Tunisia’s organised crime-terror nexus

2019-04-15

According to a December 2017 study by Bratislava-based think tank GLOBSEC, the European jihadists responsible for the terrorist attacks in Paris in 2015 and Brussels in 2016 were involved in various criminal activities before being radicalised. The report explains there were links to many types of crime, from theft all the way to murder – and particularly illicit trade.

An essay published by the Tony Blair Institute in January 2019 similarly looked at links between criminals and terrorists. The study reported close ties between jihadi terrorists who left their home countries to join the Islamic State in Syria, and gangs and networks involved in robberies or drug trafficking.

Accounts of how terrorism and crime intersect in different ways can also be found in Tunisia. This North African country, which has experienced multiple terrorist attacks since 2015, was the country of origin for some of the highest numbers of jihadi terrorists in Syria and Iraq in 2011-2016.

For vulnerable youth, ending up in drug trafficking or joining a violent religious extremist group is only a matter of opportunity

As early as 2013, a study by the International Crisis Group (ICG) highlighted intersections between contraband cartels and terrorist groups. According to the ICG, criminal groups were using Salafi identities to control lucrative trafficking in their territory through violence. So-called ‘Islamo-gangsterism’ also emerged in suburbs of the capital Tunis and in the border region with Algeria, where criminals wearing typical Salafi attire are believed to be involved in the trafficking of drugs and firearms.

A March 2016 terrorist attack in the city of Ben Guerdane, near the Tunisia-Libya border, was marked by troubling linkages with organised criminal networks – and specifically contraband cartels. According to an official statement, over 80% of the attackers involved in this incident were also engaged in ‘contra’ ­– the local term for contraband smuggling. Investigations included the pursuit of smugglers implicated in preparations for the attack, such as moving weapons across the Libyan border and providing shelter for the attackers before and during the assault. Known as Tunisia’s key smuggling hot-spot, the city has also become a hub for terrorist recruitment, which surged between 2013 and 2015.

The series of attacks that have been rocking Tunisia since 2015 have led international and local actors to focus on the drivers of violent extremism and terrorism. In turn, this has given rise to the development and implementation of numerous initiatives to prevent violent extremism.

Terrorism and organised crime can intersect at different levels, and seem to share some of the same drivers

The Office of the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Tunisia commissioned a literature review in 2018 to investigate the drivers that lead individuals to join terrorist groups. The review identified factors such as corruption, brutality at the hands of security forces, lack of political representation and public services for young people, and poor conditions in prisons.

Not only are these drivers relevant to youth engagement in terrorism or violent extremism, they also seem to connect actors to various types of criminal activity – particularly in the smuggling of contraband goods .

According to Tunisian civil society organisations working on the prevention of violent extremism (PVE), areas such as Béja (a city in the north-west of Tunisia) and West Kram (a northern suburb of Tunis) are a known source of fighters that have either joined terrorist cells in Tunisia, or left the country to join organisations abroad. These areas are also marked by high crime rates.

‘For vulnerable youth, ending up in drug trafficking or joining a violent religious extremist group is only a matter of opportunity,’ said Aslam Souli from Tunisian NGO Beder – which focuses on youth empowerment – during an interview with ENACT late last year. In 2017, Beder developed a project for the early identification of young people who presented a risk of violent behaviour in Ettadhamen, a notorious suburb in Tunis. 

Violent extremism does not only refer to religious extremism, but can include intercommunal violence and criminal gang activity

In a report published in September 2018 that gathered data from many West and Central African organisations implementing PVE initiatives in Africa, the Institute for Security Studies found that violent extremism could take multiple forms. For example, it does not necessarily only refer to Islamic or religious extremism, but can include the type of intercommunal violence seen in Chad, or criminal gang activity in central Nigeria.

These examples continue to illustrate the fine line between terrorism and violent extremism, which was reflected in the recommendations to policy makers and development organisations. The authors urged implementers and donors to consider lessons learnt from other violence prevention fields.

In Tunisia, these recommendations could be particularly relevant. As noted above, it is apparent that terrorism and crime can intersect at different levels, and seem to share some of the same drivers. Actors in the field of PVE – be they government, NGOs or international actors – should further explore the links between the two phenomena. They should also draw on the decades of experience in preventing crime in places like Europe, Latin and North America to prevent the youth from joining gangs or perpetrating other forms of transnational organised crime. Opening violent extremism prevention programmes to the wider scope of crime prevention could also help address the dynamics of transfer from and to terrorism, whereas a strict focus on violent extremism risks leaving individuals behind.

Jihane Ben Yahia, ENACT regional organised crime observatory coordinator – North Africa, ISS and Isel van Zyl, Junior Researcher, ISS

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