US views on Tunisia and its counter-terrorism policies

Several released cables offer a detailed view on how the US embassy saw Tunisia. The embassy calls Tunisia a ‘police state’ with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems.
Cable 09TUNIS492 gives the following description of the relationship between Tunisia and the U.S.
Tunisia is not an ally today, but we still share important history and values. It is fair to consider Tunisia a friend, albeit cautious, closed and distant.”

Many Tunisians are frustrated by the lack of political freedom and angered by First Family corruption, high unemployment and regional inequities.

Compounding the problems, the GOT brooks no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Instead, it seeks to impose ever greater control, often using the police.

This cable bluntly calls Tunisia a ‘police state’ with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems.

The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserves credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of President Bourguiba, he and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising.

Beyond the stifling bureaucratic controls, the GOT makes it difficult for the Mission to maintain contact with a  wide swath of Tunisian society. GOT-controlled newspapers often attack Tunisian civil society activists who participate in Embassy activities, portraying them as traitors. Plain-clothes police sometimes lurk outside events hosted by EmbOffs, intimidating participants. In one example of the GOT’s tactics, we awarded a local grant through MEPI to a Tunisian woman, but her boss at the Commerce Ministry told her not to pursue it. She persisted for a time, but backed out when she began receiving anonymous death threats.

GOT officials say the United States tends to focus on issues where we do not see eye-to-eye. They bristle at our calls for greater democratic reform and respect for human rights, and protest they are making progress. For years, the Embassy’s top goal has been to promote progress in these areas. We need to keep the focus, especially with 2009 an election year in Tunisia. Ben Ali is certain to be reelected by a wide margin in a process that will be neither free nor fair. In this context, we should continue to underscore the importance of these issues, and to maintain contacts with the few opposition parties and civil society groups critical of the regime.

However, there’s too much at stake to lose Tunisia:

We have too much at stake. We have an interest in preventing al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and other extremist groups from establishing a foothold here. We have an interest in keeping the Tunisian military professional and neutral. We also have an interest in fostering greater political openness and respect for human rights. It is in our interest, too, to build prosperity and Tunisia’s middle class, the underpinning for the country’s long-term stability. Moreover, we need to increase mutual understanding to help repair the image of the United States and secure greater cooperation on our many regional challenges. The United States needs help in this region to promote our values and policies. Tunisia is one place where, in time, we might find it.

Cable 09TUNIS129  assures the US government that  the Government of Tunisia (GOT) prohibits demonstrations that are not pre-approved and is capable of controlling and dispersing one in the unlikely event one could be mustered without their knowledge. The cable also confirms that the Tunisian government is very protective of the area surrounding the US Embassy and maintains a large uniformed and plainclothes police presence around the compound. Further, the cable acknowledges that “the GOT strictly controls information and the private media practices self-censorship when reporting on matters sensitive to the GOT that could reflect negatively upon it.”

The cable further comments upon the terrorist threat of the Soliman cell in Tunisia:

The GOT is very proactive in terms of its internal security and utilizes a broad definition of the term terrorist in the application of its interests. GOT security forces disrupted a terror cell in December 2006 and January 2007. Gun battles included two major skirmishes in Hammam Lif and Soliman in the greater Tunis area. The GOT has conveyed to Embassy officers they consider the cell responsible for these actions destroyed. The problems posed by the porous Algerian border were evidenced by the fact that six individuals had crossed into Tunisia undetected with the purported intent of conducting terrorist attacks.

The GOT claims that the group they disrupted in January 2007 had plans to attack the U.S. and U.K. embassies and select personnel. However, the GOT has not shared any tangible evidence of this to date, nor was any such evidence presented in their trial in late 2007, although one defendant admitted that the group intended to target “crusader” sites. The GOT considers this cell destroyed.

The group that targeted the Embassy is believed to be the linked to Al Qa’ida in the Land of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Based on publicized arrests and capture of Tunisian Islamic extremists involved in support and execution of extremist activities in Spain, Belgium, Italy, Bosnia, Denmark, Iraq and the trial of thirty terrorists allegedly planning domestic attacks, one must conclude there are further anti-American elements in Tunisia who support violence against the U.S. presence in Tunisia and Iraq.  The support of Islamic extremism appears to be linked to the global jihad movement. One alarming fact associated with the December 2006/January 2007 incidents indicates that the group of six who illegally entered Tunisia via the Algerian border in April 2006 was able to recruit over thirty more individuals for their cause in only six weeks.  In the past, Tunisian terrorist groups who were known to be active outside of Tunisia and who have espoused anti-American views, such as the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG aka Tunisian Islamic Fighting Group) and the Tunisian Islamic Front (TIF), may still have supporters in Tunisia although it is unlikely. The GOT contends that these groups are totally shut down. They are illegal and the GOT has arrested and imprisoned members.  Although the GOT does not publicly acknowledge their existence, it can be safely assumed that terrorists and terrorist sympathizers are present in Tunisia. It should also be noted that the GOT banned the Islamist party an-Nahdha (Renaissance), which it considers to be a terrorist organization. Several an-Nahdha leaders were sentenced to lengthy jail terms in the 1980s. Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of an-Nahdha, lives in exile in London.

The cable elaborates further on Tunisia’s intelligence agencies:

The GOT maintains an active internal and modest external intelligence network focused on preserving civil peace and order within Tunisia’s borders. Through extensive use of informants and surveillance, the GOT produces intelligence-related information and aggressively addresses any perceived threat to national security and regime stability.  In order to further combat domestic terrorism, the Ministry of Interior and Local Development (MOI) has centralized terrorism investigations in its Tunis office. The police and paramilitary National Guard divisions of the MOI have each established an antiterrorism director to coordinate terrorism investigations and share information more easily.

A separate cable (08TUNIS975, of 2 September 2008) gives more information about two separate terrorism-trials which took place in August 2008. In the first case, thirteen Tunisians were sentenced on August 23 to belonging to a terrorist organization in Tunisia and planning to carry out terrorist attacks in the country. Some members of this group were also charged with trying to dispatch “jihadists” to Lebanon. On August 18 the same court convicted six defendants of attempting to establish a terrorist camp to train fighters to go to Iraq. One of the six was said to have been caught returning to Tunisia from Algeria.

As a general background the embassy says:

Tunisia has seen a steady stream of anti-terror cases since the passage of its 2003 anti-terrorism legislation. According to defense attorneys, there has been a surge in such cases in recent months. This is because the large numbers of arrests in the aftermath of the December 2006-January 2007 GOT takedown of the “Soliman” terror cell are now coming to fruition (see Refs C-E). (Note: It usually takes between nine months and two years for a terrorism case to be heard in court.) One highly sought after defense lawyer said that he has on average one such case per day.

The defence lawyer said that some of those accused in these two most recent cases did indeed have the intention of carrying out the acts for which they were convicted, but that most of the 19 defendants has not been directly involved. “Rather, he said, many had been unwitting associates.”

To illustrate his point, he noted that when police arrest one suspect, they then review all incoming and outgoing calls to his cell phone and sweep up everyone with whom the suspect had been in contact. Family members, he continued, are often considered guilty by association. He said in the second case, there was just one individual who in 2004 conceived the plan to recruit jihadists to fight in Iraq and establish a training camp to prepare them. The rest of those convicted had rejected these recruitment efforts. In the interim, they had gone on to live productive lives, with some getting married. They were found guilty of failing to notify the authorities that they had been targeted for recruitment.

The lawyer highlighted many irregularities in the handling of these two cases:

First, the defendants had had access to lawyers, he said, but the lawyers had not been given enough time to properly prepare for trial. In addition, the defendants in the first case were not even interrogated during their trial. In neither trial, he said, did the prosecutors present any material evidence against the accused. He noted that none of the three judges who hear terror-related cases in the Tunis Court of First Instance enforce the protection of the defendants’ legal guarantees. He has filed appeals in both cases and expects that they will be heard in two to four months.

The lawyer said that he has seen a shift in his clients’ attitudes and motives over the past several years. n 2003-2004, he said, there was a lot more talk about volunteering to fight in Iraq, Palestine, or Afghanistan. In the past couple of years, however, there has been a greater tendency to sign up for “jihad” in Tunisia. He attributed this shift to several factors: young men feel marginalized in Tunisia; if they have grievances, there is no one for them to bring them to. They also complain of injustice. He said the security services’ harassment of observant Muslims had been a key motivating factor for several clients. In particular, he said, they objected to the GOT’s campaign against women wearing the Islamic veil. He also noted that the defendant who had been caught returning to Tunisia from Algeria explained that he had gone to live there after marrying a second wife, since polygamy is illegal in Tunisia.

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