibn Nafi Brigade, was arrested in Gabes.

Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa said the government has arrested a total of 1,500 “suspected jihadists” so far this year.

The militant groups are certainly causing concern to those in power. Plans emerged from the Ministry of Finance on Oct. 24 to raise the national military budget from around $110 million in 2014 to $280 million in 2015, an increase of 150% in a single year.

Tunisia’s government has also initiated a $700 million deal with the US Defense Supply Cooperation Agency for 12 Black Hawk helicopters, complete with weapons systems, radar and Hellfire missiles, in a deal explicitly stated to support counterterrorism operations.

The threat to Tunisia posed by the militant groups is not entirely domestic. On Jan. 14, Abdelmalek Droukdel (aka Abu Musab Abdel Wadud), the leader of the Algerian militant group al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, is believed to have appointed Algerian fighter Khaled Chaieb (aka Lokman Abu Sakhr) head of a new regional branch in Tunisia.

Katibat Uqba Ibn Nafi, which operates from the western Jebel Chaambi region, was previously allied with Droukdel’s group but has since pledged support for IS. The group has also issued threats to mount attacks during the elections, including threats to assassinate Jomaa and Ben Jeddou.

The country’s two borders with Libya were officially closed by the government for the duration of the parliamentary elections — a decision primarily motived by security concerns.

“Among the broad mass of the electorate, concerns about the economy are trumping those about security,” Anthony Dworkin, a senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, told Al-Monitor. “However, it is a big concern for policymakers, who see the threat of an immediate crisis from a major incident as very serious,” he said.

“With the renewed confidence and profile of the Interior Ministry, there are also fears that given the lack of accountability in the security forces there could be a return to the kind of heavy-handed tactics of the past,” he said.

None of those arrested for the crime of “terrorism” have been tried in Tunisia since the 2011 revolution, but hearings could begin this month. Around 600 defendants are currently facing prosecution, according to the Ministry of Justice.

The triumphalism of the elections should be tempered with recognition that serious economic and security problems remain unsolved, according to a Oct. 20 report by the International Crisis Group.

“Tunisia has successfully overcome successive political crises, yet seems less able to absorb the impact of major [jihadist] attacks,” the report said.

“Whatever the results of the legislative and presidential elections, the Tunisian government needs to confront its critical security challenges by implementing a consensual, balanced and [depoliticized] approach to anti-terrorism,” it said, concluding that the economic, social and ideological grievances that help give rise to militant movements must be addressed.

On polling day, Tunisia’s voters were not alone on the streets. The government claims it mobilized a combined force of military and police numbering 80,000 officers, a figure that reveals Tunisia’s electoral successes are not coming without the threat of blood.

This article was originally published with Al Monitor on October 27 2014.

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About Tom Stevenson
Tom Stevenson is an Independent North Africa reporter

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