Tunisia: Implications of the Sousse attack, and why Government Countermeasures May Be a Shot in the Foot

By: Oded Berkowitz


On June 26, a militant disguised as a tourist came ashore the beach at Sousse’s Port el Kantaoui, drew an assault rifle hidden in a beach umbrella and opened fire, deliberately targeting foreigners. 38 tourists hailing from the UK, Ireland, Germany, Belgium, Russia, and Portugal were killed, while 39 individuals were wounded, including seven local employees. The attack was subsequently claimed by the Islamic State (IS) organization, and seems to indicate the group’s intention to lay the foundations towards an eventual expansion of its operations in Tunisia. Worryingly, IS’s plans may actually benefit from the Tunisian government’s response to the attack, as the emergency measures being undertaken to “defeat terrorism” also alienate the population and may serve to weaken the government’s legitimacy.


In the immediate aftermath of the Sousse shooting, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi initiated an emergency plan intended to reduce the threat of militancy in the country. The plan included closing down 80 mosques perceived as “inciting to violence”, offering cash rewards for information that will lead to arrests of “terrorists”, calling up the Tunisian Armed Forces (TAF) reserves to intensify counter-militancy operations in the outlying regions of the country, as well as bolstering the deployment of security forces near prominent tourist attractions and beaches. Moreover, on July 4, Essebsi declared a 30-day state of emergency for the first time since March 2014. The state of emergency allows the government to restrict freedom of movement, freedom of gathering, and grants it the authority to seize goods and to close down places of business. In his speech to the nation, Essebsi justified his decision by stating that Tunisia is in a “state of war” and that “one more attack may cause the state to collapse”, while also criticized demonstrations that disrupt the production of phosphates as helping the militants’ agenda by discouraging foreign companies from investing in the country.


The June 26 attack in Sousse represents the second large scale militant attack in Tunisia claimed by IS, following the Bardo Museum attack in Tunis, and the largest one in the country to date. This, in turn, points towards a growing interest by IS in carrying out high-profile attacks in Tunisia, with the aim of deterring tourism and foreign direct investments, in order to destabilize the country’s economic situation. Moreover, given Tunisia’s successful democratic transition following the parliamentary and presidential elections in 2014, it is likely that IS is intentionally attempting to provoke a reaction from the government, much like the state of emergency, that will be perceived by the citizens as infringing on their rights, thus further destabilizing the political and social situations as well. This was already seen in early July when clashes between security forces and local residents manifested as the former attempted to close down a mosque.


Should IS be successful in its plan, it will allow the group to broaden its foothold in the country through the outlying regions, where citizens already feel marginalized by the government given the high unemployment rates, poor infrastructure, and lack of government investments in these areas. Such regions are already considered strongholds for militant groups, in light of their favoring terrain and population, as well as proximity to the borders, which allows for cooperation with groups in neighbouring Algeria and Libya, as well as for escape routes in times of attacks.


That said, and despite the relative success of the attack in Sousse, it was probably conducted by supporters of IS, who were directed by officials from the organization to target tourists in Tunisia during Ramadan, but were relatively independent in implementation. This is based on the fact that the attack, much like the one in Bardo, was conducted by a single assailant with relatively simple means, and did not involve high grade explosives, a sophisticated and complicated plan, or other advanced capabilities. While such modus operandi is rare for groups that are considered an integral part of IS, it is common for those that aren’t yet accepted by the central organization as an official IS group or “Wilaya” (Province). With this in mind, it is possible that the Bardo and Sousse attacks were also meant as a “show of force” by these local supporters, in preparation for a future  pledge of allegiance to IS’s leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and induction into the organization.


In this context, despite the likely long-term plans IS has for Tunisia, it is still in preliminary stages and far from commencing, particularly as the group currently views Libya as its top priority in the region. With this in mind, IS will invest more resources to compensate for its recent loss of Derna, the group’s first stronghold in Libya which is also perceived by it as its “capital” in the region, as well as to further expand its territory there, rather than in supporting efforts in neighboring countries like Tunisia. Thus, the Sousse attack was likely part of IS’ attempts to lay the foundations for expansion in Tunisia and further efforts to destabilize the country, which will be implemented by the group when it deems the timing is right.

Overall, while security forces have generally proven their ability to foil plans of attacks against foreign and civilian targets in the past, and that the emergency measures are liable to upgrade their capabilities in the short term,  some of the measures of Essebsi’s emergency plan, as well as in the declared state of emergency, may antagonize the population. This may cause more grievances between it and the government and ultimately make the plan counterproductive, as it may drive some locals to lend more support to the militants in the long-term. However, while only a relatively small portion of the population is expected to actively support the militants, among the remainder of the population, opposition to the government will substantially grow in light of the perceived violations of their civil rights. Thus, Essebsi’s plans may in and of themselves pose additional challenges to the stability of the state. Essentially, the Tunisian government is sacrificing its viability and credibility as the one true success story of the “Arab Spring” for a questionable addition to its immediate security, a move that may turn out to be a shot it the foot.


Oded Berkowitz is a senior intelligence analyst at MAX security, specializing in the North African region. Oded holds a B.A in Political Science and Middle Eastern StudIes and is currently pursuing graduate studies in Counter Terrorism and Homeland Security, while also serving as an infantry captain in the Israel Defense Forces. He can be followed on twitter at @Oded121351