18 Mar 15. Gunmen killed at least 17 foreigners and two Tunisians in the heart of the capital this morning. The attack took place at the Bardo Museum, a national symbol that is part of the heavily guarded parliamentary complex in downtown Tunis. The stories coming out of Tunisia in recent months had been encouraging: the country held orderly and successful parliamentary and presidential elections in which winners and losers alike accepted the results with equanimity. In the background, militants have waged a low-level insurgency in the mountains on Tunisia’s western border since 2012, killing scores of military and security personnel. The attack against a high-profile tourist destination in the middle of Tunis raises the conflict to a new level. It complicates the new Tunisian government’s efforts to attract foreign investment and raises questions about the efficacy of its ongoing counterterrorism campaign.
The attack is a reminder that, despite the positive news out of Tunisia, the country has been particularly vulnerable to recruitment by radical groups. Poor security coordination and government ambivalence following Tunisia’s revolution created space for local militant groups to expand their capabilities and areas of operation. Since a caretaker government took control in 2014, counterterrorism operations have expanded, and the government reportedly arrested 1,500 militants last year. Still Tunisia faces a number of threats from multiple fronts.
Tunisians make up one of the largest foreign national groups fighting in Syria against the Assad regime. Most of the 2,400 to 3,000 Tunisians fighting in Syria have joined al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra or the Islamic State. While security forces have reportedly prevented hundreds of Tunisians from traveling to Syria, the threat of returning fighters is a growing concern.
The Islamic State, which is expanding in neighboring Libya, is also actively recruiting in Tunisia. The temptation for young jihadists to join the movement is strong, and isolated cells which have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State likely exist in Tunisia.
Local militant groups affiliated with al Qaeda are also active. The Okba ibn Nafaa Brigade allied with al Qaeda established a presence in the Chaambi Mountains along the Tunisian-Algerian border. The group has operational links with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, centered in northern Algeria. Tunisian government officials have recently claimed a link between the Okba ibn Nafaa Brigade and Islamic State.
Tunisia’s new government will likely be judged in part by its response to the Bardo attack. The attack, the deadliest against civilians since 2002, could rally support for the government in the short term. But if more violence against civilians follows, Tunisia’s impressive political progress could start to unravel.
Haim Malka is senior fellow and deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington D.C.
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