Making Sense of Bardo: Tunisia and Its Connection to Regional Instability

Wednesday’s armed assault on the Bardo Museum in Tunis ended in the tragic loss of life of at least twenty foreign tourists and two Tunisian museum employees. These were not senseless killings but rather a calculated move on the part of the militants who undertook the mission. To address effectively both the immediate security concerns and longer-term challenges, Tunisians and their international partners should be mindful of two key points: the cynical rationale behind the attacks and the incident’s connection to the wider region’s deteriorating security regime.

As more information becomes available, it appears that the militants first attempted to lay siege to the parliament building. Unable to breach the grounds, they turned their attention to the nearby archaeological museum that houses Roman mosaics and traces Tunisia’s history. Both targets were strategic. Tunisia’s parliament has been debating a draft anti-terrorism law that reportedly contains a more precise definition of terrorism-related crimes and specifies investigation techniques, presumably in an effort to address the country’s fragile security without clamping down on political rights. The museum, albeit an apolitical institution, is a popular site for visitors to Tunisia, the economic lifeline of which is tourism.

In essence, the fatal attack was not a random act of violence but a deliberate, cold-blooded attempt to undermine the gains Tunisia has made since the 2011 revolution. The scare tactic serves a larger, two-pronged purpose: to create a pretext for some political elites—those more hardline or inclined toward authoritarian tendencies—to suppress civil society in the name of upholding security, thereby reversing the tide of progress and fomenting further breeding ground for radicalization; and to intimidate and repel the international community that has pledged to support the North African country as it consolidates its democracy and bolsters its security and economy.

Tunisia and its global partners should do just the opposite—allow civil society to thrive and aggressively pursue constructive reforms. All political stakeholders that are committed to peacefully negotiating their differences—secularist or not—should maintain their engagement with one another and refrain from scapegoating their opponents. Similarly, the international community should continue to lend diplomatic, monetary, and technical support to Tunisia as it addresses its myriad challenges. The recent Investment and Entrepreneurship Conference, held in Tunis on March 5, 2015, was a successful show of public and private sector interest in the country and every effort ought to be made to follow up, connect US and international businesses with the Tunisian labor force, and work with Tunisians on reforming their laws to entice foreign direct investment. All of these steps would be antithetical to extremist ideology. Anything short of that would cede ground and serve as a victory to the militants.

In the hours since the assault, Tunisian authorities have arrested several suspects but not disclosed information about their identities or alleged roles. Prime Minister Habib Essid has said that the assailants’ links to jihadist groups are unclear, but Islamic State (ISIS or ISIL) has claimed responsibility for the museum attack. That they waited a whole day to do so—and only after no other group did—suggests they might just be capitalizing on the tragic events to take credit and exaggerate their reach. Given their coordination, the assailants might well have loose ties to ISIS or another organized group. Regardless, their concoction and implementation of a brutal plan speaks to its connection to the deterioration of security and law and order pervading the region.

This raises the second point that Tunisians and their international partners should bear in mind when tackling the North African country’s very real security threats. There is no question that Tunisia has an inherent extremism problem. Perennial unemployment and neglected development in the interior have left too many young men without professions and purpose. Combined with the radicalization of mosques following the revolution and the delay in reforming religious education, extremism has taken root, helping to explain why there are at least 3,000 Tunisians that have gone to join militant ranks in Syria and Iraq.

Tunisia’s unfortunate geographic destiny exacerbates the situation. Since its own uprising in 2011, neighboring Libya has spiraled into lawlessness and violence. The political vacuum that has emerged as two factions compete for power has become a haven for extremists looking to establish a new foothold and a convenient transit point for those looking to join the ranks of jihadists, including ISIS. Much of Tunisia’s underdeveloped regions rely on the black market and illegal transport of goods across the Tunisian-Libyan border. But the absence of sufficient mechanisms to monitor and defend the border against more malevolent forces—whether going from Tunisia to Libya or vice versa—threaten to embolden elements that can destabilize the state and society. Statements today from Tunisian security officials that the two gunmen who laid siege to the Bardo Museum were trained in Libya underscore this point.

As such, tackling Tunisia’s violent extremism problem cannot be addressed in isolation. Undoubtedly, the government must undertake robust development efforts to tackle the protracted challenges of unemployment. While counterterrorism certainly ought to be a core element of Tunisia’s cooperation and partnership with the international community, a more holistic approach would include every state with a stake in reversing the deteriorating regional order helping to get Libya back on track. The UN-brokered negotiations among Libyan delegates taking place in Morocco have the potential to impact not just the trajectory of their country but longer-term ripple effects beyond Libya’s borders. A stable, united Libya will serve as a reliable partner in monitoring the trafficking of persons and goods and help Tunisia with its own security problems.

The headlines about the deplorable act of terrorism in Tunisia will inevitably slow to a trickle, but its ramifications and impact will remain. It is vital that policymakers comprehend the significance of regional interconnectedness if they hope that the so-called Arab Spring’s best success story remains just that.

Karim Mezran is a Senior Fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East with a focus on the politics and economics of North Africa.

Lara Talverdian is an Associate Director for Research at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East focusing on North Africa.

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Image: Police lead their dogs during the attack by gunmen on Tunisia's national museum in Tunis March 18, 2015. (REUTERS/ Zoubeir Souissi)