Jihadism in Tunisia: A Receding Threat?

Despite a marked decline in jihadist attacks in Tunisia since 2016, the government persists with repressive and unfocused counter-terrorism measures. The Tunisian authorities should make criminal justice and security reforms to prevent an upsurge in violence.

What’s new? As the threat of jihadist violence recedes in Tunisia, some of the counter-terrorist measures put in place in 2013 are eroding social cohesion and undermining citizens’ trust in the country’s institutions.

Why does it matter? These government measures have the potential to drive up the number of jihadist attacks, and in worsening socio-economic conditions they could exacerbate crime and urban unrest.

What should be done? To restore trust and prevent an upsurge in violence, the government should introduce a new state of emergency law, amend counter-terrorism legislation and the criminal code, improve police practices and coordinate work to suppress terrorist activity.

Overview

Jihadist violence is declining in Tunisia. Since March 2016, when security forces fended off an Islamic State attack on the border town of Ben Guerdane, the Salafist-jihadist movement has been losing its appeal. Nevertheless, counter-terrorism measures the government passed in 2013 remain in force. Some of these – mainly repressive – measures are eroding social cohesion and citizens’ trust in the country’s institutions. This situation could reignite jihadist violence in Tunisia and increase crime and other forms of urban insecurity, especially if socio-economic conditions continue to worsen. In order for the counter-terrorist struggle to avert collateral damage, the government should move quickly to enact a series of criminal justice and security reforms. It should introduce a new state of emergency law, amend the anti-terrorist law and criminal code, improve police detention practices and ensure more effective coordination between counter-terrorism prevention and suppression efforts.

The number of jihadist attacks in Tunisia has dropped considerably between 2016 and 2021, largely because al-Qaeda and the Islamic State have been routed throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Several thousand Tunisians fought for jihadist groups in the Middle East or Libya between 2011 and 2016, and Tunisian citizens were responsible for four terror attacks in France and Germany between 2016 and 2021. But no large-scale jihadist movement has threatened Tunisia itself. The Salafist-jihadist ideology has faded from view in the country, including among the most vulnerable sectors of the population, who tend to identify more with gang culture than with martyrdom.

Tunisia is not entirely safe from Islamist militancy, however, partly because the counter-terrorism measures in force since 2013 could have unintended consequences. Most of the 2,200 prisoners sent to jail in connection with terrorist activity are scheduled to be released over the next three years. Many of these people have faced conditions that could be conducive to recidivism – including abuse – and the prospect of their rehabilitation is minimal. The risk is high that they will resume militant activity upon release or choose a path of crime. Moreover, the draconian administrative controls applied to many individuals outside jail in the name of counter-terrorism could also prompt some of them – who feel treated unfairly – to renew their contact with jihadist groups.

Even though jihadism is receding in Tunisia, it has far from disappeared from the African continent. In the Sahel, in particular, around 100 Tunisians belong to armed groups affiliated with al-Qaeda and the Islamic State. They could opt to take the fight to their country of origin any day.

As a priority, the government should work to limit a potential upsurge of jihadist violence and prevent the development of minor criminal activity and banditry by enacting security and criminal justice reforms. The authorities should focus on prevention instead of repression. Such measures will strengthen society and restore citizens’ trust in the country’s institutions.

The government should take several steps with these goals in mind. In terms of security, parliament should pass a new state of emergency law that has human rights guarantees. It should also amend the 2015 anti-terrorist law, particularly to shorten the maximum length of pre-trial police custody, which is when many abuses occur, and to modify the criminal code to ensure that everyone who has been arrested, without exception, has access to a lawyer during preliminary investigations. Criminal justice reforms should seek to reduce the size of the prison population, to set up personalised security and socio-psychological monitoring for inmates and former prisoners, and to increase the number of social rehabilitation and job placement programs. The government should also improve the work of various government departments to harmonise initiatives to combat terrorism and “extreme violence”, coordinated by the National Counter-Terrorism Commission.