Tunisian officials said on Friday the two gunmen who killed 21 people at a museum in Tunis on Wednesday had trained in Libya before slipping back into the country to carry out the attack.
Rafik Chelli, an interior ministry official, told a local television channel, al- Hiwar al-Tounsi, that the attackers had crossed into Libya in December where they had received weapons training.
The two were identified as Tunisians Yassine Laabidi and Hatem Kachlaoui. One of them was reportedly known to the intelligence services, though not in relation to any “specific” illegal activity. Both were killed in a firefight with security forces at the museum.
The Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, known as ISIS, has claimed responsibility for the attack in an audio message that could not be authenticated. The group is estimated to have several hundred fighters in Libya and has established a firm presence in the country. Tunisians are known to be fighting in its ranks.
Interior ministry sources said in recent months that an estimated 3,000 Tunisians had travelled to Syria and Iraq to fight with ISIS; of these around 500 have returned. They are, by some estimates, the largest contingent of foreign fighters there.
Why are so many Tunisians fighting with ISIS?
Tunisians were involved in Arab and Islamist causes before the revolution. Under Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali, the dictator ousted in 2011, there were more than a thousand Tunisian Islamists fighting in Iraq. The revolution lifted the restrictions of Mr Ben Ali’s rule and gave a chance for extremist and Salafi ideas to be discussed, and returnees from Iraq and other jihadis were released from prison. Other extremists returned from the diaspora.
High joblessness and a sense of exclusion among young Tunisians has been driving many to seek better lives in Europe as illegal immigrants. To many, Syria and Iraq afford a similar opportunity for escape from bleak lives. The presence of friends, relatives and neighbours there has driven up the numbers and facilitated the work of ISIS recruiters. Michael Ayari, Tunisia analyst with the International Crisis Group says Tunisians have been appreciated within ISIS because they are educated, are “good organisers” and have knowledge of IT.
So why is Tunisia seen as the success of the Arab ‘Spring’?
Tunisia is the only country in the region that has had a peaceful transition to democracy in the wake of the 2011 Arab uprisings. But this transition is still young and has yet to deliver economic dividends. Over the past four years political bickering and a turbulent transition have damaged an already inadequate economy and increased the scepticism of Tunisians, particularly the young, who have yet to see improvements to their lives. Youth unemployment is even higher than the national average of 15 per cent and a recent study by International Alert, a campaigning group, showed that young Tunisians still complain of bureaucratic corruption and poor treatment by police. They also viewed politicians as working for themselves rather than for the national good.
What is the Tunisian government doing to prevent Tunisians from fighting with Isis in Syria and Iraq?
The government of prime minister Habib Essid has dismantled recruitment networks and many youths have been turned back before they manage to leave. Those who return are subject to arrest, which is also functioning as a deterrent.
The numbers trying to leave also appear to have declined. Tunisians no longer view the battlefields of Syria and Iraq as an “Eldorado,” according to Mr Ayari, who adds that reports of infighting between jihadis in Syria and Iraq and a sense that Tunisians are no longer getting “the respect they deserve” within ISIS are also making young Tunisians less eager to fight with the group.
How does the turmoil in Libya affect Tunisia?
Tunisia’s chaotic and ungoverned neighbour is posing a growing challenge to the authorities. The border between the two countries is long and porous, making it difficult to control the flow of weapons and fighters. Tunisian fighters are known to be present in Libya and have carried out operations under the banner of ISIS, including the deadly attack against the Corinthia, the most luxurious hotel in Tripoli, in January. A plethora of militant groups operate in Libya and ISIS remains relatively small, but it is growing while the country remains split between two governments with vast swath of territory under the control of militias.
What does the attack mean for Tunisia’s democratic transition?
The attack is a setback, particularly to the economy. Tourism is a key source of employment and foreign currency, and the museum attack will make the country’s economic recovery more difficult. The need to tighten security will also enhance the role of the security services, bringing with it the possibility of crackdowns and possible abuses, which could further alienate the young. So far, however, the governing alliance which includes moderate Islamists, is presenting a united front and voiced its determination to stand up to the militants.
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