ISIS Terror: How Tunisia and Kuwait Differ From Syria and Iraq

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Police officers surround a man (front center) suspected of being involved in the attack on beachside hotel in Sousse, Tunisia, June 26, 2015.Credit: Reuters
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Ramadan, the month of fasting, is not one of the four months during which making war is forbidden, according to Islam. In fact, the opposite is true. Some of the most important wars in the history of Islam occurred during Ramadan, a fact that was well known to Islamic State spokesman Abu Mohammad al-Adnani when he urged the organization's faithful to step up their terror against "the enemies of God" – Christians, Jews, Shi'ites and Sunni Muslims who cooperate with the Western coalition fighting the organization.

"During the month of Ramadan you are closer to Allah," Adnani explained in a 30-minute speech that was distributed online.

There, of course, is no certainty that it was Adnani's call to arms that inspired Friday's terror attacks in Tunisia, Kuwait and France. But it is sufficient that ISIS took responsibility for the attacks to illustrate that the organization, which this month celebrated the first anniversary of its takeover of large parts of Iraq, has succeeded in pushing Al-Qaida to the margins of the map of terror in the Middle East.

The attack on a Shi'ite mosque in Kuwait and the one in Tunisia that targeted tourists appear to epitomize the two key targets that Adnani specified for the ISIS faithful. But they are two different fronts.

Kuwait, in which Shi'ites comprise about 20 percent of the population, has enjoyed a long period of peace from terror. Shi'ites serve in the country's parliament, government and army, and the relations between them and the Sunni majority are far more stable than those in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain.

But Kuwait has become an important source of funding for the radical Sunni militias fighting in Syria, among them Jabhat al-Nusra, which is aligned with Al-Qaida and which is strongly opposed to ISIS. It is estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars have been transferred to the Sunni militias by Kuwait during the four years of the civil war, earning Kuwait a place on the list of ISIS targets.

Tunisia, on the other hand, has suffered terror attacks ever since the 2011 revolution and is the focus of several radical groups, including a branch of ISIS. Hundreds of Tunisian volunteers (including many women) have joined the ranks of ISIS; some of them have returned home and established terror cells that are prepared to act both independently and in coordination with the leadership in Syria.

Tunisia also suffers from the infiltration of armed militants from Libya, which is gripped by civil war and where ISIS has established a strong basis. Libya's porous borders enable the movement of militants from any group into Tunisia, Egypt and the Sinai, as well as providing a logistical channel for groups operating in the rest of northern Africa.

On both fronts, the goal is to shake the stability of the established governments. In Kuwait, the intention is to create dissension between the Shi'ite minority and the Sunni majority, by proving that the government is unable to prevent attacks on Shi'ites and creating a sense of solidarity with the attackers.

Judging by the reactions on social media, however, the attack seems to have bolstered the solidarity between Shi'ites and Sunnis in Kuwait.

In Tunisia, on the other hand, the target was the Imperial Marhaba Hotel, the largest in the beach and tourist resort of Sousse. The intention there, as with the attack on the Bardo Museum last March, was to damage tourism, which, at some 15 percent of annual GDP, is a significant source of state revenue.

The decline in tourism following the two recent terror attacks is liable to return the country to the economic nadir of the first two years following the revolution.

The choice of these two targets indicates a degree of planning and strategic thinking on the part of the perpetrators that differs from the attacks in Sinai and Iraq, where long wars of attrition are in progress between the insurgents and the governments. In Tunisia and Kuwait, as in France, the attacks were carried out by individuals, while in Sinai and Iraq the operations have included multiple participants, supported by large logistical networks.

The latest attacks raise the question of whether the West's method of fighting ISIS, which consists primarily of air attacks in Syria and Iraq, is capable to stopping the organization's activities. Against Al-Qaida, the same method did not really prove successful, even when ground forces were deployed. Ironically it was internal rivalries that gave rise to ISIS, at the expense of Al-Qaida.

A different strategy is needed against ISIS, comprising primarily of supporting the regimes in their struggle against the local branches of the organization.

Tunisia, as its president acknowledged on Friday, is not capable of fighting terror alone, Syria doesn't have a regime that can or should be relied on, in Iraq, ISIS terror competes with the terror of Shi'ite militias, while Kuwait is not sufficiently experienced in dealing with terrorist threats.

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