Tunisia as a Jihadist powder keg: three lessons from the attack at Bardo Museum

The terrorist attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunis, last March 15th, testifies that jihadist violence is back to shake the state symbol of the Arab revolutions by increasing the tension level of the North African geopolitical explosive powder keg. In the attack, 24 people were killed and over 50 were injured. The real target of the terrorist attack was the Tunisian Parliament, located just a few meters from the Bardo Museum.

In this place, Mohammed Salah ben Aissa, Minister of Justice, was addressing the Parliament about the new legislation to combat terrorism. Rejected by the Tunisian security forces, who blocked the entrance to the Assembly of the People, the terrorists decided to enter the Bardo museum of mosaics which is located in the building next door. Two terrorists had been killed during the raid of the Tunisian security forces: Jabeur Khachnaoui, a native of the city of Kasserine, and Yassine Laabidi. Their action was supported by 2-3 other individuals who fled away.

Following the attack, Tunisia has intensified its investigative action to dismantle the jihadi groups involved in the massacre of Tunis. In early April, the Tunisian security forces have dismantled two terrorist cells composed of 46 individuals charged “of being accomplices in the terrorist incident (the Bardo attack) through providing weapons and logistics help”. The responsible for the attack is still not clear. On one hand, the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack; on the other, Tunisian security forces believe that many fighters – among those arrested – belong to the local terrorist group, Okba Ibn Nafaa, “that has been mostly based in the Chaambi mountains bordering Algeria”.

Moreover, in late March, nine militants linked to the Okba brigade were killed in a raid by the Tunisian special forces who were operating in the southern regions of the country, including the Algerian military commander Khaled Chaib, also known as Lokman Abu Sakhr. The attack at the Bardo Museum provides three major geopolitical lessons: a) Tunisia has a key-role in the recruitment of foreign fighters for the Islamic State; b) North Africa is a single pressure area: every state’s political situation has a domino effect on others; c) The Tunisian Revolution’s heritage is more likely a Mediterranean Autumn than an Arab Spring. Addressing these three lessons is the purpose of this article.

First lesson: Tunisia has a key-role in the recruitment of foreign fighters for the Islamic State

According to the words of the Reuters journalist Tarek Amara, “the Bardo attack has underscored how Islamist militant loyalties are shifting as they seek a new North African front, especially in Libya, where political chaos and factional fighting has allowed Islamic State to gain an outpost”. Tunisia is the country that provides the largest number of foreign fighters who fight in the ranks of the Islamic State. The number of fighters that depart from Tunisia comes close to three thousand units. How is it possible that the country that gave birth to the Arab Springs is subject to such a considerable jihadist radicalization process? There is a set of possible answers that commentators have offered to explain this situation.

The first explanation insists on the perverse effect created by the freedom of the press and cultural movement that followed the Arab Springs. Practically, “[i]n the immediate aftermath of the Arab Spring in 2011, the newly-found freedoms in countries such as Tunisia, Egypt and Libya allowed Islamists and jihadis alike to openly promote their ideologies”. The greater freedom of expression in the country has allowed the spread of pamphlets, public conferences and debates, public viewing and sharing online video recordings, the sermons of radical clerics in schools and mosques and the presence of radical media conducive to the spread of a particularly violent jihadist narrative. The Syrian conflict, forge of propaganda images of extreme violence, “help galvanize the recruitment process”.

The second explanation, more technical, refers to the peculiar nature of violent jihadism in Tunisia, intrinsically connected with the presence of foreign fighters. Indeed, the emergence of al-Qaeda-jihadism in Tunisia dates back to 2000 when Seifallah ben Hassine and Tarek Maaroufi created the Tunisian Combatant Group (Tunisian Combatant Group-GCT). The purpose of this franchise of al-Qaeda was “to organize the recruitment of volunteers to train them in the camps of al-Qaida in Afghanistan”. It is also thought that the GCT has always provided logistical support to the activities of AQIM (Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb) on the Algerian border. The GCT has also had a European spreading, which especially occurred when the fighters returned to Europe from Afghanistan. Cells have spread in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy, UK and the Netherlands, many of which were then dismantled with a series of arrests and security actions. The arrest of several leaders of the group had practically destroyed its structure. Following the 2010-’11 Tunisian revolution and the subsequent release from prison of many individuals belonging to the GCT, jihadist Salafism is threating again Tunisia. The group has organized itself under the name of Ansar al-Shari ‘a (AST). Next to the group-mother, is well documented the presence of a “shadow group” that is called Katibat Uqbah ibn Nafi, responsible for violent acts committed on the territory of Jebel el-Chaambi and affiliated to AQIM and AST.

Second lesson. North Africa is a single pressure area: every State has a domino effect on others

A useful way to describe the geopolitical situation of North African states is to define this territory as a pressure area. The geopolitical analyst Ivan Ureta suggests this theoretical expedient. It consists on defining areas of pressure “those peripheral areas to the arc of tension that could contribute to the increase of regional instability”, where arc of tension refers to those peculiar political-strategic theaters that present a highly risk of instability for the entire regional balance, determined by the weakness of the institutional along with a huge population unrest.

In the case of North Africa, Libya, Mauritania, Mali, Chad, Sudan and Tunisia, all are areas of pressure while the states of the Sahel-Saharan strip are part of the arc of tension. The unique geopolitical situation of North African states creates a situation of systemic and endemic instability. An example of that is the Tunisian border with Libya which is porous and characterized by a weak institutional presence. Indeed, according to the words of Khawla al Achi on Al-Monitor, “[t]he lack of security control over the Tunisian-Libyan border is considered one of the most prominent weaknesses of the security authorities in Tunisia. In addition to the region of Libya bordering Tunisia transforming into a hotbed for terrorist groups and their training camps, the increase in the smuggling of goods between the two countries and the inability of the security forces to control it has contributed to a sharp increase in supplying terrorists in Tunisia with supplies and weapons”. The porosity of the borders of North African states, together with their internal political chaos, is the most worrying geopolitical-keys of the entire regional area.

Third lesson. The Tunisian Revolution’s heritage is more likely a Mediterranean Autumn than an Arab Spring

The geopolitical analysis of the Arab revolutions and the dynamics that have governed its strategic conduct are numerous among international politics scholars. Although an academic agreement has been reached in technical and strategic-revolutionary terms, scholars remain extremely divided on the overall assessment of the inheritance contained in the revolutionary events of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya. What to the Arab revolutions represent? There are two lines of the debate:

a) the Arab revolutions are at the origin of the genesis of a more worrying Mediterranean Autumn;

b) the Arab revolutions are the basis of an Arab Spring, the bearer of a breath of freedom and ultimate fate of a process of emancipation started from the bottom that has lasted decades.

The most authoritative Italian exponent of the first pole of the debate is Professor Lucio Caracciolo, editor of Limes. For Caracciolo, “[i]n the Arab world springs are short, if ever bloom” and the events of Tunisia, Egypt and Libya are indicative of the fact that “instead of an Arab Spring – the abusive term imposed by the ‘global’ media to uprisings in the South front – we live a Mediterranean early autumn” . This occurs because “removed the tyrants of Tunisia and Egypt, the aspirations to freedom and democracy are frustrated by the reaction of the traditional powers, military head”.

The size of this geopolitical drama resulted from Mediterranean Autumn can be understood only if we evaluate the Mediterranean world as a whole reality. North Africa opened the Channel of Sicily to large-scale migrations that often mean humanitarian tragedies, the management of which, more than problematic, divides the European Union. Continuing on the strategic plan of the wider Mediterranean, the geopolitical design is even more dramatic. In fact, the situation that goes from the Levant to the Arabian Peninsula (including Israel), from Syria to Yemen to Bahrain, “rather than to carve a future of progress” puts in front of the “civil war or chronic instability”. The geopolitical result is “a band of crisis almost uninterrupted, from North Africa to South Central” and, therefore, “on this tricontinental scale, the rosary of revolutions and counter-revolutions along the southern Mediterranean looms as an expansion of the afro-Asian instability produced by the exhaustion of the Cold War”.

In the Italian academic debate, the main exponent of the second position is Professor Francesca Maria Corrao, arabist and expert of the Arab culture. For Corrao, the revolutionary wave was led by a cry for freedom and social justice, stifled during the twentieth century, but always present within the Arab-Mediterranean world. The culture and the desire for freedom constitute the basis of the Arab revolutions. The attack at the Bardo Museum shows that in the Arab-Islamic part of North Africa, the level of tension still remains very high. History will tell us the truth, although at present time the revolutionary heritage seems more like a Mediterranean Autumn than the long-awaited Arab Spring.


Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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