Oct. 19 and 20, 2013 were particularly important days in Tunisia as the supporters of Ansar al-Sharia took the streets, especially in their stronghold of Qablat in the governorate of Baja, close to the Tunisian capital. These demonstrations resulted in 13 victims and were the most violent since the ban of the group two months ago. The incident undermined the slogan penned by Western writers who believe that democracy will stop terror. This study charts the growth of terrorism in Tunisia since 2011.
The phenomenon of terrorism finds its roots in the conflict generated by those parties that refuse to coexist with those who oppose their teachings. Tunisia witnessed acts of terror before the revolution of Jan. 11, 2011, but this terrorism was limited in time and space. There was one event every five years; terrorism did not take place at an alarming rate.
But when the Political Islam assumed power, for the first time in history, the West, as well as the national public, were waiting with baited breath to see if this group was able to champion democracy and alienate radical Islam.
Institutionalized terror in Tunisia
The salafist groups started reinforcing their presence by holding a unified conference in March 2011, three months after the triumph of the revolution. After this, the cabinet of Hamadi al-Jabali, the secretary-general of the Islamic Ennahda movement, granted a license to operate to three salafist parties, and another pro-radical Islamic party (the Tahreer party). Scores of charitable organizations, working according to the political agenda of extremist Islam, were also granted licenses to operate.
The jihadist salafists, represented mainly by supporters of Ansar al-Sharia, refused to apply for a license as they refused to get permission from a non-Islamic government. They therefore operated under the status of a tolerated, but not legally recognized, party. This enabled them to hold their gatherings, such as the Kairouan meeting of May 20, 2012 which gathered together 5,000 persons.
Under Jabali’s governance, many attacks against politicians and intellectuals went unpunished. There were even reports about the willingness of jihadist groups to establish independent Islamist emirates in areas of Tunisia. Even the military training camps in the vicinity of al-Shaanbi Mountain were considered as no more than sports training centers by the Minister of Interior Ali al-Orayyid.
After the assassination of politicians Chokri Belaid and Mohammad al-Brahimi, and the massacre of army soldiers in July 2013, the prime minister and the minister of interior and his assistants held Ansar al-Sharia responsible. They denounced the group as a banned terrorist group which delivered military training, gathered arms and even promoted sexual Jihad. Then, Ansar al-Sharia 300 supporters were arrested. Some were from countries outside Tunisia, including Mali, Algeria and Libya.
Tunisians uncovered the institutionalized terror raging rampant in their society. Some studies stated that 80 terror cells were operating in Tunisia, with activities including, but not limited to, recruitment of fighters and aiding the reorganization of al-Qaeda after it fled from Mali.
The roots of terror in Tunisia
Many researchers confirm that the roots of terrorism lie in the country’s marginalized groups, mainly the poor class and a small section of the middle class. These researchers conclude that Tunisia’s jihadists belong to the unemployed category of society (estimated at 700,000 ).
Another catalyst for extremism is the struggle between the leftists and liberals on one side and the religious school on the other side. This struggle is why the Ennahda Party did not protect the intellectuals and liberal thinkers, as democracy isn’t necessarily the best bet for the strengthening of Islamist groups.
The Ennahda Party did not embroil itself in conflict with the jihadist movements, except after the attack against the American embassy on Sept. 14, 2012. The escalation continued until Ennahda declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist group.
The post revolution government was not serious about fighting terror, and its position can be summarized by the statement of its key leader al- Ghannouchi who said on March 9, 2012: “The salafists are our children, they didn’t come from Mars and we need to hold discussions with them.”
This discussion never happened. The outcomes was that the weapon cache discovered by the security forces were “enough to fight a war,” as the minister of interior said when he announced that the security forces diffused 50 terror attack plans.
So, if these movements became that strong in such a short time, who was allowing them to grow? It’s worth mentioning that fighting terror should include efforts to tackle its different components: Security, political, social and ideological.
Prospects of overcoming terror
Quick fix solutions
With only a few months to go until Tunisia’s elections, it is important to take the mosques out of the grip of the extremist groups, monitor religious teaching and ensure the welfare of those in charge of the mosques, coupled with other measures such as putting an urgent development plan for marginalized regions into action. The state must also revisit the content of religious programs in the media, collaborate on information exchange with neighboring countries over terror suspects and hold a national conference against terror that will conclude by defining terror and the approved means to face it.
There are many long term solutions including, but not limited to, rehabilitating the jihadists and revisiting their teachings, building the educational system around tolerance and acceptance of the other, coupled with a youth engagement strategy, and encouraging the tolerant school of Islam, “Zeitouna,” to revive its values. The state must also establish democratic institutions through transparent elections and initiate a decade long economic plan to face poverty and marginalization.
And finally, long term national security strategy should be coordinated at the highest levels in order to face local and imported terror threats via coordination with citizens as well as the regional intelligence apparatus.
The terror phenomena is still under control in Tunisia, and if we succeed in bringing the hardliners to the negotiating table, and work together to build the “Tunisian” model, we can really develop a tolerant Arab Muslim model that can be our contribution to the Arab world.
Our history and heritage is full of bright moments, and if we succeed in approaching our present issue in a logical manner, we can clear a path to fighting terrorism by nurturing the culture of citizenship, true democracy, religious and sectorial tolerance and encouraging education and the growth of the economy.