Attack on Tunisian tourists probably by Islamic State reflects growing threat to Libya’s neighbours

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Two gunmen killed more than 18 people in a terror attack at the Bardo Museum in Tunisia’s capital.

 Nicolas de Camaret/Flickr
Interiors of Bardo Museum in Tunisia’s capital. Photo-Nicolas de Camaret/Flickr

Libya is increasingly becoming a base from which the Islamic State is likely to launch attacks into other countries.

IHS Country Risk analyst Firas Abi Ali’s analysis of the attack in Tunisia:

Significance: The attack reflects a coherent strategy on the part of the Islamic State aimed at targeting cultural institutions it deems as un-Islamic and at targeting key economic assets

Implications: The Tunisian government’s counter-terrorism strategy suffers from a significant shortage of intelligence

Outlook: The Islamic State is likely to launch further attacks.

Tunisian government officials said that 22 individuals were killed, including 20 tourists, and 55 injured, in an 18 March attack by five militants against the Tunisian Parliament and the Bardo Museum. Two militants were killed as the security forces attacked the museum to free the hostages, while three escaped.

An account that was associated with the Okba bin Nafe’ brigade, a militant group based in the Mount Chaanbi region and which had pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, had issued two implied threats, one on 15 March and another on 16 March. Both referred to “glad tidings” for Tunisian Muslims that would “shock the kuffar (unbelievers) and munafiqeen (hypocrites)”, with the second one specifically singling out those “who claim culture”.

The account (since shutdown by Twitter), had in recent months turned into a mouthpiece for the Islamic State, reporting on its activities in Sinai, Somalia, Nigeria (following Boko Haram’s pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State) and Libya, where up to three thousand Tunisians are fighting for the Islamic State according to the Tunisian government.

The Tunisian government almost certainly does not have the capability to control the border with Libya. Moreover, the threat from Islamic State supporters in western Libya is likely to grow. If these groups are weakened, they are likely to see Tunisia as a safe area to which to escape; if they grow stronger, they would be increasingly likely to see Tunisia as their next logical target.

The attack reflects the Islamic State’s strategy of targeting key economic sectors while pushing a narrative that the state is incapable of improving living standards, and that economic benefits only accrue to the business elite that has remained influential despite changes in government. The Islamic State, knowing it cannot draw on the support of middle classes and cultural elites concentrated in well-to-do coastal areas, focuses this narrative on the population of impoverished regions who are least likely to benefit from tourism, particularly those of the interior and the south, and those living in poor urban suburbs who may well be employed in the tourism sector but gain low wages.

Over recent months, Tunisian supporters of the Islamic State, both in Libya and in Syria and Iraq, had issued a series of videos threatening attacks against the country.  This trend was reinforced after the formation of a coalition government that seemed to be the final confirmation that any turn to Islamist rule in the country was unlikely. Weapons seizures along the Libyan border, and occasionally within Tunis itself, have also become more frequent. The security services conducted mass arrest campaigns targeting Islamists.

However, these arrests seem to have been very broad and not based on specific intelligence, as local media reports indicated that individuals who had Islamic State flags in their homes were among those arrested, despite the absence of any evidence connecting them to any active plots. This is in line with the policy followed under deposed President Zine al-Abideen bin Ali, under which anyone suspected of Islamist sympathies was swiftly detained. Without more effective intelligence capability, and given the policy of mass arrests of individuals with radical sympathies but who are not active in any attacks, the risk in Tunisia is likely to grow.

Outlook and Implications:

Tunisian security services are likely to intensify their cooperation with Algeria in the hope of being able to detect plots and identify threats earlier. The effectiveness of this depends on the Algerians own penetration of groups inside Libya, which is less likely to be effective than their infiltration of groups such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Furthermore, the inability of the state to seal the Libyan border, the continued impoverishment of the interior and the south, where protests over economic disenfranchisement are a regular occurrence, and the inability of the state to deal with local grievances effectively, will also weaken Tunisia’s ability to counter the Islamic State.

The Islamic State, for its part, sees attacks outside Libya as a means of reinforcing its position in Libya. The more effective it is in places such as Tunisia and Egypt, the more likely that its calls for supporters to join it in Libya will become, and the higher the risk to those countries.

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