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Tunis Attack Shows Need for Regional Strategy to Counter Extremism

Tunisian security forces stand guard near the National Bardo Museum in Tunis on March 19, 2015, in the aftermath of an attack on foreign tourists. [Credit: Belaid/Flickr)

On Wednesday, March 18, two gunmen holding assault rifles stormed into a heavily packed museum in central Tunis killing a Tunisian security officer as well as 20 foreign tourists. The tourists, according to the latest reports, came from several countries, including Australia, Belgium, Britain, Colombia, France, Italy, Japan, Poland and Spain. While in the moments immediately following the deadly attack it wasn’t clear who was behind the rampage, by Thursday the two terrorists were identified as Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Khachnaoui, both of whom were killed during the raid. The Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attack, calling it “the first drop of the rain,” and praising the two attackers as “knights of the Islamic State.” So far, the claim has not been independently verified.

Although similar brazen attacks have unfortunately proliferated in recent months — from Paris and Copenhagen to Bamako and Kidal — this was the worst attack to hit the small North African country in over a decade. Tunisia, often referred to as the success story of the Arab Spring, had largely been spared from the violence that has since engulfed neighboring Libya, but also Egypt, Yemen and other parts of the Middle East. This is no longer the case.

Events are still unfolding, and more information will most likely emerge over the next weeks. But at this early stage, two things are clear. The first is that countries in the region, especially those that rely heavily on revenue from tourism, can’t afford to lay down their guard when it comes to security measures. In Egypt, for instance, where tourism is an important backbone of the country’s economy, instability in the Sinai and elsewhere has taken a heavy toll on the tourist sector, leading to its shrinkage and to rising unemployment. Unemployment then leads to disaffected youth, which are the ones most likely to be enthralled by radical groups, thus fueling a vicious cycle that is seemingly endless.

The second implication is that countries such as Tunisia, Libya, or even Egypt can’t do it alone. This is not only because an effective response to a security or terrorist threat is generally more effective when multiple resources are pooled together; it’s also because at the end of the day, peace and stability in the Middle East are interests shared by several, if not many, countries.

It is enough to look at the ripple effect of the Syrian civil war. The massive exodus of refugees has impacted all countries contiguous to Syria, and has extended as far as the southern shores of Europe. Tens of boats full of migrants have crossed or attempted to cross the Mediterranean, and many more are expected to do so as the warm season approaches. Devising a common counterstrategy to instability across the Mediterranean basin is in the interest of many governments in the region, both from a security as well as a humanitarian standpoint.

When it comes to Libya, the governments of Italy and Spain but also France, Britain, and the US have already said they support the UN-led peace process there. They have also said that their commitment to eradicating the terrorist threat is a strong one. Unlike in Tunisia — where it’s still unclear whether Islamic State actually has a physical presence — the threat in Libya is real. The kidnapping and execution of 21 Egyptian Copts in February was a clear indication of this; and the more recent kidnapping of 20 medical workers in Sirte further supports the notion that ISIS has indeed established a footprint in the country.

But the Libyan government — the one recognized by the international community — is asking for more. In a recent interview with Italian news agency ANSA, the speaker of the parliament in Tobruk, Aqila Saleh Issa, said he hopes that Western nations will lift the arms embargo on the country, so that government forces can be better equipped to fight the militants. Whether or not this will happen, the request shows that a joint effort may be the only way forward.

Following the beheading of the 21 Christians, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi ordered a series of airstrikes as a retaliatory measure. The Egyptian Air Force attacked camps, training facilities, and weapons depots allegedly belonging to Islamic State near the Libyan town of Derna, in the east of the country. At the same time, however, Sisi also urged the UN Security Council to authorize an international coalition to intervene in Libya and impose a naval blockade. He also called for the arms embargo to be lifted.

What does this all relate to the Tunis attack? It shows that the threat from the Islamic State is still alive and is no longer confined to Syria, Iraq, or even Libya. Even a country like Tunisia, which has been relatively more stable than its neighbors, has now tasted the group’s destruction. This is a very delicate moment for the country’s transition to democracy: Its recent parliamentary and presidential elections were a victory for democracy, and show that the region is not immune to democratic processes. But if tourism, which is its main source of economic revenue, begins to stumble, the democratic process itself will be more likely to stumble.

Ultimately, it is the interest and the responsibility of the countries concerned to boost their security apparatus, improve their intelligence gathering, and generally devise better ways to prevent terrorist incidents from taking place. But when that is not possible, or when leaders themselves ask for international support, a joint effort is the best approach.




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Roma - Sala “Massimo Paolicelli” Palazzo Teodoli, Piazza del Parlamento 19
Date :  2018-07-05


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