ICG: Jihadist Violence in Tunisia – the urgent need for a national strategy

By International Crisis Group 23 June 2016

Tunisia faces a jihadist threat that arises as much from its own national territory as from neighbouring Libya. Overview by INTERNATIONAL CRISIS GROUP.

First published by International Crisis Group

To confront this threat, the authorities must urgently publish a counterterrorism strategy that adopts a multidimensional approach, prioritising prevention and including a mechanism for wide consultation. This would enable a coordinated response and help build broader national consensus around it. The priority is to overcome the mostly institutional and bureaucratic obstacles that have delayed the launch of a strategy since a new constitution was adopted in January 2014. Publishing and implementing a strategy against jihadist violence, which could destabilise the country and encourage an authoritarian drift, will mean revitalising public governance. Failing to respond coherently would allow some of the most vulnerable segments of Tunisian society to continue to radicalise, a primary goal of jihadist groups.

Jihadist violence in Tunisia has expanded and diversified since the 2010-2011 uprising against the regime of then President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. While the government is determined to tackle this security challenge, it has yet to implement a multidimensional strategy that would enable it to address the root causes of violence thereby preventing it and appropriately increase the capacity of security forces to anticipate the threat, react quickly and coordinate and adapt their responses. Releasing a national strategy would clarify the requirements and priorities for a fight of this kind, and would enable a public debate, encouraging popular buy-in and thus pre-empting resistance to its application. It would also improve security collaboration between Tunisia and its regional and international partners, which are keen to see their financial and technical support integrated into a clear strategic vision.

Political actors agree more or less on the strategic direction needed to tackle the problem, despite some divergence on the level of control over spaces of religious teaching and the balance between prevention and repression. The main problem is that the government has not yet published or implemented a responsive strategy – one whose operational components can evolve to become more effective. The context is unfavourable: Tunisia’s security challenges are urgent and tend to provoke a repressive response; coordination between the heads of state and government is poor; numerous administrative obstacles remain between and within ministries; and the multiple ad-hoc counter-terrorism commissions often underperform and even fragment policymaking.

Two strategic documents were prepared in 2014 and 2015, but never published. These should now serve as a base for the drafting and dissemination of a new text that should reflect a deep understanding of jihadist groups. Two elements will be essential for its success: better co-operation between public institutions and a mechanism for evaluating the strategy’s effectiveness with a view to making the necessary adjustments.

The agency best placed to produce this type of document in coordination with the relevant ministries is the new National Counterterrorism Commission, established on 22 March 2016, which brings together various parts of the government, including from the security sector. It could also put in place a mechanism for consultation across a broad spectrum of political and civil society actors.

As a first step, to give new impetus to the finalisation and dissemination of this strategy, the head of state and the head of government should agree on their respective roles in the security sector. Second, the head of government should strengthen its inter-agency coordination mechanisms, in particular the National Counterterrorism Commission and the Security Management Follow-up Cell, and create the position of high commissioner for counterterrorism, who should be given the status of minister without portfolio. His task would be to improve co-ordination between the two heads of the executive, the relevant ministries, other government agencies (both inside and outside the security sector) and the various ad hoc counter-terrorism commissions. The high commissioner should have the appropriate profile and status to be able to support the National Counterterrorism Commission in the analytical aspects of its work, namely the completion of the strategy, and help revitalise public governance.

To finalise a multidimensional strategy emphasising prevention and based on a solid understanding of jihadist groups, and to ensure its effective application:

  • The National Counterterrorism Commission should draw on the two previous strategic documents to complete a new text, ensuring the active participation of all ministries and government agencies.
  • The commission should present a public version of this new text and put in place a participatory evaluation mechanism that would allow consultation with a broad range of political and civil-society groups representing Tunisia’s many political and regional sensibilities, specifically those of border regions most affected by violent groups. Their perspectives should be taken into consideration to enable the adaptation of the document’s operational elements in response to an evolving threat.
  • The head of State should take charge of publicising the strategy’s guiding principles and encourage a process of public consultation.

To revitalise governance mechanisms and improve inter-agency coordination to enable the implementation of the strategy:

  • The heads of State and government should define their respective roles in the security sector, without necessitating a change in the constitution.
  • The head of government should strengthen its inter-agency coordination mechanisms, in particular the National Counter-terrorism Commission and the Security Management Follow-up Cell, in order to overcome the bureaucratic resistance and cronyism that are weakening the chain of command within each ministry, especially the interior ministry.
  • The head of government should appoint a high commissioner for counter-terrorism, with the status of minister without portfolio, who is politically independent and has the relevant legal expertise and experience in security management. This person should be tasked with supporting the National Counterterrorism Commission and improving coordination between the heads of state and government, as well as between different ministries, government agencies and ad hoc bureaucratic structures involved in counter-terrorism policy both inside and outside the security sector. DM

Photo: Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui speaks during the 34th session of the Arab Maghreb Union (UMA) Foreign Affairs Council in Tunis, Tunisia, 05 May 2016. EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA.


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