Is Tunisia turning a corner on terrorism?

Tunisia presents an interesting case study when it comes to terrorism.  The North African country was, of course, where the ‘Arab Spring’ began on December 18, 2010 (coincidentally my birthday!) when a crowd protested the self immolation of Mohammed Bouazizi who killed himself the day before when police had confiscated his wares and a female officer allegedly slapped him.  The protests mounted and less than a month later President Ben Ali stepped down and fled the country.  Analogous demonstrations against poor governance ensued in Egypt, Bahrain and Syria among other Arab nations.  So Tunisia indeed lit the match, although the outcome has varied widely in those countries that sought to emulate the small Mediterran littoral country.

Since those heady days Tunisia has had several governments, all elected and defeated democratically, and thus continues to serve as a model of sorts on how to change well-entrenched government systems.  In this sense it should be praised for what it has achieved.  I was in Tunis last summer and have to admit I was impressed with what I saw and heard over my short stay.  There were, however, some things that I learned that give me pause to worry when it comes to terrorism.

I chose to write about Tunisia today in light of an article I read in the Lebanese Daily Star regarding tourism in Tunisia.  That country has long been a magnet for Europeans – especially Brits – seeking cheap holidays in the sun and sand.  Not all these tourists have been on their best behaviour and I have read where the locals have not been impressed with the hordes of drunk, scantily clad northern Europeans in their midst: after all, even if is fairly liberal Tunisia still is a Muslim nation.  Still, there are reports that tourism is picking up again three years after a large attack on foreigners in Sousse.

To refresh our memories, on June 26, 2015 38 people, among whom were 30 UK citizens, were killed by a  lone gunman in a five-star hotel just north of Sousse before the terrorist was killed by security forces. This incident followed on another attack three months earlier at the Bardo Museum in Tunis when three armed terrorists killed 24 people including 20 foreign tourists.  As tourism accounts for almost 15% of Tunisia’s GDP one can imagine that successful terrorist attacks which make visitors think twice about choosing to vacation there would have a significant impact on the economy. News that the tourism sector is picking up again is welcome news for sure.

But is Tunisia really that safe?

Two things worry me.  First, while Tunisia is not Afghanistan or Somalia, it does still suffer from terrorist attacks: a little more than a week ago six security forces were killed by terrorists near the border with Algeria.  Tunisia’s neighbourhood is not the safest;  Libya is a failed state nearby and the entire Sahel is in a state of insecurity.  It would be very surprising if we did not see more attacks in this country in the near future.

It is the second concern that is much more serious.  I had known that Tunisia served as a major source of ‘foreign fighters’ for Islamic State, upwards of 6,000 (6,000!) by some estimates.  A lot of them are probably dead and good riddance to them.  Some may elect to go back and Tunisian security authorities will have to figure out how to deal with the returnees.

What I learned in Tunis, though, really scares me .  In addition to the very high number of citizens who decided that traveling to the so-called Caliphate was a good idea, Tunisian authorities interdicted 21,000 from doing so.  Let that sink in……21,000 Tunisians were prevented from joining IS.  21,000!   Allow me to put back on my intelligence hat for a minute.  Those who work in the Tunisian law enforcement and security intelligence services have a potential 21,000 radicalised fellow citizens to worry about.  Sure, some probably weren’t that serious to begin with but which ones?  Do Tunisian authorities have the resources to make that determination and follow those who still pose a threat?  I hope so.

I don’t want to throw cold water over Tunisia’s progress and I do wish them well.  It’s just that there is a serious issue here and it serves no one any good to sweep it under the carpet.  Let’s all pray that the situation does not worsen and attacks ensue that make Sousse and Bardo look like minor setbacks.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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