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Tunisia and the Islamic State PR-machine

May 16, 2015 at 12:05 pm

Since the terrorist attack targeting the Bardo Museum there has been an increase in media reports claiming that Tunisia is becoming the next Islamic State (IS) conquest. Judging from some of the coverage you’d be excused for believing that the radical movement was already setting up camps in the country, however, argues Tunisian political analyst Youssef Cherif, it is important to not play in the hands of IS.

The attack on March 18, in which two assailants stormed the National Bardo Museum, next door to the Parliament, killing 22 people, was the worst terrorist attack on Tunisian soil since the 2003 assault on the small island of Djerba off the southern Tunisian coast. Even though extremist activists have been known in Tunisia since the 1980s most attacks have been aimed at the state and the security apparatus, not civilians. Until today it remains unclear which, if any, organisation the two gunmen were affiliated with. In an audio message IS claimed responsibility for the attack but the Tunisian interior ministry blamed the al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) affiliate Katibah Uqba Ibn Nafaa, believed to operate in the Chaambi mountain region close to the Algerian border. IS’ claim of responsibility was never rejected by AQIM, yet analysts remain sceptical, contemplating if it is another PR-trick from the social media savvy group.

But since the attack there has been an increase in media coverage reporting that the self-proclaimed Islamic State is eyeing Tunisia. One article that went viral just one week after the Bardo attack claimed that Tataouine, one of the places close to where parts of the famous science-fiction movie Star Wars was filmed was under threat from IS. These articles are much in line with the radical group’s own propaganda machine that among other things responded to #IWillComeToTunisiaThisSummer, the social media campaign in support of the Tunisian tourism sector after the Bardo attack, by also pledging their summer presence.

The radical Islamist movement quickly took advantage of the increasing media attention in the Arab Spring birthplace. In a video footage a Tripoli-based IS-gunman threatens Tunisian politicians and pledges revenge for the imprisonment of IS supporters. “The Islamic State is only a few kilometres from you [Tunisia], we are coming,” the masked gunman said. In addition, the front page of the latest edition of the group’s English propaganda magazine Dabiq, dedicated to IS Africa’s expansion plans, shows Tunisian city Kairouan’s Grand Mosque, which is among Islam’s most holiest sites.

According to Aaron Y. Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs, the past few months have shown increasing signs that IS intends “to build a base and set up a new wilayah (province) in Tunisia in the near future named Wilayat Ifriqiya, a medieval name for the region of Tunisia (as well as northwest Libya and northeast Algeria).” As IS doesn’t have a clear target group, such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, in Tunisia the radical group’s tactics is rather to inspire Tunisians to join the movement, argues Nancy A. Youssef in The Daily Beast piece “ISIS Pushes West, Eyeing a New Caliphate in Tunisia“. “There are signs they are pushing toward making it official,” Zelin told the author, “They want to build up momentum and excitement.”

But according to Cherif Tunisia is not necessarily seeing a new wave of radical extremists or an increase in operations in Tunisia. Instead the risk is that individual cases of the same radical fighters that previously have been operating under the umbrella of Uqba Ibn Nafaa now are drawn to the IS propaganda also in Tunisia. “I don’t think there are any connections between IS affiliates in Tunisia and central leadership in Iraq,” argues Cherif. “They work as independent cells just like in many other parts of the world.”

The recent attack could signify a change in terrorism strategy in Tunisia. Before Bardo, in addition to Djerba, Tunisia experienced two failed terrorist attacks targeting tourism, both in the touristic beach cities of Sousse and Monastir. Yet, despite the potential threat, stresses Cherif, it is important to keep facts from fiction and not play in the hands of IS PR-machine. “This is their philosophy and strategy, the psychosis and terrorising of a population,” explains Cherif. “They use this fear that they see in the media to show that they are strong and able to terrorise people.” The Tunisian political analyst recognises the tactics from the time under former leader Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “Ben Ali wasn’t all that strong but he managed to get into people’s heads, scare them and control them,” he explains, “and I am afraid that that is where we might be heading with IS, giving them too much media space.”

“Now when they’ve done the Bardo attack I don’t see why there wouldn’t be attempts to other attacks, argued Cherif.” If the aim is hitting civilian or touristic targets there are many areas less protected than the National Bardo Museum, noted Cherif, “But they didn’t do that, which means that they are not strong enough to stage a sustainable channel of operations,” concludes Cherif. “But if we continue to give them strength then it will strengthen them.”

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.