Indications of danger and the chances of escalation
On October 29, 2018, an explosion occurred near a police checkpoint on the famous Habib Bourguiba Avenue in the center of the Tunisian capital. A woman in her thirties carried out the attack resulting in the injury of 15 policemen and 5 civilians, of which two were children, but none were killed. This was the fourth terrorist attempt in a month.
Top terrorist attacks in October 2018
Suicide bombers affiliated with the terrorist group Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, linked to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, have attacked a group of policemen in the Kasserine Governorate.
Tunisian security forces thwarted an attempt to target a police station located near the border of Algeria in the Kasserine Governorate. The Tunisian Ministry of Interior stated in a report that gunmen shot at a police station and escaped towards Samama Mountain where armed groups remain entrenched.
Also in the Kasserine Governorate, a house near Jebel Mghila was attacked and robbed by extremists.
The latest suicide attack is the 35th to be carried out against security forces and their sites in Tunisia since 2011. An earlier attack took place on July 8, 2018 where Daesh members ambushed a patrol of National Guards in Ain Soltane, located on the Tunisian-Algerian border, where eight police officers were killed. The latest incident points to the return of active terrorism to Tunisia and raises a number of questions about the various groups responsible for it. The following ‘Insight into the News’ analysis will discuss the issues related to this incident.
A significant moment and many questions
The latest incident is considered as an indicator of the return of terrorism to Tunisia for many reasons:
- The latest bombing in the capital was the seventh attack by terrorist organizations in Tunisia during 2018, and could be the most violent in the past four years. In both 2016 and 2017, only three attacks were carried out, whereas 2015 witnessed seven attacks with terrorist groups strongly asserting their presence and posing a threat to Tunisia. A noticeable example was the Bardo Museum attack on March 25, 2015, considered the worst terrorist attack in the Tunisia’s history, resulting in the death of 59 tourists and 13 police officers. Another example is the Sousse resort attack in June 2015, which targeted two hotels simultaneously and killed 39.
- The most recent attack comes in the context of multiple crises, both political and economic, and amid political disputes, whether between or within parties. The situation in 2016 was different, characterized by a period of consensus rule and national harmony and decline in terrorism.
- The significance and level of risk of the operation is reflected in its time and place. It took place in the heart of the capital, a few meters from the Ministry of Interior building, two days after a speech by Rashid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda Movement, regarding the critical political situation of the country, and less than a month after the press conference held by the defense committee of the late intellectuals Shukri Belaid and Mohamed Brahimi.
- The incident once again raises the question of why Tunisian women would participate in violent extremist organizations. Mouna Guebla, a 30-year-old woman, carried out the terrorist attack by blowing herself up. She came from Zorda, a town located in Sidi Alwan in the Mahdia Governorate, and was not on the government’s watch list nor did she have any affiliation with terrorist groups. The attack resulted in injuring 15 police officers and five civilians, including two children, but nobody was killed. This strongly raises the question, once again, about the activation of sleeper cells and the involvement of women, especially Tunisians, and their effectiveness in violent extremist groups.
800 Tunisian women joined the fighters in Syria and Iraq
According to the Tunisian Minister for Women, Samira Marei, when speaking to the Tunisian Parliament on December 4, 2015, Mouna Guebla was not alone. About 700 Tunisian women have joined extremist groups in Syria. Others believe the number is 800, some of them accompanied by children. In Libya alone around 300 Tunisian women have joined Daesh, along with an additional thousand from other nationalities.
In February 2018, security forces from the Ministries of Interior and National Guard were able to dismantle a network based in Sfax that recruited and sent Tunisian women to Daesh. It is worth noting that the age of those arrested ranged between 22 to 29 years old.
Until now, the exact number of Tunisian women who have joined Daesh is unknown. Last May, Judge Rouda Al-Obeidi, head of the Tunisian national authority against trafficking, confirmed that Tunisian women are active in terrorist attacks since they, like men, hold leadership positions in Daesh. She noted that the exact number of terrorist women is unknown, that the number of those arrested for terrorist crimes does not exceed 10, and that 40% of those that are involved in terrorism have college degrees.
6,500 Tunisian fighters joined extremist organizations and 5,000 were stopped:
There are many active terrorist groups in Tunisia, such as Jund Al-Khilafa (affiliated with Daesh), Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade (affiliated with Al-Qaeda), the Armed Islamic Group (and Katibat Al- Fatah which is affiliated with it), and Ansar Al-Sharia, in addition to some other small groups. The threat posed by terrorist groups is growing, especially with increased waves of Tunisian fighters returning from Syria and Iraq. Returnee fighters totaled around 6,500 fighters, while, in 2014 and 2015, around 5,000 others were stopped by the Tunisian government from traveling to Syria and Iraq. Those who live in the Western countries are actively planning, directing and executing terrorist attacks in their countries of residence, whereas those who have returned to their homeland are planning to target and destabilize it.
Cyberterrorism and a wide network of recruitment
As the political crisis intensifies, major alliances disintegrate and the period of reconciliation ends between the two major parties, Nidaa and Ennahda, a wide network is expanding in different areas of Tunisia, recruiting young men and women to extremist organizations. Moreover, the cyber propaganda for incitement and recruitment is becoming more active..
In relation to the latest attack in the capital, three individuals were arrested on charges of involvement. On October 29, an investigation and research unit of the National Guard in Sidi Bou Zid arrested a 24-year-old man who lived in the city. He confessed that he follows the takfiri ideology (excommunication) and communicates with members of internal and external extremist groups. In addition, he has deliberately made online posts demanding marches of millions (to protest against the government), and posted pictures on his Facebook account “that glorify terrorist organizations and Daesh and incite terrorism.”
This is how terrorism is returning and posing a great challenge to Tunisia after a relative decline in the past two years. Many factors are contributing to this against a backdrop of a major political and economic crisis, an extensive recruitment network, and cyber incitement against the government and its stability.