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ISIS targeting Tunisia: “More than terrorism,” says former minister

IMD Professor Tawfik Jelassi on the recent Ben Gardane takeover attempt

ISIS recently launched an armed attack on the Tunisian town of Ben Gardane, near the country’s border with Libya.

IMD Professor of Strategy and Technology Management, Tawfik Jelassi was the Tunisian Minister of Higher Education, Scientific Research, and Information & Communication Technologies during a transitional technocratic government in 2014-2015 following the Arab Spring revolution in the country.

Professor Jelassi discusses the significance of the recent attack.

Were you surprised by the attack on Ben Gardane?

Tawfik Jelassi: Absolutely. 2015 was a bloody year for Tunisia. We had three major attacks: on the Bardo national museum in March, on a major hotel in Sousse in June, and on the presidential guard in Tunis 100 meters from the interior ministry in November.

The latest attack of March 7th, 2016 can’t really be classified as being just a terrorist act. It was actually an attempt to take control of a Tunisian city to establish an outpost for ISIS in the country! This is unprecedented and deeply troubling.

Does this mean Tunisia isn’t in control of security in that border region?

Tawfik Jelassi: Tunisia is still on top of the issue. Luckily, the security forces were able to defend the city from the attack. There were around 50 casualties among the terrorists who were suspected to number over 100. But they managed to assassinate some members of the security forces at home, which means they had cooperation from inside Tunisia, possibly dormant ISIS cells that were activated for the attack. All of the identified ISIS casualties so far have turned out to be Tunisians. This raises a lot of questions about what is ahead. Are there more dormant terrorist cells in the country? Will there be other ISIS attempts to take territorial control?

What should the EU do?

Tawfik Jelassi: Tunisia was already destabilized by the insecurity in Libya. The latest attack in a symptom of problems that go beyond its borders and concern the entire international community. Tunisia is often forgotten until there is a terrorist attack, but it has very strong ties to Europe. The international community has recognized Tunisia by granting the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize to the Tunisian Quartet that facilitated our National Dialogue in the fall of 2013.But beyond that there hasn’t been much support for Tunisia, the “Democracy Start-up”. The country was the only ray of hope that came out of the Arab Spring revolutions of 2011, but now the country faces economic problems that need to be addressed and major security challenges as well.

The EU and the international community at large are in a position to help Tunisia on the security, economic and social levels.

What can be done by the EU for Tunisia’s security?

Tawfik Jelassi: Tunisia needs security equipment: it lacks advanced attack helicopters, night vision military capabilities and more to face the threat that the radical groups pose to the country. It would benefit from more intelligence sharing as well. There have been some partial intelligence failures, and Tunisia is sometimes in a reactive mode. Becoming more proactive would help combat the terrorist threat more effectively.

On the economic side, certain regions are lagging behind; they don’t have sufficient factories or development projects that can create new job opportunities for the unemployed youth. If nothing is done, and if there is no foreign investment, unemployment will continue to rise, purchasing power will keep dropping and social problems will grow.

At the G8 summit of 2011, several billion dollars were pledged to Tunisia but the country has yet to receive any of it. Tunisia’s problems are well known but it hasn’t gotten assistance from its allies in the West. We need a Marshall Plan for Tunisia. We can’t forget that Tunisia is the last buffer zone for Europe against the terrorist threat that is growing in the Middle East and North Africa. If this area becomes completely unstable, southern Europe will have a lot more to worry about.

Why are Tunisia’s youth attracted to radical groups?

Tawfik Jelassi: In some of the far-flung regions of the country, the state is not sufficiently active economically and socially, and some extremist groups are taking advantage of this situation. They have been appealing to the unemployed youth, luring them with money or promising them a “better life” and thus tempting them to join their ranks. Some of the youngsters are also brainwashed by being told that the extremists are fighting for a “noble cause” to establish true Islam and Sharia law in the country, which gives them a sense of purpose. Some of the less stable youth succumb to these promises and end up crossing the line to join these extremist groups.

What is life like for average Tunisians?

Tawfik Jelassi: Many Tunisians think that it is all well and good that the country was recognized with the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize and that since the 2011 revolution they have a democratic society as well as more liberty and freedom than ever before, but those aren’t checks they can cash at the bank. Their day-to-day lives are actually not improving, economically speaking. We have to tackle the roots of the problem and put in place the right solutions that will improve the lives of average Tunisians. This will require more time and continuous effort but also help from the international community.

Where is Tunisia headed?

Tawfik Jelassi: Making a democratic transition takes time. The most difficult part is changing people’s mind-sets. We need to have more continuity of direction and policies, and also to swiftly implement some reforms that the country badly needs. What the people want to see is more action on the ground and fewer empty promises. Any Government in power has to deliver results-wise in order to enable citizens to reap the benefits of a post-revolution, democratic Tunisia.

Dr. Tawfik Jelassi is Professor of Strategy and Technology Management. From January 2014 to February 2015, he served as Minister of Higher Education, Scientific Research, and Information & Communication Technologies in the transition Government of Tunisia. He will be giving a session on leading in high turbulence environments at Orchestrating Winning Performance (OWP) in Lausanne from June 27 to July 1st.

This article is based on an interview on the Swiss Radio station RTS.



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