Tunisia’s top diplomat says the Trump administration should “reach out more” to the tiny North African nation for collaboration against the evolving threat posed by the Islamic State — and to bolster the fragile island of democracy Tunisians are struggling to uphold in the Arab world.
“We have an example to show, not only to our American friends, but all over the world,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Khemaies Jhinaoui told The Washington Times in a wide-ranging interview Monday, during which he expressed hope that Mr. Trump would follow through with his promise to defeat the terrorist group also known as ISIS.
Mr. Jhinaoui, in Washington this week for meetings with Trump administration officials and lawmakers on Capitol Hill, was particularly upbeat that U.S.-Tunisian counterterrorism efforts, which grew dramatically during President Obama’s final years in office, will expand again under President Trump.
The Tunisian foreign minister spoke candidly about the American president on multiple fronts.
He expressed no quarrel with Mr. Trump’s executive order temporarily banning travelers from several majority-Muslim nations, despite the fact that Tunisia is such a nation and a neighbor of Libya, one of the countries targeted by the ban.
“We don’t have any problem with this; it’s a sovereign decision taken by the new president,” he said. “It’s up to him to decide what would be good for U.S. security.”
But Mr. Jhinaoui leveled gentle criticism at Mr. Trump’s “America first” foreign policy rhetoric, asserting that in today’s globalized world, “you cannot say, ‘I’m going to just close my border and focus on only one country.’”
“America has an important role to play in the world and it has been playing it for a long time, and we feel that the world without America would not be the same,” he said.
He stressed that the stakes are high in North Africa and called on U.S. officials to focus on the danger that Libya will emerge as the leading extremist hotbed if and when the Islamic State is driven from Syria and Iraq.
“Nobody is taking care of the terrorists who are assembling [in Libya] from all over the world and particularly coming from the wars in Iraq and Syria,” said Mr. Jhinaoui.
While U.S. warplanes have conducted airstrikes on suspected extremists in Libya during recent years, Mr. Jhinaoui criticized the “hit and run” policy under which Washington and its allies toppled Libyan dictator Moammar Gadhafi in 2011. One of his “main messages” for the Trump administration is that Washington now has a vital role to play in stabilizing the war-torn, politically divided nation, he said.
He called for greater U.S. support for a recent diplomatic push by Tunisian, Egyptian and Algerian leaders to bring rival Libyan political factions together in an attempt to revive failed talks to form a single, cohesive government in Libya.
Mr. Jhinaoui, a career diplomat who once served as Tunisia’s ambassador to Russia, said he had pushed that message during separate meetings Monday with Secretary of State Rex W. Tillerson and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican. He will meet with other leading members of Congress during his trip and is scheduled to give an address at the U.S. Institute of Peace on Tuesday.
The foreign minister’s comments come at a sensitive moment for Tunisia, as it scrambles to cope with the threat posed by thousands of hardened young men returning home after joining ranks with the Islamic State terrorist group in Syria, Iraq and Libya.
Widely seen as the star performer of the ill-fated Arab Spring democracy movement that rocked the region a half-decade ago, Tunisia also bears the troublesome distinction of being by far the single largest source of foreign fighters for the Islamic State.
It’s estimated that 5,000 to 7,000 Tunisians left home to join the Islamic State — more than twice the total from any other nation. With the Islamic State facing battlefield defeats in its Iraqi and Syrian strongholds, concerns are skyrocketing that the radicalized Tunisians may seek to return home.
Mr. Jhinaoui disputed the foreign fighter estimates and asserted that Tunisian authorities believe the numbers are far lower, although he added that he did not want to downplay the threat.
“We know that they were not doing tourism in Iraq or Syria,” he said. “They were fighting and killing people, and we know that they will be very harmful if they come back to Tunisia.”
It’s a dark reality that first surfaced two years ago when fanatics aligned with the Islamic State killed 57 mostly European tourists in two grisly attacks, one at the nation’s historic Bardo National Museum in downtown Tunis and the other on a beach in the resort city of Sousse.
In March last year, Islamic State fighters attempted to establish a permanent outpost in the Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane, near the border with Libya.
Tunisian military forces crushed the effort, but many say the attacks — especially the strike that killed 30 British tourists on the beach in Sousse — created an ominous strategic opening for the jihadi group.
The nation’s already struggling economy has lost as much as much $2 billion in critical tourism revenue. With few jobs in sight, hopelessness has spread among Tunisian youths, presenting potentially fertile ground for Islamic State recruiters.
Analysts say Tunisia is on a knife’s edge, setting a precedent for political freedom in the Arab world while scrambling to establish a post-dictatorship security state that can defend the country — all without falling back into traditional patterns of authoritarian rule.
The precarious situation is at the heart of what Mr. Jhinaoui said Monday was the “essence” of his message for Washington and the reason Tunisian officials “believe the United States should reach out more” to his nation.
“We feel that we are creating a unique experience, which, if it is going to be successful, will have an impact on the region,” he said, adding that Tunisia is “unique among the Muslim Arab countries” because it has decided “with determination to anchor itself within the democratic concert of nations.”
“This is something, which can be something of interest to the American people and the American establishment,” he said.
The Obama administration latched onto that message amid an explosion of freedom that swept Tunisia following the 2011 overthrow of dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
By mid-2015, when it became clear that the Islamic State had established a viable foothold in neighboring Libya, the Obama White House tripled security assistance to Tunisia, channeling some $100 million toward military equipment and counterterrorism training programs for 2016.
Tunisian officials have called on Washington to ramp up drone operations along the border with Libya, but the talks have been complicated by Tunisia’s desire to maintain significant control over such operations.
Tunisian officials running a U.S.-backed counterterrorism “Fusion Center” told The Washington Times in an interview in Tunis last year that authorities were keeping at least 1,000 people under surveillance on suspicion of ties to the Islamic State.
Many have also been arrested, as authorities have uncovered dozens of suspected Islamic State cells inside Tunisia and detained well over 1,000 people on terrorism charges — prompting human rights advocates to warn of a government crackdown that has also rounded up hundreds of innocent people.
Mr. Jhinaoui pushed back against such claims Monday, asserting that Tunisia is “now a new democracy and we will be respecting human rights of all those people.”
“We will treat them according to Tunisian law,” he said.
The crackdown is reported to have prompted many Tunisian foreign fighters to avoid heading home and instead settling in Europe — a development that has heightened concerns over the threat there, given that Tunisian nationals have been implicated in Islamic State-inspired attacks during recent years in several European nations.
The driver in the notorious Christmas market truck attack that killed 12 in Berlin was Anis Amri, a 24-year-old radicalized Tunisian who videotaped a pledge of loyalty to the Islamic State before he carried out the attack. He was later killed in a confrontation with Italian police at a Milan train station.