A Tunisian Public-Private Partnership Needed to Fight Terror

A group of armed assailants, made up of fifteen masked men, attacked the house of Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou on May 27, only a few meters away from the regional National Guard center. The suspects are members of the Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade based in the Kasserine mountains and tied to an Algerian faction and AQIM (Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). The attack indicates evidence of a major systemic intelligence failure—one that Tunisia can waste no time in addressing if it hopes to ensure public safety and keep the political process on track.

The minister’s family, hiding out inside the house, remained unharmed as the attackers targeted the five police officers securing the house, killing four and injuring one. The attack lasted more than thirty minutes with no security reinforcement—the only resistance to the attackers came from local residents shouting and throwing rocks at them. The locals tried repeatedly to call police stations, asking for help and reassurance, but their calls failed to produce a timely response.

This attack deepened the gap between the public and the security forces, reinforcing the belief that the police cannot protect citizens from danger. It also triggered doubt that the Tunisian security has the capacity to respond to the terrorist threat. This doubt began after the fall of the Ben Ali regime when the public discovered that the size and effectiveness of the Tunisian security forces were a fallacy derived from rumors and propaganda (Tunisian forces stand at 50,000 officers, previously believed to be more than 120,000). Its competence has also fallen into doubt now that the institution’s deception has been exposed.

Prior to the revolution, the ministry of interior relied heavily on its “political police” in its war against terrorism. The “political police” comprised a network of intertwined officers and spies, inside and outside the government, who worked to collect information on any potential threat to the regime. This network operated with the help of the omnipresent informants and members of Ben Ali’s political party Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD). After the revolution and the dissolution of RCD, the ministry of interior lost its primary source of information.

In February 2011, then-Tunisian Interior Minister Farhat Rajhi announced the dissolution of the “political police” by the suspension of the Direction de la sûreté de l’Etat (DSE). This decision was not well received by security experts who saw it as a mistake. DSE ensured a streamlined and well-integrated intelligence system; without it, the whole system became erratic. As a result, the weakened intelligence network failed to stop a number of dangerous and high-profile terrorist attacks–the most notable of which included the political assassination of the deputy Mohamed Brahmi on July 25, 2013 despite a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) warning on July 14 of a possible assassination attempt.

The minister’s attackers, Tunisian and Algerian nationals using weapons smuggled from Libya, serve as yet another reminder of the transnational nature of the terrorism threat. Security experts also believe that the leaders of this terrorist group meet and coordinate in Derna, Libya and follow direction from al-Qaeda leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Undoubtedly, terrorist groups in the region collaborate, communicate, and operate in a transnational way, making it difficult for governments to fight this menace. The danger grew as tensions rose between North African neighboring countries after the Arab Spring, leading to minimal collaboration and shared security information between the neighboring governments.

Noting that the Tunisian government cannot fight this threat alone, international partners (such as the United States) stepped in to implement projects that could reinforce the Tunisian security sector’s capacity. International donors have a strong preference for ‘train and equip’ programs, focusing on border control, intelligence, and providing state of the art equipment to the anti-terrorism units at the interior ministry. Yet, no donor has chosen to focus on improving security sector governance: its structure, management, and operation.

Proper security governance and a security force that operates in the interests of the people—rather than the regime—can most effectively combat terrorism. Without advanced regional collaboration, modern equipment, and integrated training for the entire sector, Tunisia will continue to suffer from potentially fatal lapses that can shake the public’s faith in it as an institution. Contrary to the belief that security sector reform is a zero-sum game—one in which democratic reforms come at the expense of system effectiveness in combating terrorism—governance coupled with accountability can in fact strengthen the state-citizen relationship such that each becomes an asset to the other. Such a system will avoid the potential collateral production of extremist reactions against an oppressive state and will have better access to information provided by the public to enhance its intelligence.

International donors should certainly provide whatever material support is needed to respond to the terrorist threat in North Africa, but they cannot forget the urgent need to help build the bonds between Tunisian civil society groups and the ministry of interior. For key security sector reforms to produce an effective security institution, in partnership with the public, in fighting crime and other transnational threats, a redefinition of this relationship is sorely needed.

Bassem Bouguerra is a nonresident fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East and a Tunisian activist, commentator, and the president of the Tunisian Institutional Reform, a non-profit organization currently focused on security sector reform.

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Image: Tunisian counter-terrorism police stand guard near a house in Raoued February 4, 2014. Seven Islamist militants and a Tunisian policeman were killed in a gun battle after police raided a house in Tunis where weapons, explosives and suicide bomb belts were found, a security source said. The clash broke out late on Monday when police surrounded a house in Raoued, a northern suburb of the capital, in an attempt to arrest a group of suspected militants hiding there. (Photo: REUTERS/Anis Mili)