The month of February has been the month of “qualitative” changes on Tunisia’s terrorism front. Such changes indicate the war on terror will be long; but is winnable.
On Feb. 4, anti-terror squads were able to track down a terror cell in the northern suburb of Raoued, near the capital city, Tunis. Seven dangerous terrorists were killed, including Kamel Gadhgadhi, the presumed assassin of leftist politician Chokri Belaid who was killed last year. It was the largest number of casualties inflicted by Tunisian security forces upon terrorists in any one single day since 2011. Furthermore, 800 kilos of explosives were seized.
A second blow to terrorists, presumed to be affiliated with Ansar al-Sharia of Tunisia (AST), was to come five days later, in the Borj Louzir district, a few miles away. Eight terrorist suspects were arrested, among them Ahmed Melki, a.k.a. “al Somali”, thought to have been involved in the murder of pan-Arabist politician, Mohammad Brahmi, last July. The arrests pre-empted “spectacular” terrorist operations in the making, including a suicide-truck attack on the Mornaguia central prison and a raid on local police barracks. Terrorist were also plotting to take over “Hay al Tadhamon” and “Duwar Hicher,” two working class districts on the outskirts of the capital. Counting on the support of local Salafist militants, AST members were planning to plant landmines in the entrance of the two districts and use residents as human shields.
On Feb. 16, terrorists managed to carry out a reprisal attack. Borrowing a page from Algerian civil war annals, they setup a fake security checkpoint in one of the back-roads of the province of Jendouba, in the country’s northwest. They killed three security officers and a civilian in the ambush.
Terrorists never had a chance at winning the hearts and minds of TunisiansOussama Romdhani
As brazen as it was, the attack was no game-changer. Causing mass casualties, as terrorists were planning in Borj Louzir, would have been. Leaked interrogations of arrested suspects point to the failure of terrorists on two accounts. By moving some of its fighters to the capital area, AST wanted to ease the pressure on fighters operating in Mount Chambi. But bombardments have gone on uninterrupted. Through assassinations and large-scale operations, “Jihadists” wanted to further their agenda of propagating anarchy as a prelude to carving out Islamic “princedoms” for themselves. In that, too, they failed.
Tunisia’s war on terrorism remains an uphill battle. It is a war where Tunisians have not had much experience since independence. The frayed security apparatus and the freer -but at times complacent- political environment, since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, allowed Salafist radicals, including AST members, to set up their networks, using charities and mosques as covers. The same security vacuum allowed thousands to travel Syria, Mali and Libya for “Jihad.” The “returnees” of such wars are already trickling back. The paths of traffickers and terrorists remain intertwined; and the situation in Libya is a source of continued concern.
But the tide might be turning, at least on the home front. Security forces are showing greater determination and better organization. Authorities are considering the creation of specialized intelligence and security agencies. The political climate has also changed. The 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis and the 2013 murder of two political leaders on the hand of AST–connected assassins, served to highlight the proclivity of radical Salafists to terror. Incidents made mainstream Islamists reconsider their ties to Salafists.
Terrorists never had a chance at winning the hearts and minds of Tunisians. Increased support for the anti-terrorism effort is palpable. In recent weeks, there have been a few cases of citizens handing over terrorism suspects to authorities. With the public on their side, authorities should make good on their vow to retake control of 200 mosques still under the sway of Salafists.
But fighting terrorism is a costly endeavor, especially when it comes to equipment acquisition. Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou says security forces are awaiting new gear to pursue terrorists in their mountain hideouts. Despite economic constraints, defense and security budget extensions were voted in the 2014 budget. If recent international expressions of support are any indication, it is a sound bet the Tunisian government will be able to count on foreign partners for additional resources. Algerian, Moroccan and French governments have stated readiness to help. During his stopover in Tunis, recently, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said he was convinced that “with more capacity” Tunisians will “have a great ability to do what is necessary” in the fight against terrorism. He announced that security cooperation will be among the main topics of discussion in the soon-to-meet “Tunisia-U.S. strategic Dialogue.”
Considering the regional ramifications of its terrorism problem, Tunisia will look for continued international security cooperation in the war on terror. Such cooperation is necessary to monitor the lurking threat beyond its borders. However, it will never replace national unity and non-partisan resolve at home.
Oussama Romdhani is a former Tunisian minister of Communication, previously in charge of his country's international image. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States, from 1981 to 1995. A recipient of the U.S. Foreign Service Distinguished Visiting Lecturer Award, he was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst. Official blog page: www.oussama-romdhani.com