Terror nexus threatens Tunisia
Interview conducted by Monia Ghanmi for Magharebia in Tunis 28/06/2013
Terrorism is a new phenomenon in Tunisia. With a notorious political assassination, weapons caches in the desert, armed extremists setting up camp in the remote border forests and homemade bombs killing and maiming Tunisian troops, many wonder whether al-Qaeda has found a new home in the once-peaceful country.
Magharebia met with Bassel Torjeman, a Tunis-based expert on terrorist and salafist groups in the Maghreb, to learn more about the looming crisis.
Magharebia: Who is funding these terrorist groups in Tunisia and in the greater Maghreb?
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Bassel Torjeman: One of the complex issues preoccupying countries where terrorism has spread… is the sources of financing, especially in view of the mechanisms that have been internationally established to prevent money from reaching these groups. Although many years have elapsed since the establishment of these international restrictions, money is still coming in – in huge amounts - to terrorist groups all over the world.
As to the Maghreb, and Tunisia in particular: where do these terrorists and salafist jihadist groups get money?
Using simple math, the cost for Ansar al-Sharia members from various areas of Tunisia to rent buses to get to Kairouan to hold their congress, and other costs for organising the meeting (in which 50,000 of them were expected to take part) give us an amount of more than 1 million Tunisian dinars (464,391 euros). This, by all means, is very big for any party or group that wants to hold a celebration.
The sources of financing are varied. It takes place at mosques and streets, via book sales and uncontrolled donation collections, with the knowledge of state agencies, which turn a blind eye to it although this violates laws.
Another means is through money transfer from one country to another, using fraudulent means. Then there is zakat and alms money, which is considered the first source of financing terrorist groups. It is difficult to list these amounts or to know their sources or where they are spent….
If we want to speak in a more serious way, according to Tunisian interior ministry sources, the number of Tunisians who joined the terrorist group Jabhat al-Nusra for combat in Syria is 800.
This is much different from numbers reported by media outlets, especially with the increase of Tunisian detainees held by the Syrian regime and the Tunisians who were killed, whose number is much more than one hundred.
Transporting hundreds of fighters through air flights and providing pocket money for them until they reach assembly points along the Turkish-Syrian border needs hundreds of thousands of dinars.
I don't think that this money comes from donations and in-kind subsidies.
Without any exaggeration, money needed to transport those people is estimated at millions of dinars. Such numbers can't be generated from donations or smuggling….
Terrorist groups have what is called easy money: they don't exert much effort to secure it. This shows that they have fixed and guaranteed sources of income….
Unveiling the financing sources of terrorist groups and drying up their sources can't be done by just one country. It needs sincere international effort to make it a success, and also needs continuous monitoring to prevent such money from reaching these groups.
Tunisia's efforts to monitor the financing sources of these groups are definitely weak and need a political decision that doesn't seem to be forthcoming.
Magharebia: Are Maghreb states equipped to combat terrorism and extremism?
Torjeman: Combating terrorism is not an issue of capabilities alone. Although logistical, military and security capabilities are important, combating terrorism is a clear, express sovereign and political decision. It means engaging in a battle in order to eliminate and destroy it. We can wonder whether the government had the intention to confront terrorist groups or whether the terrorist groups forced the battle on the government by engaging in the battle against security forces in Jebel Chaambi.
Clashes with terrorist groups in Tunisia are not a new phenomenon. These groups have been collecting and storing arms, training their fighters in using them inside and outside Tunisia, recruiting young fighters, and engaging in brainwashing for a long period. They have also carried out carefully-planned terrorist operations.
The assassination of [opposition leader] Chokri Belaid was an integrated terrorist act. Yet the government still deals with terrorism not as a phenomenon that must be dealt with in all fields, but as isolated cases, with each addressed separately. This renders counter-terrorism efforts and capabilities ineffective.
In addition, providing the necessary capabilities and equipment to confront these terrorist groups is the responsibility of state and not the army....
Magharebia: Is al-Qaeda set to settle in Tunisia?
Torjeman: Al-Qaeda has already settled in Tunisia and its presence has become a reality….
According to the visions of some of its leaders, they believe that they have a future in Tunisia, especially as they have created a large human, effective base that is spread all over the country under several names.
They now operate freely with little surveillance, and are recruiting more supporters and spreading their ideology in all areas. However, the presence of al-Qaeda doesn't mean that they will launch military operations. For the time being, there is a type of reluctance between those who want to indiscriminately demolish and destroy all institutions, and those who believe that it is not yet time to start moving at this direction.
However, it seems that the extremist jihadist current is the entity that started to impose its decision on the group, especially as it managed to send hundreds of fighters to Syria, Iraq and Lebanon to train and engage in jihad.
It has also sent hundreds of fighters to AQIM training camps. This will ensure that it has trained elements, with experience in combat and fighting.
They will be like incubators, to train others for future plans.