Terror in the Maghreb

Oussama Romdhani

Published: Updated:

Terrorist events in the Maghreb, including recent events Tunisia, are adding yet another challenge to transitional processes underway in parts of the region.

In Tunisia, the army is still in pursuit of al-Qaeda terrorists in the Kasserine and Le Kef regions, near the country’s western border. Homemade explosive devices planted by terrorists have caused the injury of 16 soldiers and guardsmen.

In Algeria, authorities continue their long war against terrorists. Just a few days ago, the army killed seven al-Qaeda elements, about 100 kilometers east of Algiers.

Earlier this week, Moroccan authorities announced the dismantling of two terrorist cells in the province of Nador. Terrorists had intended to establish a base in the mountains from where to launch their “Jihadist” activities.

In Libya, police station bombings, assassinations and other acts of violence continue unabated. After the lethal attack on the U.S. diplomatic mission in Benghazi, in September, the French embassy in Tripoli was bombed, last month, bringing international attention once more to the endemic problem of terrorism in the country.

A trans-border problem

Many of recent terrorist events have demonstrated clearly the continuing trans-border nature of the phenomenon. A lot has been said about the impact of the outflow of weapons and fighters from Libya on the de-stabilization of Mali, after the fall of Gadhafi. The real problem was (and is) with what Joshua Hammer calls “the combustible mix” in the Sahel region: Narco-trafficking, all kinds of smuggling and “jihadists bent on creating a Caliphate across the desert”.

It remains to be seen whether, today, democratic transitions and greater Maghrebi coordination could be a major game-changer in the necessary fight against terrorism.

Oussama Romdhani

There is still no consensus whether the In Eminas attack, south of Algeria, was a direct blowback from French military campaign in Mali. It remains, however, that the French-led intervention has squeezed the Jihadist elements operating in Mali, forcing them to move up north. It was only a matter of time before they crossed the desert into the Maghreb. And they did. After the bombing of the French embassy in Tripoli, Western diplomats warned that jihadist groups had “crossed the Sahara through Algeria and Niger to Libya.”

Despite Libya’s efforts at controlling its borders, traffickers and jihadists continue to trickle in through the desert, looking for a safe harbor. "If you squeeze a balloon in one part, it bulges out in another," said Bill Lawrence, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. "There's no question that the French actions in Mali had the effect of squeezing that balloon towards Algeria and Libya."

It now seems the “squeezing” led some of the jihadists to move not only to southern Algeria and the Libyan desert but also to western Tunisia. Tunisian authorities there confirmed that some of the terrorists who were busy booby-trapping the rough terrain of Mount Chambi, in the Kasserine province, had made their way from Mali. There were even news reports that a Malian fighter was caught in the area by Tunisian security forces.

Weapons and ammunition continue to trickle out of Libya. A Libyan smuggler was caught last Thursday carrying explosives into southern Tunisia.

Tunisian radicalism expert Alaya Allani believes al-Qaeda have been trying to establish a “Jihadist triangle” including Tunisia, Algeria and Libya. Vigilance by the three countries is said to have thwarted its plans. There has been greater regional counter-terrorism coordination in recent weeks, including talks held at the end of April, in Rabat, between the ministers of the interior of the five Arab Maghreb Union member-states; and recent discussions between Algeria and Egypt about counter-terrorism.

Terrorism in time of transition

Some of the events since the 2011 revolutions seem to vindicate Joseph D. Eyerman’s theory that new “non-consolidated democracies” are more likely to experience terrorism.

Proponents of this theory argue that “political systems in transition” are more vulnerable to terrorism, because of the fraying of the old security systems and the difficulties inherent in adjusting the previous security tactics and doctrines to the post-revolutionary requirements of citizens’ rights, including in particular the rights to physical integrity and protection from indiscriminate and arbitrary arrest.

The political debate over terrorism, in Tunisia’s transitional democracy, has added to the political pressures, often reflecting the continued inability to build bridges of dialogue and trust in post-revolutionary society.

Tunisian columnist Khaled Haddad writes: “What is happening in Mount Chambi is the result of a polarized climate which has subjected the security and military institutions as well as the political elite to conflicting pressures. It has also allowed terrorists to establish their havens and take advantage of our preoccupation with our political wars, mutual demonization and hatred of others.”

“Political wars” may constitute a distraction for transitional states from such a crucial battle as the one against terrorism. Contrary to what some pessimistic commentators seem to infer, there is no comparison possible between the plight of transitional states and that of the “failed states” of Mali, Somalia and parts of the Sahel. There, as pointed out by American political scientist James A. Piazza , the “failure to deliver essential political goods — security, education, economic stability, etc. — damages the legitimacy of the state and erodes the civil bases on which mainstream political behavior can thrive, propelling individuals into terrorism.” Despite all the socio-economic difficulties and security challenges they face, countries of the “central Maghreb” are not now, nor are they likely to become, “failed states”. For all its chronic security problems, Libya has the human and natural resources to achieve economic recovery and to build the state institutions that have been missing there for the last four decades. All countries of North Africa have to beware the fallouts from “state failure” in their vicinity.

A new role for security institutions

In reforming their security sector, post-revolutionary systems in the region will have to assume, however, that democracy is no panacea in the fight against terrorism. There is in fact reason to believe that fully-established democracies are more exposed to terrorism than despotic regimes. Statistical research tends to prove that terrorism plagues democracies more than authoritarian regimes. Still, even in the worst states of panic, citizens of any democracy will prefer their freedoms to the supposedly safer environments of non-democracies.

F. Gregory Gause III criticism of the Bush doctrine (according to which democracy is the best way to defeat terrorism) is a classic. “Terrorism appears to stem from factors much more specific than regime type,” he said. “al-Qaeda and like-minded groups are not fighting for democracy in the Muslim world; they are fighting to impose their vision of an Islamic state”.

The reasons for the radicalization of Muslim youth are complex. Excessive uses of military might by the West and Israel has been instrumental in further radicalizing those who were on edge. But the radicalization processes are mostly tied to inadequate social, economic cultural, political and religious policies by governments at home. Indiscriminate repression, in the past, could not make up for lack of vision in understanding the roots of the problem. Today’s electorally-legitimate regimes have greater credibility when they separate excessive (but legitimate) expression of views from unacceptable forms of extremist and violent behavior.

Discussing terrorism in freer political and media environments is bound to be more confusing than discussing the same issue in the controlled environments of previous authoritarian systems. Counter- terrorism used to be the sole prerogative of the Sovereign. The problem of terrorism was usually downplayed, very often denied. Citizens did not therefore have much of an opportunity to acquire a national security culture. In the new political and media climates, lack of experience with terrorism issues can lead to inaccuracies, hasty judgments and plain exaggerations.

But new media coverage brought home for the first time the blood and gore of fighting terrorism. Pictures of severely injured national guardsmen and army soldiers triggered a wave of sympathy for the brave young officers in the line of duty. The public mood reflected general support to the role which the security apparatus is called upon to play defending the country and its emerging democracy, against the threat of terrorism. The tragic scenes of security officers on stretchers drove the point, that security in a democratic society is not the enemy of freedom but its’ welcome guardian.

Whipped-up fear of terrorism, in transitional post Arab-Spring societies, can create a yearning for the mythical “strongman” (who summarily “rids society of the terrorists”). It is important, however, to recognize that even in the “good old authoritarian” days, there was terrorism. Serious terrorism. Strict security could not prevent an Al Qaeda terrorist, on April 11, 2002, from carrying out a suicide attack against the Jewish Synagogue of La Ghriba, on the island of Jerba, south of Tunisia. 19 people died and 30 were injured. It could not prevent more than 30 armed jihadists from clashing with the authorities, 25 miles south of the capital city Tunis, between December 2006 and January 2007. A total of 14 terrorists and 2 security officers died in the clashes. Restrictive policies, then, could only control the news coverage and limit the open discussion of the events. It could not prevent terrorism from occurring. Worse still, lack of transparency led to irreversible loss of credibility by the state and deterioration of tourist and investor confidence.

Terrorists, in the turn of the century, seemed to better understand the benefits of globalization and regional trans-border movement than the authoritarian governments in place. It remains to be seen whether, today, democratic transitions and greater Maghrebi coordination could be a major game-changer in the necessary fight against terrorism.

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. He was also a Washington DC press correspondent and Fulbright Research Scholar at Georgetown University. Romdhani is currently an international media analyst.

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