ISIS Pushes West, Eyeing a New Caliphate in Tunisia

It used to be known as the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Now, Tunisia could become the latest addition to the so-called Islamic State.

04.28.15 10:24 AM ET

There are increased signs that the self-proclaimed Islamic State has sets its sights on expanding its caliphate to Tunisia next.

In the last two weeks, ISIS has published videos taunting the government, shared pictures of some its fighters brandishing guns and made fun of a Tunisian tourism campaign in the wake of a March bombing at a museum that was reportedly carried out by ISIS. The group also has posted online photos of supposed Tunisian martyrs to its cause—though the tweets don’t make clear where those purported members died.

ISIS also announced that it is creating the Islamic State of Afrikah, an antiquated name for the region that is now Tunisia.

For a time, Western counter-terrorism analysts hoped that ISIS’s recent territorial losses in Iraq weakened its ability to expand internationally. This lunge toward Tunisia undercuts those hopes.

Not only would it be the furthest West ISIS in North Africa that has pushed to date, but Tunisia, the birthplace of the so-called Arab Spring of 2011, was largely seen as the most successful country to emerge from that period, when street protests led to the collapse of long-standing regimes there and in Egypt, Libya, and Yemen.

That said, there had long been an undercurrent of Islamic extremism in Tunisia. The country is one of the biggest providers of fighters to the Islamic State. According to one estimate, roughly 4,000 Tunisians have joined ISIS in Libya and another 3,000 are part of ISIS in Syria.

The messages indicating ISIS’s expansion into Tunisia are appearing on Twitter accounts and websites affiliated with ISIS. Some of the messages have since been deleted.

“Afrikah for the world,” reads one message.

Another mocks an online campaign that emerged after a deadly March attack on a Tunisian museum called “Yes, we will Visit Tunisia.” A man whose face is covered entirely in a black mask and carrying an AK-47 holds a sign in his other hand that reads: “I will come to Tunisia next summer.”

Two U.S. officials told The Daily Beast that they are watching to see how the relationship evolves but could not say whether the recent messages from ISIS suggested the caliphate was moving into Tunisia.

Tunisia “is definitely is an environment that ISIS can excel in,” one U.S. official explained. “At some point in the future I could see a [jihadist] contingent saying, ‘We are aligned’” with ISIS.

But unlike its past campaigns to expand the caliphate into new states, ISIS’s push into Tunisia is more tepid. Rather than bold announcements or suggestions that ISIS has co-opted an existing local terror group, in Tunisia, ISIS appears to be making a series of suggestive announcements to inspire Tunisians to join them.

“There are signs they are pushing toward making it official,” said Aaron Zelin, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Affairs who studies jihadi movements. “They want to build up momentum and excitement.”

Tunisia poses a couple of challenges that ISIS has not faced in other efforts to expand the caliphate outside its main bases of Iraq and Syria. It has neither a clear existing group or territory in Tunisia to latch onto, experts said.

In Nigeria, for example, ISIS linked up with the biggest terror group there, Boko Haram, even though the groups share very different visions for Nigeria. The first signs of ISIS and Boko Haram working together emerged in February when Boko Haram transformed its media channel to a much more sophisticated effort that mirrored the Islamic State’s.

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While Boko Haram has been relatively calm since the March 27 presidential elections, there were signs of an expanding relationship between it and ISIS. Over the weekend, Boko Haram announced it changed its name to the Islamic State of West Africa, suggesting that Boko Haram, beleaguered by a regional military effort, appears to have grown more dependent on ISIS for funding and support.

In Afghanistan, ISIS worked closely with disaffected Taliban, naming Hafez Sayed Khan Orakzai, a former commander of the Pakistani Taliban, as head of its caliphate there. And in Libya, ISIS has established itself through the vast ungoverned territory there, saying its state exists in part of the eastern city of Derna.

But in Tunisia it has neither. So far, Tunisia’s best known terror group, Katibah Okba Ibn Nafaa, remains affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb—and al Qaeda and ISIS are sworn enemies.

In an audio recording, ISIS claimed responsibility for the March attack National Bardo Museum, when several men stormed the site and fatally shot 22 people, most of them tourists, and injured 50 others. But the Tunisian government said it believed Katibah Okba Ibn Nafaa carried out the attack.