TUNISIA: Timing of attack in Tunisia’s North-West indicates jihadists will seek to deter tourists to undermine stability
Africa Muslima, a media unit linked to al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQM), threatened Western tourists in Tunisia on 11 July, declaring them to be a legitimate target. This came amid heightened attention on the country’s security environment after six troops were killed in an ambush on an army patrol in Ghardimaou, in the North-West. AQM said that the attack was carried out by the Okba bin Nafaa Brigade, a Tunisian group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
The Brigade has a presence in western and north-western areas, where the mountainous terrain makes security operations difficult. It carries out occasional attacks against the security forces, though it has not conducted a successful operation since December, when a soldier died in a roadside bombing in Mount Chaambi. The group therefore intends for the ambush to demonstrate its presence and enhance its credibility as a militant force.
The timing of the attack , the Brigade’s deadliest in years, also suggests that it could be aimed at undermining confidence in security at the beginning of the summer season in order to deter tourists. The number of foreign visitors is rising, and jihadists, including those linked to al-Qaeda and Islamic State (IS) hope to reverse this in order to damage the economy. These groups believe that this will fuel instability, giving them opportunities to expand. Indeed, Africa Muslima’s threat to Westerners is likely primarily intended as propaganda to deter tourists, and so does not indicate an increased threat to Westerners.
The ambush also came as political tensions have risen due to demands by Hafedh Essebsi, the secular Nidaa Tounes party’s most influential figure, for the removal of Prime Minister Chahed, who is backed by the party’s Islamist coalition partner, Ennahda. President Essebsi, Hafedh’s father said on 15 July that Chahed should resign or face a confidence vote, and three days later the small al Massar party withdrew from the Government in opposition to Chahed. The Prime Minister will come under further pressure in the next few months, while Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda will grow more assertive ahead of the 2019 general elections, thereby risking the ruling coalition’s collapse. That said, they will continue to cooperate for now to preserve stability, as the passage on 18 July of a key anti corruption law shows.
Jihadists will aim to worsen these political tensions to fuel instability ahead of the elections, such as by undermining security with attacks. Indeed, the risk of violence in Tunis against state interests and secular figures is likely to rise from early 2019. In the nearer term, the Brigade will continue to operate in the West and North-West over the next six months, directing attacks against security personnel. IS-linked operations will remain infrequent and largely low-level due to effective security measures, and will chiefly target the security forces in the South-East along Libya’s border. It is possible that both groups could attempt a one-off attack against tourists during the summer period, though this threat will be limited by jihadists’ restricted capabilities and the tight security at popular tourist sites.