A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) illustrates the challenges of proposing approaches to terrorism prevention in other countries whose methods may at times conflict with Western values of due process, reflect local power dynamics that are unique to each country, and reflect how those governments view tradeoffs between short vs long-term efforts to combat terrorism.
Europe is increasingly concerned that the large numbers of foreign fighters returning from the Middle East to the Maghreb, particularly Tunisia and Morocco, will in time spill over to Europe creating much larger threats than previously encountered. “European countries have a strong interest in understanding security threats that emanate from North Africa, and in working with North African countries to address them,” according to the study. The study has several themes: the nature of security challenges in the Maghreb with attention to how they counter threats within their borders; the types and level of cooperation with the EU on countering terrorism; how each country is fighting terrorism given their unique societies and histories; and how their strategies impact the EU’s options for cooperation and collaboration.
While most of the analyses believe that Tunisia and Morocco are making important and successful efforts in their struggle with countering terrorism, “Nevertheless, the countries’ counter-terrorism strategies share a common shortcoming: both Morocco and Tunisia have prioritized the prevention of attacks and the disruption of terrorist cells, but have failed to pay sufficient attention to the legal and judicial framework for handling people detained on terrorism charges – or to the wide range of factors that contribute to radicalization.” This caveat has as much to do with the historical roots of notions of justice in both countries as well as structural and resource constraints faced in dealing with those groups at risk of radicalization.
The study calls for stronger cooperation and integration of efforts between the EU members and Morocco and Tunisia who “make up the front line in the EU’s efforts to establish zones of security on the southern shore of the Mediterranean.” It specifically mentions the need for “greater attention to areas such as the treatment of arrested suspects, socioeconomic factors that may contribute to radicalization, and the state’s broader relationship with communities that are disproportionately vulnerable to terrorist recruitment,” as critical priorities in terrorism prevention.
Tunisia – changing of the guard
Given the terrorist attacks in 2015 that exposed the weaknesses in Tunisia’s security platform, “With substantial foreign support, the Tunisian authorities responded to this moment of crisis by launching a program that restructured the security services and improved the country’s defenses against terrorism.”
On balance, the study gives the government high marks in that since 2014, it has markedly improved the army and internal security forces’ capabilities, training, equipment, and coordination.
“In 2015, the government launched the National Commission on Counter-Terrorism, which joined the National Security Council in developing the new, comprehensive strategy on counter-terrorism and extremism unveiled in 2016.” As the study points out, it bears “a strong resemblance to European models, this strategy centers on the four pillars of prevention, protection, prosecution, and response to attacks. Finally, in early 2017, Tunisia set up the National Intelligence Centre, an institution designed to overcome problems with coordination and information-sharing between intelligence agencies that had plagued the country’s counter-terrorism efforts since the revolution.”
These steps, plus the construction of barriers in a militarized zone bordering Libya and Algeria, along with enhanced surveillance and detection equipment, are key factors in the country’s upgraded capabilities. The report states that “Tunisia stands out among North African countries for its readiness to work with international partners on reforming and improving the capability of its security sector. European officials generally agree that Tunisia’s security services have considerably improved their capacity to prevent and respond to terrorist threats since 2015.”
On the other hand, it notes that, “Nevertheless, the overhaul of Tunisia’s security and counter-terrorism strategy and structures has failed to resolve some problems and even created a few new difficulties. The reform of the security services under the authority of the Ministry of the Interior has made little headway… as many officials continue to believe that police transparency and accountability would be an impediment to fighting terrorism.”
While Tunisia has sharpened its skills to prevent terrorist attacks, there still remain several concerns that must be addressed according to the report. First of all, the internal security services need to be reformed, especially reducing its immunity for violating human rights and arbitrary arrests and detention. “Using emergency powers, the security forces have carried out thousands of raids and house searches without judicial authorization, and placed dozens of people under assigned residence orders,” it states, calling for independent oversight of its operations.
Additional challenges include the economic impact of border closures with Libya, which severely restrict cross-border trade; and more importantly, the lack of a comprehensive government-wide strategy for dealing with radicalized individuals. Also of concern is the lack of intelligence on Tunisian diaspora in Europe, in sharp contrast with Morocco, which has significant interactions with its intelligence counterparts in Europe.
Among its conclusions regarding Tunisia, the study recommends, “In Tunisia, international partners should follow through on existing reform programs, encouraging further openness within the Ministry of the Interior to help the institution improve its cooperation with the country’s citizens. Greater professionalism within the security services would make it easier for European partners to share intelligence with Tunisia. European countries and the EU should also encourage and support Tunisia in developing programs to promote religious education and awareness, gearing them towards pupils and their families from an early age.”
In my next blog, I’ll look at the ECFR assessment of Morocco’s counter-terrorism capabilities and strategies.