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In the immediate aftermath of the recent horrific attacks against innocent tourists in Tunisia, one question keeps emerging – why Tunisia? There are three key reasons.
The first is that Tunisia represents the last best success story of the Arab Spring.Tunisia is a beacon in the Arab world for (relatively) successful transition from authoritarianism to a multi-party and inclusive democracy. This success represents a threat to the Daesh narrative: that Sunni Muslims around the world have only a singular binary choice – a Daesh form of Caliphate or not being a Muslim. The simplicity of this narrative gives it strength. The Tunisian case obscures this choice. Daesh therefore needs to destabilise a multi-party and inclusive Tunisia to make their narrative true. The attacks aren’t just an attack on innocent victims in Tunisia, they are an attack on the fundamental idea that Muslims can live in, and Islam is compatible with, democracy.
The next important factor is Tunisia’s proximity to Libyan chaos. This makes Tunisia a soft target for Daesh to inspire, if not directly coordinate, attacks on European targets. The Bardo Attack in March 2015 was a precursor to this – and there have been a number of plots already foiled by Tunisian authorities which sought to target tourist areas in Tunisia, including in the North (Hammamet) and the South (Tatooine). There is little evidence that attacks on tourists have a local origin, per se. There is, on the other hand, consistent evidence showing that these attacks have been planned and/or carried out by Tunisians who received training and logistical support from Daesh affiliated entities in Libya. Until Daesh is eradicated in Libya, Tunisia remains under threat.
Lastly, the Daesh strategy of targeting Tunisia is derived from lessons learned from Al-Qa'ida (AQ). One of the basic tenets of AQ activities is that attacks force responses, and responses generate support. Daesh doesn’t act to generate support amongst supporters and activists. It acts to convince potential latent supporters that it’s viable and worth backing. On the one hand, this creates a need to be always seen to be doing something – and helps to explain its reliance on social media. Beyond being ‘seen to be doing’, it effectively exploits opportunities to demonstrate the shortcomings or ‘heavyhandedness’ of responses by its opponents. So when a state cracks down in the wake of Daesh terrorist attacks, it seems to make their narrative perspective appear true. This boils down to the old truism of fighting Al-Qaida – they can afford the risk of mistakes – we cannot.
How to Move Forward
All three of these factors can be mitigated – but require consideration and clear policy direction moving forward. Supporting Tunisian democracy and its fragile economy in the wake of these attacks is essential. As democracy thrives in Tunisia, it will continue to be a clear chink in Daesh’s idiotic ‘us vs. them’ narrative. This can be accomplished by working through and with Tunisian partners in Government and beyond to identify what skills and capacities they need help with. Helping Tunisians to build sustainable Tunisian capacity will underpin their burgeoning democracy.
Additionally, the sooner a settlement in Libya, the better. Ironically, at this precise moment the noises out of Libya seem more positive than previously. Bernadino Leon, the UN Support Mission Libya (UNSMIL) Special Representative, has bypassed both the Tripoli and Tobruk Governments to entreat directly with Misratans and others to generate a popular reconciliation process. This is commendable and represents real progress for political discourse necessary to find a solution to permanently ameliorate the Libyan chaos. At the same time, countering IS in Sirte (and especially Derna) is one of the few issues that have firmly united competing factions in the country.
As for Daesh, it is amazing to think about the vast array of forces around the world that now turn their attention to this contemptible organisation, yet their unhindered capacity to keep on murdering, torturing and wreaking havoc. From Muslims to Christians, Kurds to Tunisians, the global community is equal part outrage and horror at the terrible activities of this group. But this horror and outrage have yet to translate into activities to effectively defeat them. We too need to compete for the audience of latent potential supporters – making it clear that participation in Daesh comes at a high cost. We must also grasp the nettle here.
There may be legitimate reasons why this audience of potential supporters are frustrated about the slow and incomplete progress of democratisation, feeble economic performance and widespread social injustice. At the same time, while we may accept these concerns, we need to make it clear that Daesh is not the right response. We must work with these states and these communities across the alliance against Daesh, helping to generate a meaningful, viable and legitimate set of alternatives to Daesh – and simultaneously challenging Daesh’s narrative and brand – and the ‘us vs. them’ view of the world.