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Intel: How latest beheading could signal jihadi comeback in Tunisia

A sign is seen at the edge of Remada, Tunisia April 11, 2016. Tunisia's 2011 uprising created fertile ground for jihadist recruiters. Hundreds of Islamist militants were freed from prison as part of an amnesty for those detained under Ben Ali. Ultra-conservative salafists began to flex their muscle, seizing control of mosques and clashing with secularists. As Tunisia's politics have stabilised, the government has reasserted control, taking back mosques, banning the local al Qaeda affiliate Ansar al Sharia,

The anti-terrorism arm of Tunisia’s National Guard has launched a formal investigation into the murder of a man who disappeared two days ago in the central province of Sidi Bouzid after his head was found in a military no-go zone on Mount Mghilla.

Why it matters: The murder of construction worker Mohamed Lakhdar ben Salem Mahkloufi, 55, recalls the 2015 beheading of Mabrouk Soltani, a 16-year-old shepherd, on the same mountain. Soltani’s murder was claimed by Jund al-Khilafah, the Tunisian branch of the Islamic State, which advertised the beheading in a video and went on to murder the shepherd’s brother. In January a Tunisian court convicted 49 people in Soltani’s murder, including 45 in absentia. But nobody has yet claimed killing Mahkloufi.

Between a rock and a hard place: In June of last year, another shepherd was killed by jihadis in a closed military zone on Mount Chaambi in neighboring Kasserine province, near the Algerian border. The area is also home to the al-Qaeda-linked Okba Ibn Nafaa battalion, which executed two shepherds in 2015. Last year the group tortured another shepherd they accused of “espionage” on behalf of the security forces, beating him and cutting off his nose. The shepherd died of his wounds.

The al-Qaeda and Islamic State militants, whose numbers remain unknown but are estimated to be small, force villagers to provide them with food and other essentials. Should the villagers refuse, they face the prospect of ending up like the shepherds. When they cooperate with the militants, however, the villagers run the risk of winding up behind bars for “aiding terrorists.”

A jihadi comeback? Tunisia has been in a state of emergency since November 2015, when the Islamic State claimed a suicide bombing in Tunis that killed 12 presidential guards. A wave of lethal attacks that same year targeting the country’s crucial tourism industry has undermined the North African nation’s efforts to stabilize its fledgling democracy and wobbly economy. Extremist attacks have sharply declined thanks to help from Europe, Algeria and the United States, with stricter monitoring of Tunisia’s borders with Libya in particular. 

Worries of a jihadi resurgence, however, are growing as the US-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State in Syria draws to a close. Thousands of Tunisians joined the jihadis in Syria, with around 150 of them being held by the US-allied Syrian Democratic Forces along with roughly 650 other foreign fighters. The Kurdish-dominated force is desperate to get the jihadis off its hands. Tunisia and Iraq are among a few countries that are taking them back.

Mokhtar Ben Nasr, the head of the government’s National Counterterrorism Commission, recently told lawmakers that 1,000 Islamic State fighters had returned to Tunisia over the past seven years. With the Syria war all but over, the trend could accelerate. Some jihadis, he said, had been arrested and were awaiting prosecution; but many others had crept in secretly, their whereabouts unknown.

Sharan Greeal, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy, told Al-Monitor, “So far the government’s approach to returnees has been to put them in prison, under house arrest or surveillance. But there’s not much focus on de-radicalization in prisons or on rehabilitation and reintegration. So the danger is what happens once they are released.” Worse, Gerwal added, “For many returnees there may not be even sufficient evidence to take them to trial. And leaving them under house arrest or surveillance may simply re-create the repressive and marginalized conditions that fed their extremism in the first place.”

What’s next: Tunisia is set to hold presidential and parliamentary elections by the end of this year. The threat of jihadism has become a political football, with the country’s secularists using it to whack the country’s most popular party, the pro-Islamist Ennahda, with whom they share power. Ennahda rebuts claims that during its brief spell at the helm of government it encouraged Tunisians to go fight in Syria. Amid all the squabbling, endemic corruption, police brutality and rampant unemployment make for an ideal breeding ground for a new generation of radicals.

Learn more: Read about the fate of Tunisia’s returning jihadis here

-Amberin Zaman

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