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Libya, a priority for Tunisian foreign policy?

The Bardo attack indicates that Tunisia will not be able to remain immune to Libya’s ongoing conflict where two rival governments fight for power and the Islamic State is gaining ground. This neighbouring country continues to be a delicate issue for the Tunisian government.

The Islamic State (ISIS) has recently aimed its notorious PR-machine at Tunisia. In a video a Tripoli-based ISIS-gunman threatens Tunisian leaders and promises revenge for the imprisonment of ISIS supporters. “The Islamic State is only a few kilometres from you [Tunisia], we are coming,” the masked gunman said, promising to conquer Tunisia. The front page of the latest edition of the group’s English propagandamagazine Dabiq, dedicated to ISIS Africa’s expansion plans, also shows Kairouan’s Grand Mosque, which is among Islam’s most holiest sites, demonstrating the city’s importance for the group’s expansion plans. The escalation comes after the country experienced its worst terrorist attack since the 2003 assault on the small island of Djerba off the southern Tunisian coast.

It was on 18 March that two gunmen attacked the country’s famous Bardo museum, frequently visited by tourists and symbolically situated next to the Tunisian Parliament, killing 24 people before they were shot dead by security forces. “The recent terrorist attack in Tunis has a Libyan connection,” explained Libyan political analyst Mohamed Eljarh. The young gunmen, 27-year-old Yassine Laabidi and 19-year-old Saber Khachnaoui, were both believed to have spent December 2014 in one of the jihadist training camps in Libya, where it is believed they became radicalised.

However, it remains unclear which organisation the two assailants were associated with. Two contradictory versions are circulating. According to a vague official statement from the Tunisian authorities the blame was quickly placed on Uqba Ibn Nafi, which is operating along the Tunisia-Algeria border and is affiliated to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). At the same time, ISIS claimed responsibility in three different statements, which were never rejected by AQIM. The Bardo assault symbolises a change in the jihadists’ operations in Tunisia which, prior to the assault, were centred around targeting state symbols, most often involving Uqba Ibn Nafi attacking Tunisian security forces, primarily in the interior parts of the country and the border area around Mount Chaambi, close to Kasserine.

“It is the first attack of this scale in Tunisia,” explained Tunisian security analyst Habib M. Sayah, adding that it is important to remember that ISIS militant and senior commander Ahmed Rouissi, one of Tunisia’s most wanted men and a member of Ansar Al-Sharia, organised two bombings targeting hotels in Sousse and Monastir a year ago. Even though these attempts failed, it reflects that “there was a will to target tourists and foreigners,” argued Sayah. Rouissi, who was fighting alongside Libyan forces in Sirte and is believed to have heldtraining and recruitment operations in Libya, was killed just days before the Bardo attack according to Tunisian security sources.

“Tunisian jihadis in Libya are more of a threat [than the Tunisian Salafi-Jihadi movement] because they operate for the Islamic State,” argued Sayah. The group is popular among Tunisian Jihadi-Salafis, especially among former Ansar Al-Sharia sympathisers, he noted. There is motive for ISIS in Libya to organise the Tunisian Jihadi-Salafi movement, the legacy from Ansar Al-Sharia, he argued. But at the same time the threat from outside should not cast a shadow on the threat from the inside. The Tunisian Salafi-Jihadi movement has developed since 2011 and members of this movement may be ready to engage in, or support, terrorist attacks on Tunisian soil, Sayah explained.

“Tunisia finds itself in a place where it has to take a neutral position on the Libyan crisis out of care for its own national interests,” argued Eljarh. The risk is that the self-declared Libya Dawn government will take counter-measures that could hurt Tunisian national security and interests, if the current Tunisian administration is too cooperative with the internationally recognised government in Tobruk, he explained. The fact that the Tobruk government controls the area located in eastern Libya far away from the Tunisian border, while the self-declared Libya Dawn government controls Tripoli and the immediate border crossing area with Tunisia, has placed Tunisia in an “extremely difficult position”, Eljarh explained. At the same time, the “Tunisia-Libya relationship is deeply entrenched on all levels – security, economic, social and political too”.

Concerns regarding the spill over effect that the Libyan conflict continues to pose to Tunisia’s relatively successful democratic transition reached its peak before the 2014 elections. “We are in the process of building a new house, a new democracy, and there is a fire next door,” announced Mongi Hamdi, the then foreign minister for Tunisia’s caretaker interim government last year. “Tunisian security depends on Libya,” argued Tunisian journalist Huda Mzioudet who is focusing on Libya and used to be based in Tripoli. According to her the Tunisian government should take a more proactive and bold approach towards its neighbour’s conflict, including more positive diplomacy. “It has to approach the issue as not a Libyan issue but a regional one,” Mzioudet concluded. She regrets that Tunisia is not taking a more active part in the national dialogue attempts. “We need to face the problem with a long-term perspective.”

The Tunisian government is looking at the conflict from a narrow-minded viewpoint, argued Mzioudet. “Libya Dawn, which is seen by some political elements, in particular secular ones in Tunisia, as extremist, is a part of the conflict and they can’t be disregarded,” she said. In Tunisia there is a sense of denial within the rhetoric, which Mzioudet finds disturbing. “We don’t want to deal with these so called extremists because they are not viable actors,” but this is dangerous rhetoric, “then you don’t understand diplomacy,” she said. According to Mzioudet, Libya Dawn and its affiliates ought to be part of the dialogue, “otherwise the risk is that it will affect Tunisia even more.” Mzioudet would like to see a more pragmatic approach, derived from common interests rather than “narrow party ideology”.

Libya Dawn is de facto part of the dialogue and Tunisia needs to unify its position. “There is too much confusion between the presidency and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” she argued. “We need a firm position on the necessity of the inclusion of all parties” in order to ensure the success of the dialogue.

Another danger for Tunisia is the media’s very biased rhetoric, argued Mzioudet, which she fears fuels anger in Libya. “It shows that there is a clear siding, from not only the media, but according to many Libyans, the Tunisian public opinion, with the non-Islamist fractions and the internationally recognised government in Tobruk.” Mzioudet believes this is risky, as no one is able to fathom how delicate the conflict is and this highlights the importance of not simplifying it into a secular vs. Islamist issue.

One example of its sensitivity, explained Mzioudet, was the reaction after the Tunisian government announced that it will re-establish diplomatic relations with Libya with a consulate in both the capital Tripoli and the second largest city Benghazi. “Some Libyans understood this as a kind of recognition of a two-state solution in Libya,” explained Mzioudet, “which led to threats from the Tobruk based parliament against the Tunisian authorities.” This is one example of how important it is to deal with the conflict with delicacy, Mzioudet concluded.

Priority for Tunisia now, according to Eljarh, is to ensure that it takes all the necessary measures to prevent the flow of fighters, leaders or weapons across its borders. “It is necessary that the supply lines for armed groups from Tunisia are cut off.”

The Libya-Tunisia border has been considered fragile. “I am not sure to what extent border controls will increase following the Bardo attack,” said Sayah, emphasising that some improvements have been made. “We had been noticing improvements in that field months before the Bardo attack as the Tunisian government considered the porosity of the Tunisian-Libyan border one of the main gaps and inflows of returnees and foreign fighters, which was a major security threat.”

An independent writer, editor, researcher and analyst, Christine Petré is especially passionate international relations, conflict and humanitarian issues. Much of her work is aimed at challenging mainstream coverage of the Middle East and Africa.

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