Tunisia's invisible war with terrorism

Tunisia's invisible war with terrorism
The beaches may not be empty, but the Tunisian government is stepping up its fight against militants who have wreaked havoc on the country.
4 min read
05 August, 2015
The German defence minister was in Tunis to discuss support for the army [Amin al-Andalusi/Anadolu]

At first glance, life seems normal in Tunisia. The summer is full of weddings and festivals at night, and during the day, the streets and the beaches are teaming with Tunisians, Algerians and Libyans.

There were even some Western visitors - not dissuaded from visiting the country, despite their governments' travel advisories.

But behind these ordinary scenes, there is a full blown war being waged by the Tunisian government on the back of militant attacks that have taken place one after the other.

The Tunisian government's decision to extend the state of emergency an additional two months has confirmed its intention to continue its efforts against militant extremism, despite some criticisms concerning its proposed policies.

The Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid told al-Araby al-Jadeed that the first month after the state of emergency was declared saw many "positive" developments, arguing that the country's supreme interests are more important than some freedoms. The top priority, he said, is to fight what he called terrorism, requiring all assets to be enlisted in the effort.

Behind these ordinary scenes, there is a full blown war being waged by the Tunisian government

The draft supplementary finance bill being discussed in parliament is consistent with this government policy. Its opening lines stressed the need to combat "terrorism", especially in the wake of the attacks at the Bardo Museum in Tunis and the resort in Sousse.

The draft bill gives top priority to the security services, providing additional funding to improve the capabilities and readiness of the national army and police, increasing the allocations to them by around $150 million, a 35 percent increase. In addition, the draft contains facilities to enlist an additional 2,500 security officers.

The bill covers this year, but many expect next year's budget to increase the funding for security even further.

Meanwhile, Tunisia is receiving growing international support in comparison to recent years, with Germany in particular ramping up support for Tunis, displacing its traditional ally France.

Recently, Germany persuaded its partners in Europe to give Tunisia a grant of 100 million euros. German Defence Minister Ursula von der Lien, who visited the Tunisian parliament a few days ago, said her government believes it is its responsibility to provide support to Tunisia, taking into account the security situation, with a focus on border protection.

Germany in particular is ramping up support for Tunis, displacing its traditional ally France

The German minister said around 400 Tunisian troops would receive training in Germany. Von der Lien said Berlin is studying ways to help Tunisia secure its 600km long border, as well as upgrading its military capabilities. The minister said Germany would grant Tunisia naval assets including patrol boats as well as trucks, saying Germany gave Tunisia 500 trucks last year.

It seems the Germans are convinced the border with Libya needs to be secured, with it being the biggest source of threats to Tunisia. In this regard, Habib Essid told this newspaper that the border barrier being built will move ahead, saying military positions will be established at its most important points before being replaced by electronic surveillance at a later date, once the $50 million cost of the project is secured.

Tunisia has insisted to go ahead with this project, despite some opposition to the barrier. According to media reports, several smuggling operations were aborted already thanks to the barrier.

The "quiet" war is taking place between the security services and extremist groups, especially in towns and villages. There are almost daily reports indicating that extremist cells and fugitives are being captured, as well as news of recruitment networks for militants.

In the past several days alone the security services have arrested dozens of suspects. According to experts, these individuals are an intelligence "treasure trove".

On July 25, the eve of Republic Day in Tunisia, the security services arrested two cells in Bizerte province north of Tunis, which were reportedly preparing to carry out bombings and other terrorist operations against security targets in the same province.

In parallel, the armed forces continue to attack positions in the mountainous areas near the border with Algeria, where suspected terrorists are thought to be hiding, in coordination with the Algerian authorities.