TERRORISM AbstractThis paper discusses Tunisia’s struggles with terrorism. It faces threats both from al-Qeada and IS. Al-Qaeda has had a presence in the country for some time and seems likely to remain there. This is because it forms relationships with local terrorist organizations with nationalistic goals. IS has been gradually but steadily gaining a foothold in the country, however. It has been increasing its presence both because it has inherited experienced Libyan fighters who migrated there after they were removed from Libya and because it has been recruiting among the disaffected youth of Tunisia. These youth are being trained elsewhere and then being sent back home to Tunisia to continue its work there. To face these threats and increase its stability, Tunisia may need help from international governments and programs. It has begun to erect a barrier along its border with Libya, but this is only a partially affective first step in solving the country’s problems.

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Tunisia has been a sign of hope for those who want to see democracy spread across the Arab world. It was one of the birth places of the Arab Spring, and the one country who has managed to acquire and keep, so far, a surprisingly democratic government since the turmoil of 2011 (Diamond, 2015). But despite this success, the country is fragile in many ways, making it a ripe target for terrorist groups in the area. Al-Qaeda has made inroads into the country because it has linked with local terrorist organizations. The country’s border with Libya has also been problematic not only because as IS was kicked out of Libya some of its fighters have migrated to Tunisia, but also because IS has been recruiting among Tunisia’s disaffected youth. Both al-Qaeda and IS have taken advantage of the political and economic fragility of Tunisia to establish a foothold and recruit fighters within the country.

Tunisia has been held up as one of the successes of the Arab Spring. Its democratic government held elections there were seen as some of the most democratic within the region for some time (Diamond 2015). The newly democratic government has set itself to fighting against the terrorist groups within the region, but have not done terribly well to fight them off. After a devastating attack in 2015, the country has had to declare a state of emergency at least four times (“Tunisia: Endemic Struggle Against Terrorism” 2016). The attack gutted the tourist sector which was a major part of the country’s industry. This has contributed to the country’s economic distress. The economic trouble is highlighted by the country’s unemployment rate, which is 15% overall, and 35% among the country’s youth. While the newly formed democracy is a sign of hope for many, the country itself is struggling with economic and political fragility.

The circumstances surrounding the attack in Tunis in 2015 show not only how fragile the country’s resources are, but also part of the reason for this fragility. While one terrorist group, affiliated with IS, took responsibility for the attack, government officials remain convinced that another group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, were actually responsible (Watanabe 2017). This duality reflects much of the problems Tunisia is having with terrorism, because it shows how it has been facing militants on several fronts (“Tunisia: Endemic Struggle Against Terrorism”. 2016). Both al-Qaeda and IS have been recruiting in the area, feeding off the country’s current troubles.

As Watanabe (2017) notes, the two terrorist groups have been using different strategies to gain a foothold in Tunisia, and these different strategies may mean that the organizations meet with different rates of success. Al-Qaeda, Watanabe (2017) writes, has a bottom-up strategy. This means that it works with local terrorist groups to establish a common bond. It has been in the area for a while and has a fairly firm presence because it has been able to link itself with groups already there. Also, al-Qaeda generally works to obtain local land and territory, which also enhances its stability. IS, on the other hand, has been gradually moving into the area. Watanabe (2017) questions how long IS will be in the area because it does not use the same tactics as al-Qaeda and, for that matter, many other more “traditional” terrorist organizations (p. 142). Watanabe (2017) notes that the rise of IS has been gradual in Tunisia and may not last as long as that of al-Qaeda because of the fact that it does not try to link itself with local groups as al-Qaeda does. IF IS does not work to give itself local roots, those fighting within the region may continue to promote nationalist goals rather than the more global war IS wants to wage, and IS may find its support fading over time.

The strategies that IS has been using, however, have worked to gain it increasing numbers of fighters within Tunisia, at least for the present. One of these strategies is that it has been providing young people with an alternative to the poor economic choices and instability they receive from their own government. The organization has been taking advantage of the economic problems Tunisia is having and with the identity struggle among Tunisian youth since the Arab spring to recruit (“Tunisia: Endemic Struggle Against Terrorism”. 2016). These youths have been the primary source of new recruits for IS in Tunisia.

Another way that IS has been growing in Tunisia is through the country’s border with Libya. Libya was chosen as a base for IS activities in the region partly because IS jihadists from Libya who were already a part of the organizations activities returned home and formed and already cohesive group that could begin recruitment and expansion activities (Watanabe 2017). Also, Libya was chosen because of its geographical location. As Watanabe (2017) writes, it allowed for expansion into Algeria, Chad, Egypt, Niger, Sudan and Tunisia (p. 138). The expansion of IS into Tunisia from Libya has been so effective that Tunisia wants to create a physical barrier between itself and Libya, according to Granados, Murphey, Schaul & Faiola (2016). The border that the country has been trying to erect has been rather porous, however. In part, this is because once the IS power base was ejected from Libya, some of its members migrated into Tunisia. Also, Tunisian natives who were recruited and sent to Libya for training are returning to Tunisia to enhance activities there. The Tunisian border with Libya has been problematic both because Libyan born members of IS have found their way into the country, and because Tunisian born members who got trained in Libya have come back home. These trained members have worked to recruit Tunisian youth, gradually increasing the numbers of IS jihadists in the country.

To combat terrorism within its borders, Tunisia needs to examine the strategies both IS and al-Qaeda has been using to gain recruits and establish cells within the region, and to act accordingly. The establishment of a physical barrier between itself and Libya may be a good idea, but the country also needs to determine how it will deal with returning militants who have been trained in Libya, not to mention the number of Libyan IS members already in the country. It needs to establish an effective counter-terrorism strategy and be able to implement it. To do these things, the country may need resources it does not currently have. It will need international help both in establishing the barrier it wants to raise and in finding the money and resources to deal with the terrorist groups already in its borders (Watanabe 2017). Creating the prosperity and stability necessary to combat terrorism and reduce their attractiveness to recruits will require help from other more stable countries.

Tunisia, though it has become a symbol of how democracy can indeed be successful in the Arab world, has found itself beset by problems since the Arab spring. It is politically and economically fragile, which has made it a prime target for terrorist organizations who thrive on that instability. Al-Qaeda has worked with local terrorist groups to establish a foothold in the area, and IS has worked to recruit disaffected youth who are brought into Libya, trained, and then sent back to Tunisia to strengthen its presence in the country. Establishing a border between itself and Libya, while a good first step in decreasing IS presence, is not going to get the country far in terms of fighting terrorists within its borders without international aide. With help from less fragile countries, Tunisia can better its counter-terrorism forces and policies and work to rid itself of the multiple terrorist threats it faces.

  • Diamond. L. (2015). Still Springing Forward. Hoover Digest 3, 116-120.
  • Granados, S., Murphey, Z., Schaul. K, & Faiola, A. (2016, Oct 12). Raising Barriers: A New Age of Walls Episode 1. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/border-barriers/global-illegal-immigration-prevention/. Retrieved 2017, Nov 11.
  • “Tunisia: Endemic Struggle Against Terrorism”. (2016, July). Africa Research Bulletin: Political, Social and Cultural Series 53(6), 21052a-21052B.
  • Watanabe, L. (2017). Islamic State in North Africa: Still There, Struggling to Expand. Middle East Policy XXIV(2), 137-147.