Horror reached unprecedented levels in Tunisia last Friday when innocent holidaymakers were targeted on a beach near Sousse by a student who had apparently been radicalised in his university town of Kairouan and later in northern Libya. Beyond the grief and sorrow, lessons can be learned from this event.

First, it is a reminder of the inventiveness of terrorist groups, which are able to devise strategies to maximise their impact in order to compensate for their military losses when they do happen. Three months after the attack on the Bardo museum and the subsequent crackdown on radical Islamist groups around the country, a ‘lone wolf’ was able to achieve global fame for his cause.

This also coincided with a moment when armed militants seemed to have been routed out of the mountainous areas of the country such as the Chaambi mountains, where the army used to suffer significant setbacks. The Sousse attack demonstrates the formidable resilience of groups linked to the so-called Islamic State, and their ability to invent new modus operandi to compensate for their operational losses when they happen. In such circumstances, even a full military victory (for example, if they were expelled from Syria and Iraq) does not always translate into the end of terrorism.

Second, it is a stark reminder of the often forgotten but long and eventful history of armed Islamism in the Maghreb. The stability of the Tunisian state, and the successful transition from an autocratic regime to a post-revolutionary democracy, with political Islam represented through the leading Islamist party Ennahda (the Renaissance party in Arabic), has led many observers to forget the long shadow of violent Islamist militant activism in the country. The management of the Islamist threat to the progressive, secular state developed after independence from France was one of the major reasons put forward by the then Prime Minister Zine el Abidine Ben Ali when he deposed life-long president Bourguiba on 7 November 1987.

The place of political Islam in Tunisia remained a key question under Ben Ali. Reacting against the violent suppression of Islamist movements by the government, including the torture of their leaders, supporters oscillated between two strategies: to refuse the use of violence in spite of the circumstances in the hope that international recognition would follow suit; or, on the contrary, to opt for an underground armed struggle.

The legacy of this divide was particularly evident when Ennahda was in government (2011–14) and struggled to cope with the most extreme Islamist movements in the country, which grew increasingly dissatisfied with its more nuanced political approach. Ennahda played the political game to the end, agreeing to see a former member of the Bourguiba and Ben Ali administrations – Beji Caid Essebsi – become president at the end of 2014.

The Sousse attack demonstrates that the success of ISIL elsewhere is capable of reviving the most radical Islamist wings in Tunisia. It seals the co-optation of a relatively new jihadi brand by existing local movements, to which the existence of an ‘Islamic State’ in the Levant gives new impetus. Re-energised by news from Raqqa (where Tunisian nationals are the single most important contingent of foreign fighters), the most radical Tunisian Islamists can find good reasons to push their own agenda, surfing on the ISIL wave that has spread around the Mediterranean. This convergence of local grassroots terrorism and international networks had already happened in Algeria, when Islamist groups that were formed during the ‘dirty war’ of the 1990s decided in 2007 to become an Al Qaida franchise as Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb.

Third, the Sousse attack has brought global jihad closer to one of its key targets – Europe – in a rather spectacular way. The old continent is the West’s softer target. Attempting to destabilise Tunisia is the next logical step to the wide sweep movement which has turned the Sahara into an ideological battlefield in the last decade and which, at least in the eyes of the most radical Islamist militants, is ultimately designed to reach the northern shores of the Mediterranean.

It started in the early 2000s by regular hostage-taking (which provided publicity and cash at the same time) and was followed by a full military takeover in northern Mali in 2012, complete with the establishment of a so-called caliphate. The French intervention of 2013 dismantled it, but many underground ramifications have remained. Libya’s persisting instability creates opportunities to use the vast expanse of the Sahara as a convenient rear base and training ground. 

The Sousse tragedy reminds us that the battle against Islamist terrorism will be a long and multi-faceted one. It will require not only military might but also a deep belief in the values that those resisting it stand for. It will succeed only if we understand the global nature of Islamist terrorism and fight back on the same scale. Containment is not the answer. It will be necessary to take the initiative against Islamist terrorism: something more than a reactive response is needed.

Dr Berny Sèbe
Senior Lecturer in Colonial and Postcolonial Studies, University of Birmingham