America's Security Strategy in Tunisia Is Failing

Two MH-60S Sea Hawk helicopters take off​. Flickr/DVIDSHUB

Without a major change, the terrorists win.

As the international community narrows its focus on Islamic State’s burgeoning sanctuary in war-torn Libya, neighboring Tunisia is caught in a precarious security environment that threatens to unwind its fledgling democratic progress. As the lone success story in the post–Arab Spring era, Tunisia is teetering on a knife’s edge as it balances the demands of a nascent democracy with the growing challenge of domestic and foreign militancy.

Tunisia’s worrying security condition has spurred an increase in U.S. counterterrorism aid and assistance, though current evidence suggests that a strict focus on the security domain obscures the underlying socioeconomic and political pressures that imperil Tunisia’s fragile democracy. As U.S.-Tunisian security engagement deepens, policy makers must remain wary of the existing impulse to overly prioritize security-based solutions over the meaningful governance investments required to secure Tunisia’s democratic experiment.

In the aftermath of two grisly Islamic State–inspired attacks on civilian targets in March and June 2015, the United States confirmed Tunisia as a Major Non-NATO Ally (MNNA), tripling U.S. security assistance to roughly $100 million in 2016. The MNNA designation also accelerated the amount of defense articles available to the Tunisian military and security forces, while easing review and delivery timelines. With U.S. assistance, Tunisia has installed a 125-mile border wall equipped with electronic surveillance and moat-like trenches designed to create a buffer and deterrence against black-market commerce, militants and traffickers alike. While these efforts rightly target the cross-border networks that facilitate weapons and militants across Tunisia’s borders, the security environment along the border regions is rather opaque and not as amenable to security-centric remedies as commonly assumed.

Illicit cross-border commerce in Tunisia­ is viewed as an alternative source of income for historically marginalized communities in towns such as Ben Gardane, Sidi Bouzid, Gafsa and Gabes­—all located within the country’s marginalized interior. These towns have also supplied the wider majority of foreign fighters recruited into battlefields throughout the region. These towns are riven by low economic prospects, high unemployment, regional economic inequalities and a historically antagonistic relationship with the governing elite. As such, smuggling and other forms of illegal commercial activities serve as the most viable source of meaningful revenue.

Towns such as Ben Gardane, which is located twenty miles from the Libyan border, act as key transit points for all forms of contraband, from black-market oil to weapons and the scores of potential fighters pursuing jihad abroad. For these communities, economic desperation and resentment caused by sluggish governance reforms runs deep. More importantly, this array of sociopolitical grievances combines with the increasing appeal of Salafi jihadist ideals among marginalized youths and drive tens of thousands of Tunisians into the hands of jihadist recruiters. Within such an environment, strict security-focused approaches may lead to the better identification, interception and interdiction of recruiters and potential militants, but these measures are ultimately insufficient. Unless the United States is willing to parlay its security investments and Tunisia’s MNNA status to encourage reciprocal investments in governance, these communities will continue to incubate and groom disenchanted youths into foreign fighters, with adverse effects on Tunisia’s overall security.