For the first time since its 2011 revolution, Tunisia is not on the defensive in its battle with the Islamic State and al-Qaeda. Data from 2019, paired with a more holistic approach to combating jihadists, bears out this claim. Specifically, Tunis is expanding its toolkit beyond a purely military or law enforcement approach. Because of these advances, which have developed over the past few years, Tunis and Washington will have widened opportunities to engage on more complex aspects of reform that could make Tunisia a regional and global model. Both internal and external challenges remain, such as from foreign fighters dwelling abroad, an overcrowded prison system, and the threat of resurgent jihadism next door in Libya, but these need not diminish the accomplishments. Moreover, Tunisia can now build on its achievements, continuing the process of reform after decades of authoritarian rule.
At the beginning of 2019, according to the United Nations, only eighty jihadist insurgents remained in the mountainous region along the Tunisian border with Algeria—fifty from Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi, al-Qaeda’s Tunisian branch, and thirty from the Islamic State. Over the remainder of 2019, Tunisia’s military further degraded both groups by killing a number of their leaders:
- From the Islamic State: Izz al-Din Alawi, Hatim Basduri, Muhammad Basduri, Mundhir Gharsali, Muntasar Ghuzlani, Muhammad Amin Mahkuka, Muhammad Nasir Mubarki, Lakhzar Nasiri, Hossam Thalithi, Ghali Umri
- From Katibat Uqba ibn Nafi: al-Bay al-Akruf, Tahar Hijili, Salah al-Din Qasimi, Usama Salmi, Murad al-Shayeb
The year 2019 also saw a decline in attacks, even though the overall numbers appear to show them on par with 2018. Before an improvised explosive device strike in January 2020, no attack had occurred since late October, the lengthiest lull since 2012–2013 (see table below). The arrest figures, which have also fallen, reflect smarter, intelligence-led policing that the Tunisian government began to implement more directly in October 2018. The previous “roundup” style was a holdover from the pre-revolution era.
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