In February and July 2013, suspected Islamist extremists assassinated Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi, two left-wing opposition politicians and fierce critics of Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda-led government.[1] In August 2013, the Initiative for Discovering the Truth about the Assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi (IRVA)[2] accused Ennahda and officials at the Ministry of Interior for “complicity in the killings” and “collusion with terrorist movements.”[3] The Ennahda-led government vehemently denied the charges. Although most of IRVA’s accusations are unverified,[4] they reflect the mood of an increasing number of Tunisians who hold Ennahda responsible for the rise in religiously-motivated violence in Tunisia.[5] This dynamic led to the launch of a National Dialogue in October 2013 that ultimately forced the Islamist-led government out of office.

This article details recent incidents of religious violence in Tunisia, as well as the core domestic and regional factors behind it. It then discusses domestic strategies to counter violent Salafists in Tunisia, and evaluates whether future governments are likely to be more effective in controlling the spread of religious violence. It finds that active collaboration between Tunisia’s secular parties and Ennahda should be a priority to launch an effective and long-term strategy to counter religious violence.

Recent Incidents of Religious Violence
Since the Tunisian revolution in early 2011, religiously-motivated violence has steadily increased. Until late 2012, however, it was primarily characterized by small scale attacks and vandalism. In June 2012, for example, Tunisian Salafists angered at an arts exhibition they considered blasphemous rioted in Tunis and other cities, throwing rocks and petrol bombs at police stations and other buildings.[6] Yet the real threat of religious violence was first witnessed in September 2012, when protesters outside the U.S. Embassy in Tunis turned violent and attacked the embassy, leaving three people dead.[7]

An unprecedented scale of religious violence was reached with the assassinations of Belaid and Brahmi, incidents that deeply unsettled the country. The government was quick to create a list of suspects and linked Tunisia’s Ansar al-Shari`a (AST)[8] to both killings.[9] Yet the speed with which Ennahda presented the names of the suspects, especially at a time when political opposition blamed the Ennahda Party for the killings, should prompt caution.[10] Indeed, as no group has declared responsibility for the killings and investigations appear to be full of loopholes, it is still not entirely clear who is responsible.[11]

Equally worrying, the same month that Brahmi was assassinated, violence in the Mount Chambi area close to the Algerian border came to the fore when eight Tunisian soldiers were shot and their throats slit.[12] Clashes between security forces and al-Qa`ida-linked groups in Mount Chambi have been ongoing since December 2012. In July 2013, a bomb exploded in La Goulette in a car belonging to the National Guard, while a second bomb went off in the town of Mhamdia in Ben Arous Province targeting a security patrol of the National Guard.[13]

In October 2013, a few days after the start of the National Dialogue, a suicide bomber attacked a hotel resort in Sousse, while authorities barely  averted another attempted suicide bombing on the mausoleum of Tunisia’s first President Habib Bourguiba.[14] The attack in Sousse marked the first suicide bombing in Tunisia since the Djerba attack in 2002. Most  recently, on February 16, 2014, suspected Islamist militants killed two policemen in the Jendouba area of western Tunisia.[15] These incidents clearly indicate that religiously-motivated violence in Tunisia is not only on the rise, but that attacks are increasingly organized.

Domestic Factors of Jihadist Activity in Tunisia
The factors driving the increase in religious violence in Tunisia are complex and include socio-political, economic, and regional dynamics. An important event that contributed to the rise in Salafist activity was the release of all political prisoners, including jihadists, following a general amnesty shortly after the revolution.[16] Ennahda’s initial dialogue-seeking strategy, in which they turned a “blind eye” to many instances of small-scale religious violence, also likely helped violent Salafists to evolve, both ideologically and organizationally.[17] Indeed, only following the assassination of Mohammed Brahmi in July 2013 did Ennahda’s leaders clearly distance themselves from the AST, declaring it a terrorist organization.[18]

AST’s classification as a terrorist organization came despite the fact that many of its members were not jihadists.[19] Alaya Allani, a specialist on radicalization in Tunisia, explained that some Salafists were appalled when they learned the group might be involved in the assassinations, and left AST as a result.[20] Moreover, some members of Ennahda’s doctrinal wing are ideologically close to non-violent Salafists,[21] as are many young Ennahda militants, many of whom never had the opportunity to learn about moderate Islamist ideologies during the repressive regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.[22]

Regardless, many analysts agree that a security approach alone does not help to tackle many of the root causes of radicalization in Tunisia, such as economic marginalization, which is particularly high among the youth. Indeed, university graduates have the highest unemployment rate, which International Monetary Fund statistics placed at 33.5% in late September 2013—almost 10% higher than before the revolution.[23] The extent of the youth’s current economic frustration is particularly severe in light of their initial hope for a quick economic recovery following the ousting of Ben Ali.[24]

Political exclusion is another key factor that has made some young Tunisians more prone to religious violence.[25] Most political parties struggle to integrate the youth, and young Tunisians often describe party politics as “sclerotic” and the “same as before.”[26] Immediately after the revolution, many international donors gave money for civil society projects that absorbed some of the youth, but such funding has declined during the past year, leaving even more youth without prospects. Such socio-political exclusion partly explains why even an increasing number of young Tunisians from middle-class families have joined the Salafist movement.[27] For example, Bizerte, a middle-class coastal city, has one of the highest numbers of jihadists fighting in Syria.[28]

Regional Factors of Jihadist Activity in Tunisia
Reinforced by criminal cross-border activities, the links between domestic and regional jihadist organizations have become increasingly fluid.[29] In January 2013, authorities were deeply alarmed when 11 of the 32 hostage takers of Mokhtar Belmokhtar’s “Signed-In-Blood Battalion” at the In Amenas gas facility in Algeria were Tunisians.[30] Concern only heightened when Belmokhtar created the al-Qa`ida-affiliated al-Murabitun in August 2013, a merger with the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) that aims to pursue jihad against Western targets throughout the region, including in Tunisia.[31] One month after its creation, Tunisian radio station Mosaique FM reported that around 300 Tunisians have joined al-Murabitun.[32] Although it is impossible to independently verify this possibly exaggerated number, it is beyond a doubt that Tunisians are active members of al-Murabitun, in particular as heightened security measures have recently made jihadist training more difficult in Tunisian territory.[33]

Although activism occurs primarily outside Tunisia,[34] some members of al-Murabitun have been found in the Mount Chambi region where militants close to al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leader Abdelmalek Droukdel train.[35] Indeed, as France’s military intervention in northern Mali pushes AQIM fighters toward other countries, security forces have discovered Algerians, Malians and Mauritanians in the Tunisian mountains.[36] Some of them have been part of the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, an AQIM-linked cell the Tunisian interior minister announced dismantled in December 2012[37] but that has been de-facto active in the Mount Chambi region ever since. Some of the Mount Chambi militants have been active members of AST, yet AST leader Abou Iyadh denies any organizational links between them.

Another key cause of the rise in jihadist activity in Tunisia is the increasing number of Tunisians who have traveled to Syria to fight against the Bashar al-Assad regime. Tunisian foreign fighters in Syria have fought alongside the al-Qa`ida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra,[38] as well as the more radical fighters of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Motives for fighting in Syria include ideological conviction, economic opportunities, as well as the prestige and social recognition that jihadists associate with the experience.[39] Jihadism in Syria has been supported by several public figures and imams in Tunisia.[40] A recent estimate by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation placed the number of Tunisian fighters in Syria at 970, making Tunisia the third biggest contributor of foreign fighters after Jordan and Saudi Arabia.[41] This figure is particularly significant when one considers Tunisia’s relatively small population. How authorities choose to deal with fighters returning from Syria will partially determine Tunisia’s future stability.

Confronting Jihadists
The Tunisian government has employed a number of measures to counteract Salafi-jihadi activity in the country. To limit the number of Tunisians going to fight in Syria, officials have asked individuals under the age of 35 to show a parental authorization when traveling to Libya or Turkey, as most Tunisians leave for Syria through these two countries.[42] Additionally, on August 30, 2013, authorities ordered the creation of a buffer zone at the southern borders with Libya and Algeria.[43] The creation of this zone, however, may not prevent jihadists from leaving Tunisia since the vastness of the Sahel makes full control of cross-border activities nearly impossible. Also in August, security forces launched an aerial bombing campaign and intensified army patrols in the Mount Chambi area. These efforts have made militant activities more difficult to maintain in Tunisia’s mountains, but violent cells have remained operationally close to the Algerian border. Clashes between security forces and jihadists have continued throughout the country.[44]

The legal framework for such counterterrorism operations is Ben Ali’s 2003 anti-terrorism law, although the Ministry of Interior has repeatedly announced additional steps toward increased security, including the creation of anti-terrorist crisis cells.[45] In August 2013, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh declared that a national committee to formulate a strategy to combat terrorism would be established.[46] Most of these declarations, however, have not translated into action.

Tunisia also increased coordination with neighboring countries to fight jihadists, especially with Algeria.[47] Deep mistrust between countries in North and West Africa continues to undermine in-depth coordination and multinational strategies, despite the fact that transnational threats emanating from AQIM and al-Murabitun require regional responses.[48]

Security expert Haykel Ben Mahfoudh argued that the absence of a clear and transparent domestic strategy to combat religious violence partially accounts for increased jihadist activity, as post-revolution politics have focused primarily on transitional justice and constitution-drafting. All prior counterterrorism strategies have lacked basic requirements such as a statement of the scope, budget, and overall objective of operations, therefore undermining their effective implementation.[49] Although officials recognize that the fight against religiously-motivated violence needs to also tackle some of the root causes of radicalization—most importantly, youth marginalization—these factors have largely remained unaddressed. Tunisians returning from jihad in Syria have been questioned and some have been imprisoned, but no reintegration policy has been formulated.

A unified strategy to combat religiously-motivated violence in Tunisia seems distant. Tunisia’s political environment remains divided, and major opposition parties have criticized the nomination of Mehdi Jomaa as interim prime minister on December 14, 2013. There are even splits within Tunisia’s Ministry of Interior, which has manifested in sensitive information being leaked to opposition politicians and newspapers critical of Ennahda.[50]  Secular parties are still struggling to form coalitions, and are strategizing to form coalitions based around an anti-Islamist (or, anti-Ennahda) stance rather than an elaborate security program, in order to attract votes. Little change to the status quo can be expected until these coalitions solidify. The election of Jomaa is unlikely to change much in that respect, as his main duties consist of organizing the next elections.

The finalization of the constitution is a sign of hope that Tunisia’s Islamists and more secular parties might be able to collaborate eventually, despite mutual distrust. Further collaboration should be a priority, as the only ones who have benefited from political crisis and stagnation so far are the jihadists; political and economic disillusionment can push some Tunisians toward jihadist activity, and the failure to develop a concrete security policy prevents effective action against jihadist groups. If cooperation can be achieved, Tunisia could launch the wide-ranging political, socio-economic and security reforms that are needed to tackle the root causes of radicalization, establish reintegration programs for fighters returning from Syria, and pave the way for an effective strategy against jihadists currently operating in Tunisia.

Anne Wolf is a graduate of Cambridge University specializing in North African affairs. She works in Tunisia as a journalist, researcher and political risk analyst.

[1] “Tunisia Brahmi Killing: ‘Same Gun Used’ in Belaid Murder,” BBC, July 26, 2013; “La liste des terroristes impliqués dans les assassinats de Belaïd et Brahmi,” Leaders, July 26, 2013.

[2] IRVA was established shortly after the assassination of Chokri Belaid. Although it claims to be an independent initiative, IRVA members include mostly relatives and friends of Belaid, as well as opposition party members, most of whom are fiercely opposed to the Islamists.

[3] “Assassinats de Belaid et Brahmi: Laâguili remet des documents à la justice,” La Presse, October 8, 2013.

[4] Most of IRVA’s accusations derive from unnamed sources and have not been independently verified. See, for example, Monia Ben Hamadi, “Tunisie: Le gouvernement Larayedh accusé de crime d’Etat après de nouvelles révélations sur l’assassinat de Mohamed Brahmi,” Al Huffington Post Maghreb, September 20, 2013.

[5] Most of Tunisia’s opposition parties and the often secular-leaning media outlets have treated IRVA’s statements as “revelations” and “independently verified facts.” See, for example, “Réactions de figures de l’opposition: Indignations,” La Presse, October 3, 2013; “Tunisie: L’IRVA livrera demain de nouvelles révélations sur l’assassinat de Bélaîd,” Tunisie Numerique, November 6, 2013.

[6] Tarek Amara and Lin Noueihed, “Tunisian Salafi Islamists Riot over ‘Insulting’ Art,” Reuters, June 12, 2012.

[7] For more details, see Anne Wolf, “Tunisia: Signs of Domestic Radicalization Post-Revolution,” CTC Sentinel 6:1 (2013).

[8] AST was founded after the Tunisian revolution by Afghanistan veteran Sayf Allah bin Hussayn, also known as Abu Iyadh. It quickly became Tunisia’s main Salafist organization, bringing together up to 5,000 people at its first congress in Kairouan in May 2012. Following the assassination of Mohammed Brahmi, Tunisia declared AST a terrorist organization due to its alleged involvement in the killing. On January 10, 2014, the U.S. Department of State declared AST a foreign terrorist organization.

[9] “Tunisia Prime Minister: Ansar al-Sharia Assassinated Belaid and Brahmi,” Middle East Online, August 27, 2013.

[10] See Andrew Lebovich and Aaron Zelin, “Alleged Brahmi Killer: Tracing Ties Between Aboubaker el-Hakim, Ansar al-Sharia, and Al-Qaeda,” Tunisia Live, July 26, 2013.

[11] Kamel Gadhgadhi, who the government accused of both assassinations, was killed during a police raid in early February 2014. See “Alleged Killer of Chokri Belaid Dead,” al-Arabiya, February 4, 2014.

[12] Oussama Romdhani, “In Tunisia’s Mount Chaambi Attack, Pictures Add to Tragedy,” al-Arabiya, August 4, 2013.

[13] Nissaf Slama, “Second Bomb Targeting National Guard Detonates Near Tunis,” Tunisia Live, July 31, 2013.

[14] “Suicide Attack Hits Tunisia Resort Town,” al-Jazira, October 30, 2013.

[15] “Militants in Tunisia Kill Four, Including Two Police,” BBC, February 16, 2014.

[16] “Tunisie: tous les prisonniers politiques auraient été libérés,” Le Monde, March 2, 2013.

[17] For example, no action was taken when a group of Salafists attacked protesters who expressed solidarity with the owner of Nassma TV, Nabil Karoui, who was accused of violating sacred values. For details, see Roberta Lusardi, “Tunisia’s Islamists: Ennahda and the Salafis,” Middle East Policy Council, May 8, 2012.

[18] Already in May 2013, the Interior Ministry announced that AST was an illegal organization and that it would prohibit its activities. In August 2013, Prime Minister Ali Larayedh declared AST a terrorist organization, insisting that “anyone belonging to it must face judicial consequences.” See “Tunisia Declares Ansar al-Sharia a Terrorist Group,” BBC, August 27, 2013.

[19] Some members of AST, for example, only pursued charity work for the group.

[20] They focused their AST works solely on da`wa. See personal interview, Alaya Allani, Tunis, Tunisia, November 2013.

[21] For more details, see Anne Wolf, “An Islamist ‘Renaissance’? Religion and Politics in Post-Revolutionary Tunisia,” Journal of North African Studies 18:4 (2013).

[22] For more details, see Anne Wolf, “The Salafist Temptation: The Radicalization of Tunisia’s Post-Revolution Youth,” CTC Sentinel 6:4 (2013). Fabio Merone, for example, insisted that “declaring Ansar al-Sharia a coherent and homogenous terrorist organization is a big mistake.” See Fabio Merone, “One Last Chance for Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia,” Tunisia Live, August 30, 2013.

[23] These details are from IMF Tunis staff.

[24] An Arab Barometer survey conducted shortly after the revolution revealed that 78% of young Tunisians expected the economic situation to improve within the next few years following the revolution. For details, see Alissa Strunk, “Tunisia’s Feuding Youth,” The Middle East Channel, August 12, 2013.

[25] See Monica Marks, “Youth Politics and Tunisian Salafism: Understanding the Jihadi Current,” Mediterranean Politics 8:1 (2013).

[26] Personal interviews, youth activists, Tunis, Tunisia, December 2013.

[27] This assertion is based on the author’s personal observations in Tunisia. It cannot be proven, as no reliable surveys or similar studies exist.

[28] Hazem al-Amin, “Tunisia’s ‘Road to Jihad’ in Syria Paved by Muslim Brotherhood,” al-Monitor, October 23, 2013.

[29] For details, see “La Tunisie des frontières: jihad et contrebande,” International Crisis Group, November 28, 2013.

[30] For details, see Anne Wolf and Raphael Lefèvre, “Algeria: No Easy Times for the Generals,” Journal of North African Studies 18:3 (2013).

[31] Mohammad Ben Ahmad, “North African Terror Groups Merge,” al-Monitor, August 26, 2013.

[32] Jamel Arfaoui, “Tunisians Join Mourabitounes Terrorist Group,” Magharebia, September 20, 2013.

[33] On August 30, 2013, Tunisian authorities instituted heightened security measures by creating a buffer zone at the southern borders with Libya and Algeria. Also in August, Tunisian security forces launched a bombing campaign and intensified army patrols in the Mount Chambi area. That being said, the creation of this buffer zone may have limited impact since the vastness of the Sahel makes full control of cross-border activity nearly impossible.

[34] Libya, especially, has become a site for training and strategic operations following the fall of the Mu`ammar Qadhafi regime.

[35] Benjamin Roger, “Tunisie: sur la trace des jihadistes du mont Chaambi,” Jeune Afrique, May 7, 2013.

[36] “Tunisie, Terrorisme: Les terroristes de Châambi se composaient de 30 individus dont 15 algériens, et 15 maliens, tunisiens et mauritaniens,” Tunivisions, August 31, 2013.

[37] Monia Ghanmi, “Tunisia Foils al-Qaeda Expansion Plan,” Magharebia, December 24, 2012.

[38] Aaron Y. Zelin, “Meeting a Returned Tunisian Foreign Fighter from the Syrian Front,” The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, November 8, 2013.

[39] Fighters from Jabhat al-Nusra make $250-300 a month. For more information, see ibid.

[40] Amira Masrour, “Syria Claims Tunisian Government Support for Fighters in Syria,” Tunisia Live, June 21, 2013.

[41] “ICSR Insight: Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise Among Western Europeans,” The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, December 17, 2013.

[42] See, for example, “Tunisie: Empêcher les départs pour le jihad,”, October 4, 2013.

[43] “La Tunisie sécurise ses frontières avec la création de zones militaires ‘tampons,’” Jeune Afrique, August 30, 2013.

[44] “Tunisian Police Arrest More Militants, Seize Arms,” Reuters, January 2, 2014; “One Killed After Tunisia Police, Islamist Militants Clash,” Reuters, November 12, 2013.

[45] “Tunisie: création de cellules de crise antiterroristes,” Radio France Internationale, March 27, 2013.

[46] “Ali Laarayedh: ‘Vers la formation d’un conseil consultatif pour la formation d’un comité national de lutte contre le terrorisme,’” Kapitalis, August 6, 2013.

[47] “L’Algérie réaffirme son soutien à la Tunisie et à la Libye en insistant sur la sécurité régionale,” Al Huffington Post Maghreb, December 7, 2013; Jamel Arfaoui, “Collaboration algéro-tunisienne contre le terrorisme,” Magharebia, August 5, 2013.

[48] For more information, see Raphael Lefèvre, “Commentary on Current Events,” Journal of North African Studies 18:5 (2013).

[49] Personal interview, Haykel Ben Mahfoudh, security expert, Tunis, Tunisia, November 2013.

[50] Documents purportedly leaked by Tunisian security officials allege that U.S. intelligence informed the Ministry of Interior about a plan by extremists to assassinate Brahmi. The then-minister of interior, Lotfi Ben Jeddou, claimed that the information was withheld from him. See Asma Smadhi, “Leaks Prompt Inquiry into Brahmi Assassination,” Tunisia Live, September 18, 2013.

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