Skip to main content

Tunisia’s Borders (II): Terrorism and Regional Polarisation

International Crisis Group


Since the December 2010-January 2011 uprising, Tunisia has successfully overcome successive political crises, yet seems less able to absorb the impact of major jihadi attacks. As a result of the successful national dialogue, 2014 began on a note of optimism that led to a significant reduction in political tensions, but concerns are growing again. At the heart of this anxiety are an increase in violence along the Algerian border; the chaotic situation in Libya; and the advance of radical Islamism in the Middle East – all made all the more acute by an alarmist anti-terrorist discourse. An echo chamber for the conflicts agitating the region, Tunisia needs to tackle terrorism in a calm and depoliticised manner. The fights against terrorism and organised crime are inextricably linked. In addition to security measures, the government should take new economic and social initiatives that would ensure border communities trust and support the state.

Since 2013, the alliance between arms and drugs traffickers and armed jihadi cells appears to have considerably strengthened in the border regions. The activities of the major illegal trade networks are encouraging violence that much of the media is quick to blame on terrorists. This violence could reach dangerous levels, particularly if the worsening of the Libyan conflict has a serious economic and political impact on Tunisia.

A social crisis in the south, a lasting alliance between cartels and jihadis, the exacerbation of ideological polarisation by regional developments could form an explosive mix ahead of elections. Voters and candidates in the forthcoming elections, scheduled, nationwide and abroad, for 24-26 October (legislative elections), 21-23 November (first round of presidential elections) and 26-28 December (presidential run-off) 2014, are fearful that the elections could fail and that Tunisia could suffer the same fate as other countries in the region. The deepening security crackdown, combined with reprisals by weakened jihadi groups, risk forming a vicious circle. The independent, “technocratic” government of Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa is playing on anti-terrorist sentiments, reorienting the concerns of the educated middle class toward a fear of religious extremism. In this context, the risk is that a major terrorist attack against the country would deepen polarisation between Islamists and secularists.

To deflect another crisis, the authorities should, on the one hand, strengthen the state’s presence in the border regions through socio-economic development policies whose impact would be quickly felt by local communities. On the other, it should implement an effective and balanced counter-terrorism strategy, while playing down the sensationalist media coverage that lumps together different currents of Islamism.

Tunisia has the means to tame regional ideological dynamics that concern it but need not determine its future. After Crisis Group’s first report on Tunisia’s borders in November 2013, this briefing analyses the reality of the threats at the Tunisia-Algeria border and the Tunisia-Libya border, and offers options to mitigate the risks.

In the near term, it is crucial for the main political, trade union and civil society forces – both Islamist and non-Islamist – to maintain a consensual approach to public security and for the authorities to adopt a calmer anti-terrorist discourse so as to prevent renewed polarisation. Similarly, the government – or its successor – should increase security cooperation with neighbouring Algeria, pursue the creation of a new National Intelligence Agency, and dialogue with contraband cartels that agree to stop trade in dangerous goods, encouraging them to collaborate with the authorities on the security front. Such measures would ultimately contribute to keeping border communities from becoming alienated from the state and, in the medium term, reduce their temptation to challenge it directly by joining jihadi militant groups.


Popular posts from this blog

Why States Still Use Barrel Bombs

Smoke ascends after a Syrian military helicopter allegedly dropped a barrel bomb over the city of Daraya on Jan. 31.(FADI DIRANI/AFP/Getty Images)

Barrel bombs are not especially effective weapons. They are often poorly constructed; they fail to detonate more often than other devices constructed for a similar purpose; and their lack of precision means they can have a disproportionate effect on civilian populations.

However, combatants continue to use barrel bombs in conflicts, including in recent and ongoing conflicts in Africa and the Middle East, and they are ideally suited to the requirements of resource-poor states.


Barrel bombs are improvised devices that contain explosive filling and shrapnel packed into a container, often in a cylindrical shape such as a barrel. The devices continue to be dropped on towns all over Syria. Indeed, there have been several documented cases of their use in Iraq over the past months, and residents of the city of Mosul, which was recently …

Russia Looks East for New Oil Markets

Click to Enlarge

In the final years of the Soviet Union, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev began orienting his foreign policy toward Asia in response to a rising Japan. Putin has also piloted a much-touted pivot to Asia, coinciding with renewed U.S. interest in the area. A good expression of intent was Russia's hosting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in 2012 in Vladivostok, near Russia's borders with China and North Korea. Although its efforts in Asia have been limited by more direct interests in Russia's periphery and in Europe, Moscow recently has been able to look more to the east.

Part of this renewed interest involves finding new export markets for Russian hydrocarbons. Russia's economy relies on energy exports, particularly crude oil and natural gas exported via pipeline to the West. However, Western Europe is diversifying its energy sources as new supplies come online out of a desire to reduce its dependence on Russian energy supplies.

This has forced…

In Yemen, a Rebel Advance Could Topple the Regime

Shia loyal to the al-Houthi movement ride past Yemeni soldiers near Yaz, Yemen, in May. (MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images)


The success of a rebel campaign in northern Yemen is threatening to destabilize the already weak and overwhelmed government in Sanaa. After capturing the city of Amran, a mere 50 kilometers (30 miles) from the capital, in early July, the rebels from the al-Houthi tribe are in their strongest position yet. The Yemeni government is developing plans to divide the country into six federal regions, and the rebels believe this is their chance to claim territory for the future bargaining.

The central government is nearly powerless to fend off the rebels; its forces are already stretched thin. Neighboring Saudi Arabia has intervened in Yemen before and still supports Sunni tribes in the north, but the risk of inciting a Shiite backlash or creating space for jihadists to move in could deter another intervention.


Followers of Zaidi Islam, a branch of Shiism, rul…