North Africa: Beyond Jihadist Radicalization

Tunisians were holding their breath as the country got ready for its first legislative elections since the Arab Spring revolution. Jihadists threatened to derail the electoral process. Three days before the October 26th vote, security forces disrupted a terrorist plot in the south. A day later, they struck a jihadist hideout near Tunis, the capital; six suspected terrorists, including five women, and one security officer were killed in the clashes.

The bloody showdown shocked Tunisians, reminding them that terrorists were still at the gates and making them think twice about the Islamist candidates blamed by secularists during the campaign for creating a “lax climate” that encouraged the jihadist threat. Indeed, continuing fears of terrorism helped quash the electoral hopes of Ennahda, the Islamist-leaning party that had dominated the country’s politics after 2011. Its “modernist” nemesis, Nidaa Tounes, won with a surprising lead.

As a result of the vote, Tunisia is entering a promising phase of its democratic transition. But jihadism is still a problem, and if anything, it is threatening the advances of democracy. In 2014, no fewer than nine thousand young Tunisians, men and women, were prevented by border authorities from traveling to Syria in pursuit of “jihad,” according to Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou. Last April, the number of Tunisians fighting in Syria was about three thousand, according to the Soufan Group, a New York–based global security consultancy. In October, Mohamed Ali Laroui, spokesman for Tunisia’s Interior Ministry, said the number had probably grown to more than four thousand.

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Tunisia surprised the pessimists, just as Egypt devastated the optimists. Syria is on its way to becoming another Afghanistan, while Morocco holds some hope for slow reform.

Although their accuracy could be questioned, figures published by the Islamic State show that of the twenty-six attacks the group conducted in the Iraqi province of Diyala between September 2012 and March 2014, ten involved suicide bombers from Tunisia.

Terrorist acts during the last couple of years have taken the lives of many Tunisian soldiers and security officers at home as well. Politicians were also among the casualties. Indeed, in 2013, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi, two leftist leaders, were executed by terrorist hit squads. One of the most serious terrorist attacks in Tunisian history came on July 16, 2014, when the terrorist group known as the Uqba Ibn Nafaa Brigade ambushed and killed fifteen soldiers in the Chaambi Mountains.


For the two years after the Arab Spring, which ousted President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the security situation in Tunisia deteriorated disastrously for a number of reasons: the pardoning in February 2011 of hundreds of dangerous terrorists (including Afghanistan veteran Saifallah Ben Hassine, a.k.a. Abu Iyadh), the weakening of security agencies, and the complacent belief by Islamist leaders in particular that Salafist radicals could be coopted into the political mainstream. By the end of 2012, jihadist formations were “euphoric,” recalls Hedi Yahmed, a Tunisian writer and expert on radical Islam. The permissive climate in the country convinced the leadership of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, also known as AST, that it could make the transition from Da’wa (predication) to “jihad” inside Tunisia. Their membership was estimated in 2012 at about ten thousand and they could move around freely between Tunisia, Libya, Turkey, and elsewhere. Tunisian authorities at the time stood by passively as fighters were being trained and dispatched to Syria. Smuggled weapons included AK-47 assault rifles, hand grenades, and RPGs. According to a UN panel, there were “transfers of Libyan MANPADs and other short-range surface-to-air missiles” to Tunisia as well.

“After 2012, jihadists wanted to implement a Libyan-type series of assassinations in Tunisia, but the reaction of the political class after the first two assassinations was vehement,” says Yahmed, referring to the mass demonstrations that followed the Belaid and Brahmi murders. The magnitude of protests was a wakeup call for authorities, who aggressively investigated the assassinations.

The fate of Libya was, and is, a chilling omen for Tunisians. There, hundreds of former army and security officers, as well as reporters, judges, and political activists, have been killed since 2011. These murders remain “unclaimed and unpunished,” according to a September 2014 report by Human Rights Watch that also cited “at least two hundred and fifty politically motivated assassinations carried out in the cities of Benghazi and Derna, in the eastern part of Libya, in 2014 alone.”


Jihadists have taken advantage of the fraying of state institutions in all Arab Spring countries, including Tunisia. But even other North African countries such as Algeria and Morocco, which were spared the effects of revolutionary turmoil, have grappled with an uptick in terrorist activity. Morocco’s intelligence chief, Yassine Mansouri, disclosed in October 2014, for instance, that there are more than twelve hundred Moroccans fighting with the jihadists in Syria and Iraq.

Well before the 2011 revolutions, the “Sinjar documents” seized in 2007 by US troops in Iraq showed that the largest percentage of foreign fighters there, aside from the Saudis, were from North Africa. Tunisians constituted a surprising five and a half percent of the fighters of al-Qaeda in Iraq, alongside Yemenis (eight percent), Algerians (seven percent), and Moroccans (six percent).

For decades, the jihadist phenomenon has “expressed” itself inside Maghreb countries—the result of a complex process of radicalization caused by the dissemination of radical Salafist narratives via mosques, prisons, and the Internet; the exploitation of human misery by wealthy fanatics; destructively incoherent Western policy in the region; and other factors.

North African youth have undertaken not just acts of terror, but other extreme forms of behavior, such as acts of self-immolation and desperate attempts at illegal emigration across the Mediterranean aboard rickety boats. Their poverty and sense of marginalization have made them easy prey for jihadist recruiters. Indeed, Interior Minister Jeddou pointed out in September that al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) cells have been discovered in the country’s western provinces of Kasserine, Le Kef, and Jendouba, near the Algerian border, among the poorest and least developed parts of the country.

Tunisia and other Maghreb countries that have seen vague promise as a result of the Arab Spring are still unable to create sufficient jobs for their young people, especially university graduates. In Tunisia, official unemployment figures stand at above fifteen percent for the general population and at more than thirty percent for university-educated youth. The rate of graduate unemployment in Sidi Bouzid, often described as “the birthplace of the Tunisian revolution,” rose from forty-one percent to fifty-seven percent between 2010 and 2013.

In a recent sociological study about Moroccan youth, Boston University sociologist M. Chloe Mulderig explained that “the most basic of societal contracts—that children will one day grow up, begin to contribute productively to society, and then raise families of their own—has been broken for an entire generation of youth in the Arab world trapped in a liminal period often referred to as ‘waithood.’”


Most if not all Maghreb countries look at each other as sources of potential threats, as a result of the long porous borders they share. But for security planners throughout North Africa, Libya stands out as the greatest source of concern. “The greatest danger for us in the foreseeable future is in Libya,” says Yahmed, the political analyst. “As long as there is a state of anarchy in Libya, there is going to be a sword above our heads.”

Tunisian security experts believe that Libya serves as a training ground for the AST jihadists. By the end of 2012, Mohamed al-Aouadi, the “emir” of the group’s military wing, was said to have dispatched some one hundred Tunisians for terror training in Libya. Their ultimate destination was supposed to be Syria. It was not always so. On October 30, 2013, eighteen-year-old Aymen Saadi was caught trying to blow up the Habib Bourguiba Mausoleum in the coastal city of Monastir. He had received training near Benghazi, theoretically for jihad in Syria, but he ended up in Tunisia wearing an explosive belt at the entrance to a monument dedicated to Tunisia’s first president and independence hero.

Today, Tunisian terrorists, some of them carrying Libyan passports, train and fight along with members of Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia. Analysts expect many of the hundreds of jihadists currently in Syria and Iraq to eventually flock to Libya (and perhaps from there to try to re-enter Tunisia) if the US-backed military campaign against the Islamic State intensifies.

Another source of concern for Tunisian authorities is the presence of approximately 1.5 million Libyans in Tunisia (the exact figure is not known). Including a variety of political hues, the Libyan expatriate community has so far refrained from antagonizing its Tunisian hosts. But in a working paper published by the Small Arms Survey as part of its Security Assessment in North Africa project, analyst Moncef Kartas warns that “the presence of a significant number of refugees in Tunisia—including many former Qaddafi loyalists—puts Tunisia at risk of being drawn into the continuing tribal conflicts in Libya.”


For the overwhelming majority of Tunisians, acts of terror by the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, are rumors of terror from faraway lands, although videos of beheaded Westerners have provoked strong sentiments of revulsion and abhorrence. Any opinion poll in the Maghreb will undoubtedly show that support for ISIS is a sub-fringe phenomenon. The percentage of people condoning ISIS acts of terror will be most certainly below the very minuscule level of support given to them by public opinion elsewhere in the Middle East. (Three polls commissioned by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and conducted in September 2014 show that “ISIS has almost no popular support in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Lebanon—even among Sunnis.”)

Political experts in Tunisia for the most part perceive ISIS as a dangerous but alien phenomenon. Analyst Aboussaoud Hmidi believes that “despite the dismantling of the national state in Libya and the fraying of public institutions in Tunisia and the heavy fallouts of the ’90s decade in Algeria,” ISIS won’t find in North Africa the more hospitable environment or the institutional vacuum that it can in parts of the Levant.

In the overwhelmingly Sunni societies of North Africa, there is no real legacy of sectarian strife or persecution. The overwhelming majority is Sunni Muslim. The only differences within societies, especially in Morocco and Algeria, are ethnic and not sectarian. Moreover, jihadi groups do not have the ideological predisposition to take sides in conflicts between Arabs and Berbers, or other ethnic groups.

Still, the prospect of seeing ISIS seep into North Africa remains a source of concern. For Tunisia, the threat will be linked to the possible return home of ISIS volunteers from foreign wars in Iraq and Syria. According to Interior Minister Jeddou, as of September 2014 there were about twenty-five hundred Tunisians fighting in the ranks of ISIS, a small number of whom, he claimed, have returned home and are being prosecuted.

But for now, Tunisian security officials describe ISIS presence in the country as purely “ideological”—seen only in the occasional graffiti on the walls of private homes. No arrests of ISIS cell members have been made. When the Uqba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, the most active jihadist group on Tunisian soil, announced its “support” for ISIS in September, senior Tunisian security officials dismissed the possibility of such a shift, citing the much stronger “strategic link” the group had with AQIM, which provides the “brigade” most of its logistical support.

There have been many recent reports of “infighting” within AQIM regarding its posture toward ISIS, but leader Abdelmalek Droukdel has remained loyal to al-Qaeda central. According to the SITE Intelligence Group, AQIM has formally reaffirmed its “allegiance to our sheikh and emir Ayman al-Zawahiri. This is a sharia-based bay’ah [oath], which we are committed to, and we haven’t seen anything that would make us revoke it.”

Still, whether under the flag of ISIS, or of Ansar al-Sharia, or of al-Qaeda, jihadists based in Libya could constitute a real danger for Tunisian security and the rest of the region. According to Algerian academic Mohamed Baghdad, the Libyan crisis could “be a decisive factor in redrawing the map of the Maghreb region as a whole.”

Contemplating worst-case scenarios, a retired Algerian army officer was quoted in a paper put out by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy as saying, “Any army in the world would be stupid not to confront a serious threat emanating from beyond its borders.” He added: “If Libya, and then Tunisia, fall into the hands of ‘takfiris,’ it would mean that Algeria has turned into an open battlefield; if Algeria does not rush to save Tunisia and Libya, that would be disastrous for its national security.”

Jihadism, whether ISIS-related or not, will not be addressed without a sober strategy for regional and international cooperation. The first line of cooperation will have to be between North African countries themselves. Inside the Maghreb, residual suspicion between Morocco and Algeria over the Western Sahara, in particular, still inhibits full-fledged security cooperation. But North African neighbors have no choice but to overcome such antagonisms if they are to build a wall against terror. In the past, they might have looked to Europe for help. But the Europeans have their own returning jihadists—not to mention economic difficulties—to worry about, and are unlikely to have the inclination to discuss “a new strategy for the development of countries south of the Mediterranean copied on the model of new EU member countries,” as Tunisian international analyst Hatem Ben Salem advocates.


Even if experts, such as Nasr ben Sultana, the founder of the Tunis-based Global Security Center, bemoan “the inability of the national Constituent Assembly to vote an anti-terrorism bill” and the “lack of clear anti-terrorist strategies” in the country, there are signs that Tunisia’s anti-terrorism effort is starting to yield results.

Hedi Yahmed, an expert in jihadi groups, believes AST, Ansar al-Sharia’s affiliate in Tunisia, has “overplayed its hand, as it ill-estimated the capacity of society to reject it and failed to take into consideration the ability of the security apparatus to bounce back.”

After suffering blows in 2011 and 2012, the security establishment was able to regroup. The “state security directorate” was replaced by two new units specializing in the investigation of terrorist crimes, one affiliated with the police and the other with the National Guard. Since the new “technocratic” government led by Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa came into office in early 2013, anti-terrorism operations have been more vigorous and effective. Mohamed Ali Laroui, the Interior Ministry spokesman, says he is confident in the ability of the security forces to counter the terrorist danger because of “reforms introduced at the level of organization, training, equipment and security doctrine.” The Tunisian Armed Forces, traumatized by the bloody ambush of July 2014, have also have been trying to adjust, reassessing their operations and working to upgrade their ability to respond to crises. They are also looking to the country’s partners, including the United States, for assistance in the financing of arms acquisitions, at a time of transition when Tunisia’s limited budget resources are not sufficient to address the many challenges at hand.

As Yahmed points out, “In the final analysis, saving Tunisia’s democratic experiment could be determined by the level of international support received by Tunisia in matters of security.”

Oussama Romdhani is a former member of the Tunisian government. He served as a Tunisian diplomat to the United States from 1981 to 1995 and is currently an international media analyst.

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