Four national guardsmen were slaughtered Wednesday in Tunisia, in an attack believed to have been carried out by extremist militants. Prime Minister Habib Essid — whose new parliamentary coalition is less than two weeks old — vowed to “exterminate” whoever is responsible for the latest rip in the fabric of Tunisian state security, which will no doubt alarm internal and external observers alike.
After all, Tunisia’s nascent democracy has attracted no shortage of international attention. After kicking off the so-called Arab Spring and emerging as the multinational movement’s sole success story, many wonder if Tunisia can overcome its domestic strife and maintain a plural and peaceful society based on democratic consensus. While there are plenty of reasons for optimism about Tunisia’s path, several causes for concern remain.
The gravest and most immediate threat facing Tunisia today is the issue of security against jihadi violence. Since the secular dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted from power in 2011, Islamist extremism has been on the rise in the North African country. Wednesday’s attack was not the first the state has suffered at the hands of terrorists — in one July incident, 15 soldiers were killed (this in the wake of two assassinations of opposition leaders in 2013). Terrorist threats surrounding October’s parliamentary elections had local officials on edge, and activists dismayed that the dangers could dissuade voters from coming to polling booths. (The elections turned out to be peaceful.)
While no militant group has yet claimed official responsibility for the murder of the policemen, many analysts have suggested that a group called Okba Ibn Nafaa was responsible. Formerly believed to be associated with al Qaeda, evidence suggests that the group’s allegiances may have shifted toward the Islamic State in recent months. Only a week ago, Tunisian authorities arrested 32 militants suspected of plotting similar attacks throughout the country.
So despite being the region’s most promising democracy, Tunisia is still subject to a variety of extremist threats. Its shared border with embattled Libya puts it at extreme risk for spillover violence. Okba Ibn Nafaa is said to have originated across the border, and the nations’ proximity also provides conspiring militants an easy refuge to plot against Tunis from Libyan territory.
But Tunisian extremism doesn’t stem only from its neighbors — many threats are home-grown. The fall of Ben Ali in 2011 saw the end of decades of repressive secular rule, which appears to have unleashed a vengeful backlash on the part of long-stifled Islamist ideologues. Tunisia also faces serious economic challenges and high unemployment, particularly among its youth — and young people without opportunity are an at-risk group for jihadism. These are perhaps the reasons Tunisia is the top foreign supplier of fighters for ISIS. Experts estimate that around 3,400 Tunisians have set off for Syria since 2012, comprising around one-sixth of their foreign recruits. These radicalized fighters then pose further threats to Tunisia’s domestic tranquility when they return. In a recent police raid of militants, returned ISIS fighters were among the arrests.
This persistent extremism certainly poses a threat to the precarious post-revolutionary Tunisia, but not always for reasons that are obvious. Some analysts think the greatest threat lies not in the attacks, but in the government’s response. The health of Tunisian democracy will rely on plurality, which might be under threat. Recent crackdowns on free speech were defended as anti-terrorism measures, yet could spiral into a broad mandate to stifle dissent. Even worse, such moves could exacerbate the very social ills that make extremism so attractive in the first place.