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Tunisia an Emblem of How Jihadism Has Exploited Economic and Social Difficulties

By Fabrizio Minniti

December 24, 2018

The Arab Spring presented a unique opportunity for change in the geopolitical context of North Africa, but seven years on the path to change remains uncertain. The socio-economic, structural and political internal dynamics at the base of the crisis that has hit the Middle East and North Africa are common to all the countries bordering the Mediterranean. They have long been affected by instability, due to specific local situations and the influence of a multiplicity of broader factors.

For its part, Tunisia oscillates between traditionalism and the fragility of democracy, with the impulse for change measured by innovation and closures.

The “Jasmine Revolution” of January 14, 2011 ended the 23-year rule of the authoritarian regime of President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali and sparked the spread of unrest and revolts against ruling governments in most of the Arab world. Since then, Tunisia has moved towards democracy and the recognition of political and religious freedoms, avoiding the worst chaos, violence and bloody repression seen in other countries. Yet Tunisia is the first country in the world for the number of foreign fighters who went to fight for Islamic State (IS).

Tunisia is also an important target for terrorists – serious terrorist acts occurred between 2013 and 2015, including the attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunis and at the Marhaba Hotel in Port el Kantaoui, a tourist resort on the east coast. Both attacks were claimed by Islamic State, but the Tunisian Government indicated that a cell made up of militants with ties to AQIM, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), and Katibat Uqba ibn Nafaa carried out the Bardo attack.

Since the end of the Presidency of Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, the jihadist presence in Tunisia has expanded. Up to 2012, the Salafi movements tried to grow around the Ansar al-Sharia group. Its senior leader, Abou Iyad al-Tounisi, began his proselytizing activities using every convenient means – social networks, mosques, schools, universities, and so on, in such a way as to win the sympathy of the angriest citizens and those disillusioned with the country’s new democratic course. He became increasingly aggressive, suggesting that Tunisia could become a “land of jihad”. [1]

The poor economic situation in Tunisia has been widely exploited by jihadist militants, especially in the north-west. The governorates of Kasserine and Kef have been at the center of the challenge posed by Katiba Ukba Ibn Nafaa (KUIN), affiliated to al-Qaeda, and Jund al-Khilafa (JAK), linked to Islamic State. There have been intermittent clashes in Jendouba, Sidi Bouzid and Gafsa.

These governorates are home to around 1.8 million Tunisians. Residents of these areas have limited socio-economic opportunities and limited access to education and health care. Unemployment and marginalization of the region have made the population increasingly impatient and angry. Since independence, three of the four national protest movements began in the inland of north western governorates or in those immediately south and east. The best-known example is the very 2011 uprising that overthrew Ben Ali, when police killed dozens of protesters in Kasserine. [2]

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) started operations in Tunisia shortly after the revolution. The first clashes with the security forces occurred in the Kasserine area, near the border with Algeria. The rugged terrain of Mount Chaambi, in a mountain range extending from the Algerian border to the city of Kasserine, helped AQIM militants to hide. Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi was born here, with local support and dozens of fighters.

AQIM achieved a breakthrough in the Sahel with the formation of Jamaat Nusrat al-Islam wal-Mulimin (JNIM). The group included the Emirate of the Sahara of AQIM, Harakat Ansar al-Din, al-Murabitoun and the Front de Libération du Macina (FLM). [3]

Ansar al-Din leader Iyad Ag Ghali promised loyalty to al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel. From this point, most of the AQIM activity in the Sahel was conducted under the auspices of JNIM. However, sporadic attacks were carried out by its Tunisian affiliate, KUIN, such as an IED attack that killed one soldier and injured six others in the Mount Chaambi area. [4]

KUIN has a structure designed to make it resilient to any losses. The basic unit of KUIN is the serrya, a term that refers to a company in Arabic. Each serrya is formed by 15 men, multiple serrya form a battalion with 50 to 80 mujahidin. In Tunisia, serryas were active in Jebel el-Chaambi and El Kef.

KUIN has Algerian and Tunisian members and connects Ansar al-Sharia directly to Tunisia with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. [5]

Tunisian Foreign Fighters

After the Tunisian revolution, political prisoners and terrorists were freed with the amnesty of the Transitional Government. The new civil liberties then allowed subversive groups to preach jihad and recruit with greater freedom.

Among the individuals released was Sayf Allah bin Hussayn, aka Abu Iyyadh al-Tunis, who is responsible for what was called the founding conference of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) in April 2011. [6] AST numbers swelled from a few hundred to thousands by 2012 in Kairouan. In 2013, there were clashes when the police decided to stop AST’s advance.

From the beginning, AST called the mujahidin to jihad in a foreign land, preaching martyrdom in Iraq and Syria . In fact, a large number of Tunisian citizens – some say around 6,000 – joined the ranks of IS in Iraq, Syria and Libya. [7] It is thought that several hundred have since returned to the country. [8] The strategy is clearly to disperse the militants from strongholds to the countries where they want to bring the jihad. Many cells are in contact with AQIM and IS and are present in urban and suburban areas. In addition, the jihadists of Oqba Ibn Nafaa still operate in mountainous and forest areas near the Algerian border. [9]

AST openly confirms that it sees itself in the Salafist ideological camp of jihadist groups such as al-Qaeda. As noted by Monica Marks in her contribution Youth Politics and Tunisian Salafism: Understanding the Jihadi Current, in Tunisia there are three main Salafi lines of thought:

1. Salafiyya ‘almiyya (or scientific Salafism) – for this group, democracy is a temptation, but followers decide to avoid it;

2. Political Salafism – despite the faults of political life, this group believes that politics is the way to reach a form of government and democracy based on sharia law;

3. Salafi jihadism – this group rejects participation in politics and supports more militant positions of violence and revolution. [10]

AST is in the third group and fully committed to jihad in pursuit of power and respect. [11]

AST started proselytizing in mosques – already in 2013 the group controlled between 100 and 500 of the 5,000 mosques in the country – and in schools, with tents set up outside the institutes. [12] It is interesting to note that some mosques where recruitment and proselytism were carried out were close to the Algerian border, in Kasserine. [13]

According to a Reuters special report on the attack at the Bardo Museum, the perpetrators had been radicalized in Salafi mosques and the younger of the two, the twenty-one year old Jabeur Khachnaoui, had initially been exposed to radical messages via a preaching tent outside his school. [14]

Following the designation of AST as a terrorist organization by the Tunisian government, most of the jihadists joined Islamic State in Syria, Iraq and Libya. The flow was so important and consistent that Seif Allah Ibn Hussein, one of the leaders of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia opposed it, saying that the war in Syria had emptied Tunisia of the young Salafists that the organization needed. [15]

According to estimates by the Soufan Group [16] altogether as many as 6,000 Tunisians travelled to Syria to fight the Assad government alongside Islamic State. The Tunisian government has prevented thousands more Tunisians from traveling abroad, even placing restrictions on young people under 35. [17]

According to the Soufan Group report on foreign fighters, some Tunisian mujahidin, including the perpetrators of the Bardo Museum attack, were trained in Libya in Islamic State camps and many of them went on to fight in Syria. In particular, Ben Gardane, located in the south-east of Tunisia near the Libyan border, is known for having “exported” the largest number of fighters, although the town has a population of only a few thousand people. Inside Ben Gardane, it is believed that there were dozens of IS cells and arms trafficking operations to Libya. In addition, Tunisians coming back from jihad in Syria have clandestinely returned to their country through Libya. [18]

The security policies of former President Ben Ali have had certain consequences when it comes to recruiting and proselytizing activities within the country. Ben Ali arrested thousands of people, making little distinction between Salafi-inspired jihadists and political opponents. Young people arrested for no reason because of anti-terrorist regulations, limitation of religious freedom, and violent approaches by law enforcement agencies have boosted the jihadist cause.

In response to the growing terrorist challenge on the ground, the Tunisian Parliament adopted a series of measures aimed at reintroducing the authoritarian legislation of 2003. The legislation included the return of the death penalty for terrorist acts, despite a moratorium that Tunisia has observed since 1991. The major criticisms focus on the failure to comply with the standards of international law, in particular by providing a broad definition of terrorism, as well as the much more permissive detention policy, police violence, and violations of human rights. Taken together, these factors will only stoke the fires of extremism and radicalization. Facing the terrorist threat while maintaining democratic freedoms remains the biggest challenge.

More generally, political uncertainty, socio-economic vulnerability and the transition to a shaky democracy has only increased the internal jihadist threat to the country. The Salafist narrative has become a normal language, aimed at expressing social frustrations and the problems of young people, who increasingly choose the path of radicalization.

The current coalition government remains susceptible to tensions and a lack of reformists. The municipal elections of May 2018 saw a low turnout – below 40% – reflecting the disillusionment of Tunisian citizens.

In addition, the continuous strikes and protests about the economic situation affect investors and the important tourism sector.

The growing fear is that Tunisia is close to seeing reactions similar to those in neighboring countries. According to a 2018 Freedom House report [19], journalists in Tunisia have been tried in military courts and democratic institutions and norms are not strengthened. The formation of a government of national unity has led to little opposition, helping to alienate Tunisians from the democratic process. In addition, the influence of the old regime has come back strongly – in September the Parliament approved the controversial “reconciliation bill”, with an amnesty for those involved in serious crimes committed under the regime of President Ben Ali.

The state of emergency, issued after the 2015 attacks, is another factor. It has been renewed, giving the police extensive powers of arrest and detention in the event of a threat to internal security. The extension is a sign of the corrosion of democratic order in Tunisia. [20] For the government, though, the state of emergency is a way to legitimize limiting freedoms and violations of human rights in the fight against terrorism.

To be effective, the state response cannot be limited to security measures. It should also take into account the strategy of jihadist groups, which continue to exploit the growing sense of injustice among citizens. Hatred of the police spreads in some segments of the population during periods of intense security clashes.

All this, together with endemic corruption and ever more difficult economic challenges, makes for serious obstacles to consolidating the most basic democratic norms.

Unemployment remains very high – it stood at 15.5% in 2017. Graduates have the highest unemployment rate, rising from 15% in 2005 to 23% in 2010 and 31% in 2017. Unemployment rates are also much higher among women.

Regional disparities are at work as well. The coastal zones are more developed than internal areas. Youth unemployment is especially evident in the central regions, where it reaches a rate of 35/40%. These are areas where the process of radicalization of young Tunisians is more evident and fueled by limited access to infrastructure and basic social and health services, including education.

Important as economic issues are, it is worth noting that radicalization can be the result of an accumulation of experiences that lead to violence, or strongly ideological contacts and friendships that act as accelerating factors. The complexity of the radicalization process is undoubted. [21]

It is also important to keep in mind how many Tunisians became radicalized in the recent past, including simple political opponents and others who did not follow the Salafist ideology but become radicalized in prison. Furthermore, once there was a suspected terrorist in a family, the other family members could also be detained. This has created a sense of injustice, disappointment and disillusionment among some young Tunisians, who have become the worst enemies of Tunisia itself. There are also individuals who began to spread jihadist / Salafist ideology after being released from prison under the amnesty of the Transitional Government of 2011.

The priorities of the national unity government are strengthening the security environment, improving the business environment, macroeconomic stability, fiscal sustainability and resuming growth. Yet pressures from the International Monetary Fund to reduce public spending could worsen the situation of many Tunisians, at least in the short term. The increase in inflation and other problems that caused the revolution, particularly corruption, have not been resolved, so social tensions could be rekindled.

Young people in particular have poor prospects and see only small improvements in their daily lives at best. In sum, the situation compared to the beginning of the Arab spring is certainly worse. At that time there was hope that new political horizons could improve the lives of Tunisians. Now the desire for progress has given way to discouragement and disillusionment.

The country is therefore an emblem of how Jihadism has exploited economic and social difficulties. Tunisia’s biggest challenge is undoubtedly stemming youth intolerance and addressing the serious social imbalances that emerged in the country after the 2000s.



[3] Tunisia: Violence and the Salafi Challenge.

[4] Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM): An Al-Qaeda Affiliate Case Study.

[5] Tunisia’s Security Concerns.

[6] Security Council ISIL (Da’esh) and Al-Qaida Sanctions Committee Amends One Entry on Its Sanctions List

[7] Know Your Ansar al-Sharia.

[8] The Caliphate’s Global Workforce: An Inside Look at the Islamic State’s Foreign Fighter Paper Trail.


[10] Monica Marks – Youth Politics and Tunisian Salafism: Understanding the Jihadi Current.

[11] The Politics of “Quietist” Salafism. Analysis-Paper_Jacob-Olidort-Inside_Final_Web.pdf and Q. Wiktorowicz, “Anatomy of the Salafi Movement,” Studies in Conflict and Terrorism.

[12] Tunisia: Signs of Domestic Radicalization Post-Revolution.


[14] Special Report: The middle-class Islamists behind Tunisia’s museum attack. Tunisia museum attack kills at least 19; three suspects sought. and

[15] Abu Iyadh: Tunisia needs its Jihadists more than Mali, Syria.

[16] FOREIGN FIGHTERS: An Updated Assessment of the Flow of Foreign Fighters into Syria and Iraq.

[17] Fighters Continue to Flock to Syria and Iraq.

[18] The Next Steps of North Africa’s Foreign Fighters.


[20] Tunisie: L’état d’urgence prolongé de 3 mois

[21] Tunisia’s Fragile Democratic Transition: