The small North African country of Tunisia suffered another major terror attack, the third this year. The attack should remind the world that Tunisia faces an array of deadly threats, including the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
Information is still coming in, but a suicide bomber reportedly detonated himself in central Tunis, the Tunisian capital city. He apparently targeted members of the Presidential Guard, an elite unit that guards the Tunisian president. Approximately 12 guards are dead, with a dozen people wounded.
There have been two other major attacks in Tunisia this year, both claimed by ISIS. In March, two gunmen stormed the Bardo Museum in Tunis, killing 22 people, mostly tourists. Three months later, a gunman burst into a hotel in the seaside resort town of Sousse and murdered 39, again mostly tourists.
ISIS has also claimed Tuesday’s bombing. If the group is indeed responsible, it marks a departure from its previous attacks in the country. The bomber targeted members of Tunisia’s security services, whereas ISIS’ two previous attacks in the country sought maximum carnage among civilians. Those attacks also utilized gunmen rather than a suicide bomber.
Attacks on security services have thus far been more in keeping with campaigns several al-Qaeda-linked groups have been waging for years inside Tunisia. The Uqba bin Nafi Battalion, operating in the Kasserine region of Tunisia, has killed at least 22 members of the Tunisian security services this year alone, including 15 soldiers in a single attack. Tunisia has also accused Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, an Islamic extremist group with ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), of a number of terror attacks, including the assassinations of two politicians and the killings of eight soldiers in 2013.
Killing members of the security services also fits with al-Qaeda’s concern that it not appear to be targeting innocent Muslims. In 2005, al-Qaeda Emir Ayman al-Zawahiri rebuked Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq—the progenitor of ISIS—for alienating Muslims with the group’s brutality.
Al-Qaeda affiliates around the world have made a show of being faithful to Zawahiri’s hearts-and-minds approach since then. In videos it has released of its attacks, the Somali terrorist organization al-Shabaab highlights its fighters sparing Muslims. The assailants during the recent terror attack most likely perpetrated by an al-Qaeda-linked group in Bamako, Mali, reportedly released hostages who could recite the Shahada, or Islamic confession of faith. Striking security services, as in Tunis yesterday, would fit the canard al-Qaeda is pushing that it does not kill innocent Muslims. ISIS bothers little with that charade.
The Situation in Tunisia
Of course, ISIS hates the halting steps toward democracy Tunisia is taking and relishes any opportunity to attack the country. A bomb in the middle of Tunis is also yet another hammer blow to Tunisia’s economically-important tourism industry ISIS had already crippled with its previous attacks on tourist destinations. And the al-Qaeda-linked groups operate almost exclusively in the interior, so an attack in Tunis would be a departure for them.
Whoever is ultimately responsible, yesterday was a reminder of the difficulties Tunisia faces. It is one of the world’s leading exporters of foreign fighters to Iraq and Syria, and its radicalization problem is centered in the interior of the country, where the al-Qaeda-linked groups have been active. Tunisia needs to bring those regions into the mainstream, which means it will have to invest more there and urgently dismantle the economic patronage system that has left citizens of the interior, and many other ordinary Tunisians, on the margins.
Tunisia is also the victim of instability wracking its neighbors. One of Ansar al-Shariah Tunisia’s leaders has links to an Algerian terror group, the GSPC, that in 2007 rebranded as AQIM and operates throughout the Maghreb region. Some Uqba bin Nafi Battalion militants may have fought for some of the terrorist groups that hold sway in parts of northern Mali.
The biggest concern, however, is Tunisia’s neighbor to the east, Libya, that is fast becoming one of the world’s most failed states as it is ripped apart by an array of armed groups, including ISIS. The Bardo and Sousse attackers trained in an ISIS camp in Libya, and the explosives used in yesterday’s attack have been traced to Libya. Weapons from deposed dictator Muammar Gaddafi’s vast arsenal are circulating throughout the region, including into Tunisia. Libyan chaos will continue to threaten Tunisia until a measure of stability is restored, which will require sustained and serious effort from the international community.
Al-Qaeda and ISIS are determined, capable, and ruthless enemies intent on bringing a fragile U.S. ally to its knees. The United States must again rally to Tunisia’s aid to help this fledgling democracy in a volatile region.