By Bassam Bounenni
Within the last couple of weeks, the United States has announced the killing of ISIS leaders Abu Sayyaf in Syria and Ali al-Harzi in Iraq. Abu Sayyaf was thought to be the ISIS gas and oil emir, while Harzi was suspected of involvement in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. But what is certain is that both of them were Tunisians.
Both attacks went unnoticed in Tunisia, where most people are barely able to cope with the struggles of everyday life. Yet their country has become the largest source of foreign fighters joining extremist groups in Syria and Iraq, creating a grim Tunisian terrorism exception when compared to other countries. A string of far-reaching terrorist attacks has tainted the image of the picturesque Mediterranean country.
After more than four years of clashes with police and armed forces in remote areas, terrorism has moved to major cities. On March 18, ISIS-linked gunmen stormed the Bardo National Museum, killing 20 tourists. And last week 38 tourists were slaughtered when gunmen opened fire at a resort in Sousse.
Fear has prevailed with the upsurge in terror attacks. Chaos in neighboring Libya has not done any good. Quite the contrary, a substantial number of Tunisians are thought to be involved in terrorist activities there, and are mainly affiliated with ISIS.
What might explain the exponential growth in the number of Tunisian fighters in terrorist groups? Under the former president, Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, many voices were raised to warn that dictatorship would only embolden extremists and harden the social strata harboring extremist views. Ben Alis legacy is certainly far-reaching, yet this argument raises more questions than straight answers about Tunisias terrorism exception.
In fact, of all the Arab countries that have been shaken by popular upheavals since 2011, Tunisia managed to limit the damages. This makes its transition away from dictatorial rule the only hopeful democratic and peaceful sign in an otherwise tumultuous region.
Since Ben Alis ouster, in January 2011, alarm bells have sounded about the decline of the police apparatus, whose doctrine was established for the sole purpose of perpetuating an authoritarian regime. When Ennahda came to power, in October 2011, its opponents highlighted several shortcomings in managing security issues, including fighting terrorism. The Islamist party dithered over the way to deal with extremist groups. Ansar al-Shariah, although responsible for an attack against the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in September 2002, was designated a terrorist organization only after international pressure.
It was also under Ennahdas rule that the flow of young Tunisian fighters to Syria became significant. Dozens of mosques pursued their own agenda, and were uncontrolled by the state. Hate speech and calls for violence were their hallmark.
What is intriguing is that until the arrival in power of Nidaa Tounes, the party that won Tunisias elections in late 2014 and whose electoral promises focused on ending terrorism, terrorist attacks had never hit the main cities. These attacks have targeted vital cultural and tourism sites in Bardo and Sousse. Experts firmly believe terrorists will hit other major cities and will target other national vital interests. It would be unwise to overlook the global dimension of terrorism.
But still, the Tunisian terror exception which culminated with the killing of political leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohammad Brahmi remains unexplainable. It is hard to know the origins of this terrorist scourge. Tunisia witnessed some homegrown attacks in the past. In April 2002, 19 tourists were killed when a gas truck crashed into a wall surrounding the Ghriba synagogue, on the island of Djerba. Al-Qaeda claimed that attack. In January 2007, gunbattles erupted between security forces and extremists in Soliman, southeast of Tunis.
One can derive some answers from all these facts. However, none really explains why Tunisians have come to play so central a role in terrorist actions.
Outside Tunisia things were clearer. As international media outlets reported, Tunisian terrorists surfaced in Afghanistan some time ago. In September 2001, Tunisians disguised as reporters assassinated the anti-Taliban leader and war hero Ahmad Shah Massoud. This happened two days before 9/11.
The role of Tunisian fighters was greater in Iraq, where they were behind many attacks. A network that provides foreign fighters from Tunisia through Syria to Iraq was reactivated or re-established after the foreign fighter network inside Iraq was damaged very significantly, Gen. David Petraeus, then commander of U.S. Central Command, said at a House hearing in April 2009. Now that Tunisia has become a breeding ground for foreign fighters who are able to hit inside the country, it is unwise for Tunisians not to be aware that extremists are living the revolution that toppled Ben Ali in their own way, at the expense of the many successes characterizing this revolution.
To guard against this threat, a national front is needed. In addition, further international assistance seems more than vital. For it is no less true that Tunisia is a hostage of its own region. Some want the country to slide back into the times of medieval darkness. Others, on the contrary, want it become the most recent dictatorship to emerge in the Arab world.