February 11, 2014 | Policy Brief

Tunisia’s Heavy-Handed Counter-Terror Operations

February 11, 2014 | Policy Brief

Tunisia’s Heavy-Handed Counter-Terror Operations

Co-authored by Bridget Moreng

Tunisian security forces Saturday night gunned down a suspect in the assassination of one of the country’s leading secularist politicians. It was the second time such a suspect died at the hands of police in five days.

Just before midnight on Saturday, Tunisian security forces raided a house in the Ennasim district in Borj Louzir. A fierce gun battle ensued with four militants. Three police officers were injured, and three militants were taken into custody. The fourth militant, Ahmed Melki, died after being shot in the face. Melki, known as “the Somali,” was a suspect in the July 25 killing of secular politician Mohammed Brahmi.

Saturday’s operation comes on the heels of another raid on February 3, when Tunisian forces raided two Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) safe houses in the Tunis suburb of Raoued. The apparent target of that raid was Kamel Gadhgadhi, a leading suspect in the assassination of another secularist politician, Chokri Belaïd. The clashes between AST members and police resulted in the death of Gadhgadhi, six other militants, and one police officer.

Interior minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said in a Feb. 4 press conference that authorities “asked them to surrender, but each of them had weapons, grenades and explosive belts.” The militants allegedly had 600 kilograms of TNT with them.

Though Ben Jeddou portrayed the operation as bringing closure to Belaïd’s death, many questions about AST remain unanswered. Who ordered the killings of Belaïd and Brahmi? Was it the group’s emir, Abu Iyad al-Tunisi, or regional commanders? Or were the killings carried out by militants who weren’t acting pursuant to orders from above? These questions point to other unresolved questions about AST’s organizational structure, and its links to other regional militant groups.

In other words, Tunisia’s police operations may be successful on one level, but the fact that suspects are dying rather than being captured is problematic—not only from a human-rights perspective, but also because their deaths represent a lost opportunity to gain more information about militant networks. Indeed, keeping suspects alive can help lead to the capture of bigger figures in AST’s network. For example, the police found Gadhgadhi’s hideout through their capture and interrogation of operative Mahjoub Ferchichi.

As the New York Times describes, Tunisian citizens now have “little sympathy for terrorists, but also little confidence in the police who, despite new training and equipment, are still tarnished by a reputation for cruelty and injustice from the years of dictatorship.”

Washington should prioritize the training of Tunisia’s security forces. Doing so can produce better intelligence gathering, more effective counterterrorism operations, a better human rights record, and a renewed confidence in Tunisia’s security services. Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Bridget Moreng is a research assistant.