October 23, 2015 | Monograph
Tunisian Jihadism After the Sousse Massacre
Combating Terrorism Center at West Point
Co-authored by Bridget Moreng
Download the full report here.
Tunisia’s counterterrorism authorities have faced a growing domestic threat since the January 2011 fall of President Zine el Abedine Ben Ali, the gravity of which was underscored by the gruesome March 2015 attack on Tunis’s Bardo museum. The country received another shock on June 26, 2015, when a gunman massacred 38 tourists on the beach at the popular destination Port el Kantaoui. About five miles from Sousse, Port el Kantaoui was built in 1979 for the explicit purpose of attracting and hosting tourists. Spectacular attacks on Tunisia’s tourism industry, which sits at the heart of the country’s economy, pose an existential threat to the state. And the Sousse massacre, perpetrated by a jihadi affiliated with the Islamic State, may signal escalating competition in Tunisia between the Islamic State and al-Qa`ida.
Several factors contributed to the growth in Tunisian jihadism after Ben Ali’s fall. One factor was the release of militants imprisoned by the old regime. Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (born Saifallah Ben Hassine), the emir of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), was one of the key figures released early after the revolution. He had been arrested in Turkey in 2003 and extradited to Tunisia, where Ben Ali’s regime sentenced him to 43 years of imprisonment. According to Hassan Ben Brik, who headed AST’s dawa (evangelism) committee, the founding members of AST had “experiences abroad” prior to their return to Tunisia, meaning that they were involved in transnational jihadism. This group of founders was imprisoned after returning to Tunisia. “We got to know each other in prison, and we began our work from there,” said Ben Brik. AST became the first jihadist organization with a national reach to operate openly in Tunisia after the revolution.
A second factor in the growth of Tunisian jihadism was the permissive environment that initially existed after the revolution, when jihadis were able to conduct dawa openly. AST was a major player in such activities. As an unannounced al-Qa`ida affiliate, it seems the major reason AST disguised its organizational ties to al-Qa`ida was to allow it to operate openly.
A third factor that allowed jihadism to flourish was that toppling Ben Ali did not resolve the country’s deep social problems. Youth unemployment and lack of opportunity were particularly acute,providing fertile ground for extremism, which often flourishes when problems loom large and society seems unresponsive. It is no coincidence that the bulk of AST’s dawa efforts focused on areas that were underserviced by the Tunisian state—both geographic areas on the country’s periphery and also poorer urban areas away from city centers.
Although salafi jihadis were able to operate openly during these early years, they frequently engaged in violence as well. The movement’s early attacks in 2011 and 2012 could largely be categorized as hisba (vigilante activities designed to enforce religious norms), rather than jihad-related violence.
The clearest inflection point for the growth in jihadist attacks against the state was December 2012, when militants shot and killed Anis Jelassi, an adjutant in the Tunisian National Guard, in the Kasserine governorate.This incident prompted Tunisian authorities to identify, for the first time, a militant group known as Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi (KUIN), which both Tunisian authorities and the group itself have described as a battalion of al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Jelassi’s killing prompted intensified police operations in western Tunisia, particularly around Jebel el-Chaambi. These operations resulted in occasional firefights between Tunisian forces and militants running arms and other items across the border. There were several escalations in violence by militants in western Tunisia, including an intensifying use of improvised explosive devices against security forces.
Another escalation was the jihadist assassination of Tunisian politicians. On February, 2013, gunmen shot and killed secularist politician Chokri Belaïd outside his home in Tunis. For more than a year prior to his killing, Belaïd had been subjected to a campaign of surveillance and intimidation. Six months after Belaïd’s murder, on July 25, the secularist politician Mohammed Brahmi was gunned down in Tunis, while in a car outside his home. The gunmen reportedly fired 11 shots before fleeing on a motorbike. This second assassination occurred the same week that a jihadist ambush in Jebel el-Chaambi left “eight soldiers dead—five with slit throats.” These two bloody incidents, occurring so close together, represented a point of no return. Tunisia banned AST and launched a full-scale crackdown on domestic jihadist networks.
After the state’s decision, jihadist attacks were confined for some time mainly to the western part of Tunisia, near the border with Algeria. But by October 2013, their desire to kill tourists in urban centers was made clear. And by 2015, two major attacks on tourist targets had shocked the country and the world.