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The war against the Caliphate. A Tunisian perspective


Tunisi. Jihhadist attack of March the 18th in Bardo was a scarf on the  new Tunisian democracy. It happened  after we heard for months of ongoing celebrations about the only country of the so-called Arab Spring (or revolt, as you like it) emerging from that struggle with a new constitution and a frame of “democracy” that has yet to show how healthy it actually is. But Tunisia is also the greatest supplier of foreign fighters to Islamic State and other jihadist “brands”. And has to prove that can control  its own territory, specially southern  and  western borders trough wich jihadists and weapons are pouring in the country.  So official narrative does not explain the full story.

The more, the  shadow of the ancient regime is behind the corner, and it is up to the “new rulers” to show that they are different. A new president, Caid Essebsi, was elected as a result of last Fall’s elections, and a new government is going to warm up with a brand new premier, Habib Essid. The international economic and political circus is ready to push the green light on for the little Maghreb country. But not all glitters is gold, as Bardo episode remember to us. And  to fulfill the promises of the new president to a quick economic restart it needs a friendly business enviroment: stability, security, accountability and and low rate of corruption. A promise to carry Tunisa out of a 1970’s economy model, as stated by a  World Bank analisys. Tunisia face problems, among others, like unequal access to economy opportunities and lack of jobs, sort of byproducts of the  old regime corrupted  model. And ranks 107 in the world’s   Index of economic freedom  of Heritage foundation, between Senegal and Nicaragua.

Instead threats from Libya, shaped by Islamic state, and the attack downtown Tunis that hit innocent people and even the “beef” of tunisian economy, the tourism (15,2% of 2013 ngdp according to WTTC), are going to scattered the light in the future of a country that deserve  the  utmost attention  from  Europe and from all the countries care about peace and stability in the region.

Now Tunisia is a piece of a bigger scenario of MENA Countries (as experts like to call the North Africa and Middle East region). So we have to describe  how this scenario changed in the last years, like did Fareed Zakaria on Washington Post pages, giving a wide geopolitical and strategic overview from Us foreign policy point of view.


It was 2010 when  were clear the signs of the USA decoupling from the Great Middle East. It all seemed the logical consequence of forced and intended choices. Forced by the long economic and financial crisis that was draining the coffers of Washington, wanted by the need to contain the Chinese expansionism in Asia: the United States shall not allow Beijing to become a maritime power. The so- called deep blue waters should remain an American prerogative, acoording to Washington, otherwise the US global hegemony (already in serious danger) could end. At the same time Middle East oil was losing part of its strategic value to the United States (not for Europe and the rest of the world). With the advent of new drilling techniques crude oil could be produced in less “messy” areas. Including in America. Experts  confirmed the intention of the United States to climb the list of top global gas/oil producers. In short, the premise of a historical change were clear. A little less clear were the direct and indirect geopolitical byproducts.


It should be noted  that the United States in the Middle East subsidizes Israel’s military spending with an annual funding of about $ 1.3 billion (a similar amount was also provided to Egypt). What the official chronicles do not say is that the relationship between Washington and Jerusalem was always a turbulent marriage. President Obama’s behavior, raising his voice on the phone with Netanyahu, or John Kerry losing his patience, today are made public, but they are not a novelty. Israel has always been unpredictable and “unmanageable” about its “security” problem. As far as being ready to launch Jericho nuclear missiles against Egypt. Then (we are at the times of the Cold War) it was a tandem working with Washington and Moscow that saved the peace and avoided a doomed (nuclear) massacre with one stone (Soviet atomic missiles settled in Egypt). Can you imagine how dangerous the situation could have been? So much to push communists and “capitalists” to team up together. An incident also mentioned by our Admiral Fulvio Martini (former chief of italian military intelligence) in a book of memoires. It  should be kept  in mind when analyzing the regional policy.


The decision of the USA to step back from MENA could not take into account the utmost need to leave   the “more friendly” enviroment as possible.  Especially for the Jewish state. The Arab spring came, therefore, with perfect timing. Except for the fact that  it then created so much confusion in the leadership of the Israeli politicians and diplomats,  that a wise silence was devoted throughout the period of the “riots”. Political dizziness caused by election results of the springs were not those expected. In particular, when experts emphasized the fact that street protesters did not burn American and Israeli flags. The strong push for change absolutely had no religious coloration, but found vent in the electoral formations with strong and moderate Islamic characterization. A fact that was analyzed in an inaccurate way, because instead it made it clear a key element for all the great Middle East: the opinion vote was born.


Israel could not fail to think about new geopolitical geometries for the Middle East and North Africa “liberated” from the old dictators. And it created  a field project  to replace an America that wanted to close the taps of the major military interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan and stay more  secluded and sheltered in the Mediterranean area. And that seemed inattentive because of Asia (China).


France – a secular, anti-religious, full of geopolitical velleity and with a residual foreign power projection capacity – was the perfect candidate. Paris was also the  nearest Country than Washington, more Mediterranean, more open-minded in dealing with  Arabs. And Israel needed a “real” friend at the Elysée: Dominique Strauss-Kahn (not all doughnuts come with a hole). But they also needed local Islamic partners, possibly frightened by the political project of the Muslim Brotherhood (which involved mainly the triangle Turkey-Egypt-Tunisia). Saudi Arabia (disappointed by Washington), Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, just one step back, were suitable candidates to complete this hypothetical geometry of a new regional balance of power. And they had what more missing. The money, a lot of bucks – what France was beggling for – the terror that the springs could become a model of “Islamic democracy” that would clearly mine their undemocratic  oil-cracies families. And they had a desperate need to create new alliances. The oligarchies of the Gulf also had a good reason to do everything in a hurry: Iran had its breath on their  neck. And what happened in Yemen as a proof. An activism of Tehran who was pushing Shiite waves along the Persian Gulf. In Bahrain, for example, but also in Syria and Iraq, now in Yemen.


Now after the Charlie Aebdo tragedies in France, the horrific  immolation of jordanian pilot, the slaughter of egyptyans coptic in Libya and the unsane attack in Bardo, it has become a paramount need to have a better understanding of what is going on in a country, Tunisia, with a particularly strange record: is the only country of the so-called “Arab Spring” with a “democracy” embedded to a brand new constitution, as we have already said. At the same time, the country that lead Arab revolutions and revolts is the best supplier of foreign fighters to the Islamic State. More than 600 young Tunisians have died in Syria and Iraq, approximately 1.500 jihadists are still fighting down there, some hundreds have already came back in the Maghreb State (580 according to Tunisian Minister of the Interior data), plus another 2.000 jihadists are being trained in Libyan camps, 4.000 thousands were stopped to go by security authorities and are posing a serious threat to the security and the future of Tunisia. What could be the political and social trigger to push those former jihadists to start a violent jihad even in their own country? Corruption, social injustice and the perception of a coming back of Ben Ali gang friends. We shall take for granted that the most violent branch of jihadism has no chance of being engaged by any political, social or religious means. Therefore, it is a challenge for any civil and political society to face this new threat. In Tunisia as well there are believers, Muslims with enough will and courage to challenge the narrative of pure violence of Islamic State. But they have to be supported by the State and by international opinion that has to avoid the  trap of islamophobia.

So we have to understand how it is possible to match an achievement in democracy, as well for economy,  with such a high number of Tunisians choosing jihad with the Islamic State, Jabath al Nusra, Ansar Sharia Libya just to quote the notorious organization of the “fight for God”. Some “experts” say that this is a sort of historical payback to Islam, because Tunisia is the closest country to Western/European culture and life-style. Other say it is because of the economic crisis. But jihadism for money sounds such a poor assessment and does not fit completely Muslim behavior. Not to mention the psychological studies and profiling of young jihadists. Most of these studies like to show that the gross number of fighters are inside a framework of “mentally unstable” or “fragile personality”. It sounds wishful talking. Reality seems to be much more different and tragically serious.

Anyone who has been to Syria could not avoid wishing to go back there to help. It is not a matter of religion; it is just a matter of human feelings. You cannot stay hand in hand in front of a lake of innocents’ bloodbath. The answer could be different:  you can help by providing medical care, or food, or by supplying people with anything they need. Or you can hold a Kalashnikov and follow the path to an unknown end. Many young Tunisians chose the latter. In Tunisia, some people talk about revolution betrayal and a backlash of the former regime. They talk about political blackmail that has bent the Ennahda government allowing Ben Ali’s allies to come back in the shadow of a new “democracy”. Maybe this assessment is influenced by rage. Maybe not. It is true that the Muslim brotherhood was not ready for a government in Tunisia, like in Egypt. Too many mistakes were made by them. It is likely that external interests played and still play a role across all the region. And it is true that a Western country that condemns terrorism at home, does promote it abroad. So the formula for a political/social/religious quagmire is ready.

As well as it is true that even the media are playing a role. Every so often, no one knows from where, a piece of “news” password appears and the media circus that consumes information ester slavishly follows. Instead, the media that has the power to produce information on a global scale, launches clear signals to the few who dare to produce independent news. Let me give an example, so as not to be vague. The Salafists. Ugly, dirty and bad. I have visited the notorious al Fath mosque in Rue de la Liberté in Tunis several times, between the spring and summer of 2013, while the prohibition for foreigners to cross that threshold was still in force. Last winter, just not to miss anything, I also went to pray in a mosque in Soukra district where the official historiography indicates the birthplace of  Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. I can affirm that on May 19, 2013 I was in Kairouan, where Ansar was supposed to rally its annual meeting. I have met many Salafis (not on this occasion). Of course there are also the violent ones, but they are everywhere, even among the Sufis – in Libya, for example – who are known for having a very different, and better, reputation.

It becomes therefore difficult to explain that among the vast majority of Tunisian Salafists

even among the Egyptian ones)  are the most polite, reliable and friendly people that one can meet, who resemble a lot more to Franciscan friars than to the blood-thirsty and sharia “throat-cutters” and jihadists that a certain propaganda wants to convey. I would like to point out that some “certified” Salafis were photographed during the (September 2012) attack on the US Embassy in Tunis. They will be jailed for a long time, throwing the keys away if possible. And it is even true that Ansar al Sharia Libya is the proxy of Daesh. As well salafism “Gulf style” is the cornerstone of IS beliefs with its strong antinationalism “political” attachment.

Now the “hate machine” engine is warming fast in European and American media, and it is not time for surgical distinctions among “radicals” anymore. The word “barbarian” will shadow everything. Even if the Grand Muftì of al Azhar University of Cairo, Shawqi Allam, stated that “an extremist and bloody group such as this poses a danger to Islam and to all Muslims” these words seem to be drops in the sea of real rage in West.

Some months ago we wrote that  the “perspective mistake is to confuse the religion with a subculture by product of ignorance, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz, for example, pointed out in his research”. But avoiding dropping quotes “escape-the-reader” it is like if Catholicism would be judged by looking at some criminal episodes of the fifties in Southern Italy. And tragically we quoted “setting fire” terrific practices.  “I am referring to honor killings or to the ones within the family, where setting fire to a disobedient sister/wife/daughter was considered a right. Was it the religion to condemn or  the “culture” that formally recognized itself, however, in that religion? I understand that we are entering a field unsuitable with the  style of an  article, but it needed an explanation. At least in partially. It is clear that, in such a context, information becomes not only impossible to provide, but also surreal. It could also explain how new regional geometries of policies exert a power to address the media. You must not feel surprised or disappointed until you pass over the dead bodies of innocent, ordinary citizens. It happened during the Cold War as well, and if you read a masterpiece handbook for rulers like the “De Bello Gallico”, you’ll see how the Roman empire could have used  appeasement and unspeakable practice as well, in order to keep its “limes” (i.e, borders) safe. Now  westerners have to avoid to make a capital mistake: in the main wave mounting of rage against IS we have to not fuel further Islamophobia. In this way we will put in the corner the only chance to stop violence. The problem is not only militarly defeat al Baghdadi but it gives Arabs and Muslims people a hope to gain their way to “democracy”. Hope that is not represented by el Sisi (a dictator) or Essebsi (a man linked to the past regime)  that are icons of restoration.


The more, Tunisia inherited a security system from the past regime, able to deeply controls ordinary citizens not to fight well trained  and “conbat ready”  jihadists. An army of 27.000 militaries and 15.000 men of National Guard (about 3.000 of them as garrison in the big base close to Chartage airport) cannot achive an  acceptable control a country of 167.000 kilometer squares, more  than half the size of Italy. Just to make an example the only city of Rome, that match Tunis for area and inhabitants (2,7 milions vs 2,4 milions), had a security framework of 15.000 militaries. Several tests and simulations proved this security “set” was not able to face a treath of just few hundreds of incursors. It was improved.

Even the tunisian officers sent to Arizona didn’t get an actual field training. The Maghreb country already attended 2 Us programs: the ATA (antiterrorism program) and JCET (Join combined exchange training for special operations). It established even the Unect a new investigative unit that should works as intelligence for Bat (Brigade antiterrorism, that led the operations in Bardo). But was not enough. Maybe we have to wait decades before see in Tunisia security/intelligence/scientific branches as MI5 or Csi, and the old regime intelligence apparatus was rightly decomissioned. Till now several antiterrorism operation started from ordinary people reports.

The South of the country is barely controlled along Libyan border and on West side along the algerian border in the area of Kasserine governatorate. A zone full of jihadist hideouts, with a strong presence of members of Ukbha ibn Nafi battalion of Al Qaida in Maghreb, that recently joined Islamic State “brand”. Last month in Ben Gardene was found a huge weapons cache, with Kalashnikov, rpg, thousands of rounds and explosive. Close to that city the border is a sort of sliding door for smugglers and jihadists -as we wittnessed- despite government official statements. The terrorist cells are growing around the area of Kairouan. From South, in Gafsa going northbound where a recent military endeavour to clean up  a Aqim cell in mount Mghilla, basically failed. To the North West side in el Kef area. Just to quote some of the country areas  where hideouts seem dangerously strongholds. Even the success operation in Gafsa (Sidi Aich) with the elimination of Khaled Chaieb, a preminent member of Aqim, suspected to be the mastermind of Bardo attack, needs a more wide security policy. But let we talk about the numbers. There are 1.500 tunisian fighters in Syria and Iraq under several jihad flags, as stated to us tunisian minister of the Interior Lofti Ben Jadoud last november (now former minister). About 500 are the jihadist that came back home, 700 died in Syria and Iraq. And tunisian authorities states that they stopped 4.000 others to join foreign jihad. In this list we have to put even the jihadists in Libya, trained in camps near Derna and Benghazi area by Ansar al Sharia Libya, the local partner of IS: about 2/3.000. Big numbers for a small country like Tunisia. Among fighters there are not only youngs coming from poor area like Ben Gardane or Kasserine, but even persons coming from bourgeois families. On the eve of political elections, last october, security forces stormed an house in Manouba, a big neighborhood of Tunis, during Chebbaou operation, and killed 6 terrorits. Among them 5 women, one was a 26 years old girl, music institute student, from La Marsa, a residential, bourgeois municipality of the capital. Sympathyzers in uppe/midclass take roots among the ones that, starting from 70ies, studied and worked in Gulf states. They gained education and a better social layer, feeling thankfull to the wahabite society. Even for the majority of tunisians Gulf style Islam is not suitable.

The economic style IS adopts is a merger between extortion and pragmatism. Often they deal with local tribes to share business equally divided (50%) after the killing of opponents. In this way they build a strong “consensus”. The average salary for a fighter is around 40 us dollars per month, in this way they can fuel most of financial efforts on weapons, equipments and services for civilians. And they want to give an image of “state” in the land they are ruling, as the last video on ISHS (islamic state health service) of Raqqa shows. A would be health care service, England fashion.

Islamic State in the last issue of Dabiq magazine put a cover showing the big mosquee of Kairouan, with an article focused on the “lions” Bardo. For IS Kairouan is a main target that means historical/religious heritage and “political” achivements. That underline that troubles for Tunisia has yet to come.

(Copyright Derin Ekonomi/pierre chiartano) published on May 2015

Pierre Chiartano


One comment on “The war against the Caliphate. A Tunisian perspective

  1. Pingback: The war against the Caliphate. A Tunisian perspective | pierrechiartanoreporter

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This entry was posted on August 19, 2015 by in Uncategorized.
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