Category Archives: ISIL

Tunisia – Fertile Ground for Terrorism?

Last week, Tunisia was –unsurprisingly– hit again by a terrible terrorist attack. At least 39 Tunisians and foreign tourists were killed when a jihadist killer stormed the beach of two luxury hotels near Sousse in the heart of the country’s historic tourist zone. Without intervention unresolved socio-economic issues will continue to provide targets vulnerable for exploitation by terrorist groups.

Since the Jasmine Revolution in 2010-2011, the security situation in Tunisia remained quite calm but somewhat fragile until the summer of 2014. Apart from the Bardo Museum attack in March, several locations throughout the country were targeted by terrorist actions and social unrest.  Violent attacks occurred in Kasserine/Mount Chambi, El Kef, Sidi Bouzid, Tozeur, and Gafsa in the center and south of Tunisia, as well as Jendouba in the north and the Sfax along the central coast while increasingly active Salafists exploited minor riots in the southern towns El Faouar and Kebili. After the Bardo attack, Tunisia’s security forces took the initiative and apprehended or killed dozens of Salafi jihadists. While these actions achieved measures of localized success, they were not enough to defeat terrorism in the country.

The Socio-Economic Situation

Tunisia possesses many of the necessary requirements to serve as a positive role model for the other Arab Spring countries. This became apparent through the ratification of a modern constitution as well as successful presidential and parliamentary elections held in 2014. Despite this progress the country is not yet “over the top”; a fact frequently ignored by the West which is too happy to declare the triumph of democracy. Although the tragic Sousse massacre served as a wakeup call no one wanted to hear, the economic situation in Tunisia provides a fertile environment for discontent. Unemployment, a lack of foreign investment, labor pressures, and threats to tourism will increase social problems exploitable by radical Islamists.

Increased violence in popular tourist locations endangers the fragile tourist industry in Tunisia.
Increased violence in popular tourist locations endangers the fragile tourist industry in Tunisia. Image Source: Tunisia Ministry of Tourism

The root cause of Tunisia’s current problem is a socio-economic situation that remains problematic four years after the revolution. There is wide developmental disparity between the coastal areas and the interior hinterland. Though the Tunisian government is using its limited resources to improve this situation in neglected areas like Gafsa, Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid (where the revolution started), the people there are –understandably– very impatient and the results have been mixed. In 2014, official figures said job seekers made up 15.2% of the 3,950,000-person workforce; an increase from 13.3% in 2006 though actual figures are probably higher. Unemployment among youth (those 15-24 yrs) is at 42.3% while about 35% of the country’s university graduates lack jobs. In the neglected areas of the hinterland these figures are significantly higher. In some areas more than 50% of the young population is unemployed.

By some estimates, Tunisia requires a 6% annual increase of the GDP for several years to achieve stability but this remains highly unlikely. Forecasts fall far short of that goal, ranging from +2.8% to +4%. What seems certain is the gap between available jobs and job-seekers will unfortunately increase for the foreseeable future though having a job in Tunisia is not an end to trouble. Even those Tunisians that are employed are coming into increasing conflict with their employers. Labor unions often stir up conflict with employers and between each other for their own gains. Fortunately, the most important union, the “Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail” (UGTT; Tunisian General Labor Union), has been playing a positive role in most of the conflicts.

Taken alone, these statistics appear daunting but the problem is further complicated by a significant decline in foreign direct investment since the revolution. Furthermore, Tunisia´s economy suffers heavily from the uncertain economic situation in Europe as well as from the war in Libya, where nearly 100,000 Tunisians worked before the revolution that overthrew the regime of Muammar Gaddafi. Prolonged regional instability and the continuation of terrorist attacks will retard remittances, discourage foreign investment, and impact the largest sectors of the economy.

In 2013 travel & tourism contributed 485,000 jobs (12.3% of the workforce) and comprised 15.2% of Tunisia’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Though the estimates for 2014 are slightly higher at 15.5%, tourist arrivals (6 million) are off 13.1% from the 6.9 million that visited the country in 2010. After the Bardo and Sousse attacks all these figures will undoubtedly decrease significantly.[1]

More than four years after the Jasmine Revolution unstable socio-economic factors serve as vulnerabilities for terrorist groups to target.
More than four years after the Jasmine Revolution unstable socio-economic factors serve as vulnerabilities for terrorist groups to target. Image Source: The Next Great Generation

Currently, the agricultural and fishing sectors employ approximately 20% of the Tunisian workforce. Of these industries, agriculture poses a very complicated problem as on one side it is a crucial provider of jobs while at the same time it draws heavily on the nation’s very limited water supply. Regrettably, Tunisian agricultural products do not fare well on the international export market. Because of the low quality of production compared to invested resources, many consider this use of natural resources a waste.

Another sector requiring immediate reform is the textile industry. Comprised of some 2,094 industrial enterprises employing 10 or more persons, 1,656 produce exclusively for the export market. This sector currently accounts for a quarter of Tunisia’s exports and just shy of half of all manufacturing jobs. However, the future looks bleak as the industry in the face of increasing competition from China, Bangladesh, and other low-cost production countries.

Decreasing tourist revenues and stiff competition from abroad in the textile and  agricultural sectors drains Tunisia’s foreign currency reserves, putting pressure on the government’s ability to maintain heavy (and increasing) subsidies on basic foodstuffs like bread, milk, and sugar.  In 2014, subsidies accounted for a staggering 20% of all public spending (USD $4 billion, up from USD $600 million in 2010). Subsidies of this magnitude create massive incentives for smuggling which reduces the government’s ability to tax commerce, further strains its troubled finances, and erodes social support programs, particularly for the unemployed. With little improvement in their situation since the time of the Ben Ali regime, unemployed Tunisians increasingly compete with up to one million Libyan refugees for jobs and government support.

The Strategy of the Terrorists

The radical Islamists are firmly entrenched in some parts of Tunisia. With their ranks strengthened by fighters experienced from the wars in Syria, Iraq, and neighboring Libya, terrorist cells recruit sympathizers and fighters by exploiting the grievances of the population in the neglected hinterlands. Once armed and trained, it doesn´t really matter to which specific group the terrorists belong. The various Salafist jihadists are “coordinated” through a common ideology and vision of a fundamentalist Islamic State based on the Sharia. This commonality provides a “good enough” guideline for their distributed activities while the porous borders and chaotic situation in Libya will provide access to inexhaustible stores of weapons and ammunition.

The Salafist jihadists are aware that a military victory is not realistic at this time. As a result, their immediate objective is the establishment of “resistance pockets” in remote areas such as Jebel Chaambi. A consolidation of their rule and an enlargement of the controlled territory will follow. As their territory expands, they will terrorize the population and enforce a strict application of the Sharia.

Terrorist groups will attempt to exploit socio-economic vulnerabilities to discredit governments while other branches attempt to demonstrate an ability to fill the gap in services provided by the government.
Terrorist groups will attempt to exploit socio-economic vulnerabilities to discredit governments while other branches attempt to demonstrate an ability to fill the gap in services provided by the government. Image Source: Tunisia-live.net

Lacking the resources for a pure military victory, the Islamists’ strategy to assume power in Tunisia will likely include actions designed to trigger a social uprising. Initial phases will lean heavily on actions designed to destabilize the state in order to prepare the ground for such a revolution. For that purpose, attacks will focus on discrediting security forces, damaging or degrading key sectors of the economy (above all tourism) and (increasingly likely) threatening Western targets, as Western support is crucial for Tunisia´s economic recovery. These jihadists’ attacks will certainly come in the form of assassinations, bombings, raids, and larger scale coordinated terrorist attacks on prominent targets. (For a more indepth discussion refer to Security Risks in North Africa – The Strategy of the Terrorists)

While some groups focus on militant actions, other groups like Ansar al-Sharia serve a complementary function by engaging in charity activities to show care and concern for the needy among their followers.

The Way Forward

 Image Source: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas
U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter walks with Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi before their meeting at the Pentagon in Washington May 21, 2015. Image Source: REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

Despite the odds, Tunisia is not a lost cause. There are signs of hope as well as many positive factors in the country. Tunisia has high levels of education, a strong civil society, close military links to the West (particularly with France and the U.S.), and an open-minded coastal population eager to integrate with other nations.

Furthermore, the successful transition from the Ben Ali dictatorship and the positive developments brought about by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda and its leader Rashid Gannouchi show that moderation and progress are achievable. However, there is an immediate need for much more international support in order to facilitate the transition of Tunisia into a model for the positive development of a Muslim state. The foundation for such a success is still present, but without sufficient support the future path of the country will be very, very difficult and without urgent intervention we should expect more violent incidents and terrorist attacks…

Wolfgang Pusztai is a Security & Policy Analyst. He was the Austrian Defense Attache to Libya and Tunisia from 2008 to 2012. Be sure to read his other contribution to The Affiliate Network: MISRATA’S NEXT STEPS: NARROWING THE WINDOW TO SAVE LIBYA 

[1] After the 2002 Djerba/Ghriba synagogue bombing in 2002 (21 killed) the number of financial strong visitors decreased by about one million. This time it will be worse.

The Social Media Myth

If you are reading this article you are probably a user of social media.  If you have been using it for a while, you may even realize the power of social media to inform, shape perceptions, create communities, and of course, to misinform.  There is no doubt we can learn a tremendous amount of things from reading Twitter for example but we often overlook the potential of social media to provide understanding.  There is a myth in military circles, a social media myth, that if we look hard enough, we will find some golden tidbit that will tell us how to win.  No one makes this mistake more often or more decisively than senior military officers seeking accurate intelligence to drive operations.  While most avoid social media themselves, they know it makes available a tremendous amount of information, and to a greater or lesser degree they all give lip service to its importance.  But the disappointing fact is that the vast majority of senior military officers have no idea whatsoever how to maximize social media to benefit their intelligence and operations processes.  Worse, these officers are learning exactly the wrong lessons about social media from faulty training simulations entrenched in military exercise programs.

https://medium.com/i-data/israel-gaza-war-data-a54969aeb23e
A network graph of the 2014 UNWRA School bombing. Note the easily visible relationships between communities of pro-Palestinians (green), pro-Israelis (light blue), journalists (grey), and American conservatives (dark blue). Communities that share more connections appear closer together.

The Social Media Problem

Why do I pick on senior military officers?  Because although they accept social media is important, they almost uniformly resist using it. Their reasons range from concerns about privacy and security, to perceptions that social media is a venue for teenage nonsense rather than the serious business of military commanders.  This lack of engagement and experience with the tool deprives them of understanding and leads to misperceptions.  A perfect example of this is a recent story about a successful air strike in Syria against a command post of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). According to a statement from the commander of US Air Combat Command (ACC), their targeting staff derived the location of the headquarters from an ill-advised post by a Twitter-happy ISIL fighter.  While this sounds like a terrific victory, combing through tweets for actionable intelligence is probably a waste of time and misses the real value of social media sites that are more useful as a source of big data than of targeting data.

Take Twitter as an example.  Twitter averages about 500 million “tweets” per day.  Just to put that into perspective, that’s 6000 tweets per second.  Even with automated tools, finding one tweet that contains useful information is an enormous effort to say the least and it’s only the beginning.  Interpreting the accuracy and reliability of a single tweet will be very difficult indeed.  Here’s why: a tweet is 140 characters of data with extra allowances for hyperlinks, pictures, and location data.  There’s not a lot to go on there and while a tweet is attributable to the person that generated it, that person’s identity can never really be verified.  Let’s ponder for a moment the fact that according to ACC, a military officer somewhere made a decision to drop ordnance based on the digital equivalent of an address scribbled on a piece of paper by an unknown individual and posted on a bulletin board with millions, no, billions of other similar notes. That’s an incredibly low standard by which to make such decisions and the possibility is extremely high that there is more to the story than is available in the tweet. Though we have to assume there were other sources of intelligence applied to verify this target, this is not what ACC’s statement suggested and it does not change the fact that they must have spent an enormous amount of man hours and computing power to find and interpret that tweet. The question is: was it worth it?  ISIL will undoubtedly tighten up its operational security, making this kind of targeting even more rare than it already is.  Worse, ISIL will learn from this. What’s to stop them from falsifying targets, wasting coalition resources or luring it to drop bombs that will cause civilian casualties or worse?  When that happens, and it will happen, the use of single-source data from unverifiable individuals will come into serious question as a basis for targeting decisions.

Reinforcing Bad Habits

Surely the intelligent and well-trained staff officers of the United States Military have figured this out.  But they have not figured it out, or at least the most senior leaders among them haven’t.  Senior military officers that range in age from the late-30s to the mid-60s simply did not grow up with social media as a part of their lives. Some have started to use it but are bucking a military culture that is social media-skeptical.  Secondly, although American officers are generally well-trained, they are trained in the wrong techniques when it comes to social media.  To illustrate, consider one aspect of the synthetic social media environment used in exercises at NATO’s Joint Warfare Center (JWC).

JWC replicates Twitter with a system called “Chatter”.  Chatter is very similar to Twitter in that a “chatt” is a short text message that allows attachment of photos and similar files.  Hyperlinks are not used because Chatter is only available on NATO classified computer networks to prevent leakage of exercise information into the real world.  This is not a trivial point.  Leakage of scenario graphics from a US military exercise in 2015 caused an uproar in Texas when citizens discovered the Pentagon had labelled their state “hostile” for exercise Jade Helm.  Keeping Chatter on classified networks limits its scope to a ridiculously small sample; on average, the volume of chatts in an exercise might reach 300 a week.  While the vast majority of that volume is useless “white noise”, some chatts inject useful information into the exercise to cause a specific response by the training audience.  Needless to say, in an information environment that tops out at 300 inputs a week, intelligence staffs stand a good, yet thoroughly unrealistic chance of finding the needle in the very small haystack.  This sends two very strong and misleading messages about social media to Allied commanders. One is that they can and should expect to find useful bits of actionable intelligence hidden amongst social media posts. Secondly, even if commanders are thinking about analyzing trends and relationships between communities, Chatter is completely incapable of providing the volume of data required to do so.  The system simply discourages commanders from understanding what is arguably the most valuable characteristic of social media, which is that big data can reveal broad truths about an environment.  [For an example of how this can support understanding and decision making, see this fascinating Wired Magazine article.]

Big Data, Not Targeting Data

Continuing to perpetuate the social media myth will further entrench the wrong lessons in the minds of our commanders and ensure that using social media for targeting is the enemy of using it for understanding. Making social media sites like Twitter a useful or reliable source of information will require too much in the way of resources and will produce too few positive results and indeed increasingly negative ones as the enemy adapts.  Western militaries simply must change their approach to social media as a tool, viewing it not as a source of targeting data but as a gateway to big data. Training aides like Chatter must replicate big data but doing so will require involvement of the public. While this is not easy and carries significant risk, it is manageable risk.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. 

The Root of All ISIL?

There is a lot of soul-searching nowadays regarding the origins of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL).  Historians and political scientists of all sorts have logged a lot of air time and print space answering the questions:  “How could ISIL have happened and where did these savages come from?”  Their answer is almost always a history lesson of the Iraq war with the occasional biopic on the Assad family thrown in for balance. Very rarely do they explore ISIL’s roots beyond that so there is something missing in the coverage.  While the post-2011 situation in Iraq undoubtedly led to the conception and birth of ISIL, let us remember that the group grew up in Syria.  For those of us paying attention then, our thoughts on the genesis of ISIL must inevitably turn to the Arab Spring and its mishandling by the Obama Administration and others.

Are the White House's failures at the roots of ISIL? Tahrir Square protesters communicate the scope of the problem.
Are the White House’s failures at the roots of ISIL?  Tahrir Square protesters communicate the scope of the movement in 2011.

Leading from Behind

We all know the mixed history of the Arab Spring.  On one hand it promised to liberate political thought in the Middle East from its despotic modern history but on the other led to the jarring realization that Islamism may indeed come to US allies like Egypt through the ballot box.  The Obama Administration should have learned a lesson from the electoral victory of Hamas but instead meekly transmitted mixed messages of support for America’s distasteful but stable ally Mubarak.  On 11 February 2011, Egypt announced Mubarak’s resignation while other regional allies watched in horror as America abandoned the second-largest recipient of US military aid.  Four days later, as if on cue, violence erupted at Arab Spring protests in Benghazi, Libya, igniting the civil war that ultimately led to the ignominious downfall of Muammar Ghaddafi and the slow descent of the country into perpetual balkanized dysfunction.  Less than three weeks after the first shots were fired in Benghazi, Britain and France were rushing headlong into the fray, enforcing a no fly zone and bombing Ghaddafi’s forces on the ground.  To support this they waved the flag of humanitarian intervention but found themselves critically limited in two ways: by their own inability to sustain a protracted air campaign in Africa, and by the insistence of the Obama Administration to “lead from behind” and achieve victory through airpower.

UntitledIn what must be one of history’s most stunning examples of the costs of alliance politics, the United States very quickly found itself compelled to rescue its allies from spectacular failure in a campaign it was verbally supporting.  Constrained by the President’s refusal to lead from the front, the United States Military took the reins under the guise of a NATO intervention while the French and British happily withdrew to the familiar position of supporting a US-led military endeavor America never wanted and did not benefit from.  In Libya, the rest is history.  Freed from control of the Ghaddafi regime and armed by a flood of loose weaponry, groups like Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) unleashed direct assaults on governments across northern Africa.  As I argue in “The Illusion of Suddenness“, The infectious cocktail of successful rebellion in Egypt and weaponry from Libya transformed another Arab Spring protest, this time in Syria, into a raging insurgency.  The stage was set for ISIL to come of age.

The Birth of ISIL

As the war in Syria intensified, the United States continued to display hesitation in its foreign policy.  With the Assad regime clinging desperately to survival, western governments began to grow concerned about the potential for its use of chemical weapons. At a 20 August 2012 press conference, the President of the United States, who seemed to have recovered from his earlier lack of conviction in regional affairs, delivered a clear and powerful deterrent threat to Damascus by drawing a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.   But as a string of mysterious chemical weapons began exploding in rebel-held neighborhoods in October of that year, the “red line” began to bend and eventually broke in August 2013 after the undeniable use of Sarin in the town of Ghouta.  Rather than use authority under the War Powers Resolution to defend the “red line”, the President sought and received a specific resolution from Congress on 6 September which, among other things, required him to use “all appropriate diplomatic and other peaceful means to prevent the deployment and use of weapons of mass destruction by Syria”.  In this he complied with further delay, announcing that air strikes could be averted if Syria were to give up its chemical stockpiles.  Sensing an opportunity, Russia sent its Foreign Minister to negotiate the handover, managing by his success to destroy what little deterrent credibility the United States had left in the region.

The Situation in Iraq on 8 August 2014
The Situation in Iraq on 8 August 2014

The ISIL assault on Iraq began predictably three months later with the fall of al Qaim in December.  By the end of February 2014, Fallujah and Ramadi, taken at such cost by American soldiers ten years earlier, were firmly in Islamist hands.  In June, ISIL attacked the Tigris river valley, taking Mosul on the 10th and Tikrit the next day.  By the end of the month, large formations of the Iraqi Army had been completely destroyed, Tal Afar was in ISIL hands, and both Syria and Iran were actively intervening in Iraq.  Even then, America held off taking action until ISIL’s slaughter of Yezidis in Sinjar and simultaneous advance on the Kurdish capital Irbil.  By this time, ISIL controlled all the major cities in the north and west of Iraq, the Kurds were on the verge of being shattered into four exiled refugee communities, Baghdad was surrounded on two sides, and Iran was intervening openly in the situation.  The specter of state on state sectarian war was becoming very real indeed as the buffer between traditional enemies Iran and Saudi Arabia was collapsing precisely as Washington’s resolve was in serious doubt.

A Silver Lining?

The chronology of this is as disheartening as it is hard to deny.  A series of American half measures, broken promises, and false threats is the real root of all ISIL in the Middle East.  Faced with nothing but bad options, the White House now finds itself fighting shoulder to shoulder in Iraq with its old enemy, the Quds Force. Meanwhile, Riyadh has felt compelled to build an independent coalition (read: without the USA) to wage open war against Iranian proxies on their Yemeni frontier leading to the possibility that once again, the United States will get dragged into a conflict it doesn’t want in order to rescue an ally from failure.  Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE have all conducted offensive military strikes against ISIL and Arab Spring-related forces in the last five years, and large rifts are developing between the United States and critical allies Turkey and Israel.  If there is a silver lining to the quickening foreign policy disaster in the Middle East, it is that the crisis has given Tehran and Washington an opening to start talking about the Iranian nuclear program.  One gets the sense however, that the rapprochement comes amid declining American leverage rather than the reverse.

Lino Miani

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.