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A Tunisian spy story

By Camille Lafrance, and Syrine Attia
Posted on Tuesday, 21 May 2019 17:36

‘The interior ministry is parliament on Habib Bourguiba Avenue’ says one source. REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi

The mysterious arrest of a UN expert, insistent rumours of arms trafficking, opaque manoeuvres by Libyan factions and infiltrations by foreign agents... A spy story is being played out in Tunis, against a background of galloping paranoia.

An RTL-SDR aircraft tracker, which can be purchased legally on the internet, is composed of an antenna and a USB key. There are smartphone apps that have similar functionalities that allow you to track commercial flight routes. Can it be that this object, found in his home, is the sole piece of evidence used by the Tunisian courts to justify the detention of United Nations (UN) expert Moncef Kartas for espionage, as his defence claims?

Kartas, who is German-Tunisian, was officially mandated in 2016 by the UN to lead an investigation into violations of the arms embargo on Libya. His carefully selected team was appointed by the UN secretary general and were due to draft a report in June. Kartas’s arrest disrupted those plans.

Kartas was arrested as he walked off a plane on 11 April in a theatrical scene at Tunis airport involving around 10 security agents. He is now awaiting trial in his cell in Mornaguia prison. Accused of “treason” and “spying for a foreign power”, he faces the death penalty. Fortunately for him, Tunisia has banned that punishment.

Rumours are running high around the activities of a security company he co-founded and the role of a second man who was also arrested. But several pieces are missing from the puzzle. The versions of the Tunisian authorities and the UN are completely different, as is the information supplied by the defence and that supplied by the prosecution. Saying it is “very concerned”, the UN is calling for the researcher’s release, pointing out that the lifting of his immunity is illegal.

Climate of paranoia

The judicial inquiry began in December, and Kartas does not seem to have raised any suspicion before. He had entered Tunisia several times – according to his defence team – and had even trained members of the interior ministry two years earlier. Experts say he would have gone through background checks in order to do that. A petition signed by some 100 supporters points out that the case “raises serious questions about the rule of law”. If Kartas is eventually cleared, his reputation and Tunisia’s image will have been seriously damaged.

Some analysts go further and see the return of authoritarian rhetoric. As a sign of the climate of paranoia surrounding this issue, several of our sources agreed to speak only on the condition of anonymity – especially since other cases have been brought to public attention.

Distrust of strangers deeply shapes the discourse

On 10 April, two boats were escorted to Djerba by border guards. The same week, a diplomatic convoy from Libya was stopped at Ras Jdir, the main crossing point to Tunisia. By means of explanation, defence minister Abdelkrim Zbidi pointed to “armed groups that have tried to infiltrate” Tunisian territory. This forced the European Union and French embassies to reveal that they had repatriated personnel due to Khalifa Haftar’s offensive in western Libya: the European force that was training Libyan border guards left via boats at Djerba, and the French ambassador went to Tripoli via Ras Jdir. Each time, the embassies said the Tunisian authorities had been informed.

“It was a malicious leak,” denounces a European security official. “They wanted to suck up to foreigners with anti-colonialist rhetoric to show that they guard the borders,” another complains. In addition to domestic aims, this discourse could serve as a warning to influential forces in Libya.

Suspicion is widespread. In a piece entitled ‘Overview of a spy’s nest’, in the 24 April edition of Le Quotidien, member of parliament Zouhair Maghzaoui of the Mouvement du Peuple was quoted saying: “Foreign parties are trying to destabilise our country.”

According to one specialist who requested anonymity: “It’s very ancien régime. Everything is black or white. Distrust of strangers deeply shapes the discourse.”

Security purge

Intelligence services have historically got a bad press in Tunisia because they are associated with years of surveillance and repression of opponents under former president Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. In the aftermath of the revolution, the security services were restructured.

“We got rid of highly qualified people before completely dissolving the Direction de la Sûreté de l’État,” says Badra Gaaloul, the highly controversial president of the Centre International des Etudes Stratégiques Sécuritaires et Militaires. As of March 2011, 42 senior officials of the interior ministry were placed on early retirement. The official goal was to abolish the political police. But in 2013, the assassinations of two left-wing figures, Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi, left their mark on people’s minds.

“How can we explain that Tunisia, which was not affected by the ‘black decade’ like in Algeria, has been prey to terrorism and foreign intelligence since 2011?” Gaaloul asks. However, long before the revolution, the state’s tools of repression had shown their flaws: the Islamist incursion into Tamerza in 1995, an attack on the synagogue of Djerba in 2002 and clashes with jihadists in Soliman in 2007.

For researcher Flavien Bourrat, the general architecture of the Tunisian security and intelligence services has not changed despite the post-revolutionary dismissals.

Member of parliament Fatma Mseddi says the problem lies elsewhere: “When Ennahda came to power, it recruited new civil servants not for their skills but on the basis of political affinities.” She accuses the Islamist group of having tried to facilitate the departure of Tunisian fighters to conflict zones across the world. “Tunisia has become very permeable, and spying has intensified,” she concludes.

Haykel Dkhil, an asylum seeker who has been living in France since the end of 2017, is one of the few former interior-ministry officials who has agreed to talk about his years at the heart of the state intelligence apparatus. He is the subject of defamation suits and also accuses the Islamists of Ennahda: “For more than two years, there was no systematic monitoring of foreign agents or listening notes. Politics was blocking our work.” This weakness left the field open, he says, to spies from Algeria, Libya, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Egypt. He claims to have tracked them before his departure from Tunisia. Dkhil suspects the involvement of Algerian agents in the assassination of Chokri Belaïd. It is a theory supported by some of the deceased’s allies. A ministerial source dismisses this with: “Our services took back control after the hesitations of 2011.”

An interior ministry informant stationed in a coastal city sheds light on the surveillance mechanisms: “We focus on foreigners and their activities,” he says. “Especially if they meet politicians or associations.”

“Foreigners are less visible [in Tunisia] than [in our neighbouring countries] because anyone can mingle with tourists, including agents,” admits a senior officer.

The Lebanon of North Africa

The country has thus become a meeting place for actors in the conflict in Libya. Despite the ban on political activities on Tunisian soil without prior authorisation, in place since November 2014, the various Libyan factions continue to meet in the country’s hotels. Military intelligence is particularly worried about the possibility of militias looking to settle scores.

Badra Gaaloul hammers home the point: “Tunisia is now to North Africa and the Sahel what Lebanon is to the Middle East: a place from which to monitor your interests in neighbouring countries.” The main intelligence agencies – the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), France’s Direction Générale de la Sécurité Extérieure, Israel’s Mossad and the UK’s MI6 – have offices there. “Tunisia has largely opened its doors to foreign powers, from Qatar to Turkey. It is quite plausible that it has become a rear base for monitoring Algeria,” adds Akram Kharief, an Algerian defence specialist.

“All this suspicion and conspiracy talk is annoying,” says a European security official. “It’s just fantasy!” says a Tunisian ministerial source. “All capital cities get accused of having spies.” But especially those in a country that is not so difficult to control, with cameras and mobile surveillance brigades now monitoring the borders.

“Tunisia has been able to serve as a retreat base for jihadists, and the fear of Libyan factions is still high, especially in the south,” says Bourrat, the researcher. “But it is not a country of decisive strategic importance. I find it hard to believe that it is the object of malicious intent on the part of foreign powers, especially since the Tunisian services enjoy significant cooperation.”

Cooperation with “friendly” countries – led by Europe and the United States – is based on training and the provision of equipment and information. The Tunisian authorities reportedly received a note from the CIA alerting them to the risks Mohamed Brahmi faced, to which they did not react. “States are scrambling to offer training, and Tunisians accept everything, at the risk of opting for methods that are not very compatible,” warns Jean-François Daguzan, of the Fondation pour la Recherche Stratégique. “This can ultimately undermine the coherence of the security strategy.” And these links could create zones of influence.

Listening in

This raises questions about the difference, still unclear in people’s minds, between information and intelligence, between cooperation and interference. “We just have accredited diplomatic missions that work in a transparent manner,” a ministerial source asserts. The northern and southern shores of the Mediterranean face some of the same challenges, including terrorism. In the shadow of its Algerian neighbour, Tunisia is also perceived as a model to be defended and a regional security priority: the control of migration flows depends on its stability.

To what extent does the reorganisation of the intelligence services obey a clan struggle between ex-Ben Ali allies and Ennahda?

Within the Tunisian intelligence services, a break with old practices has not yet been achieved. “You know very well that we are being listened to,” says a Tunisian source. In Tunis, many people are wondering what role the services play in domestic politics and parallel diplomacy. And to what extent their reorganisation obeyed the clan struggle between ex-Ben Ali allies and Ennahda members. Security forces do not escape political dividing lines: “The interior ministry is parliament on Habib Bourguiba Avenue,” quips a source. At a time, the source adds, when “the lack of transparency is leading MPs to get their information from the media and not from security institutions, “so suspicion reigns more than ever.

The RTL-SDR radio receiver seized at Moncef Kartas’s residence is available from internet retailers for about $24. It can be used to track commercial flights, but its range of uses is wide: decoding GSM signals, GPS or encrypted conversations, listening in on control towers, radios and even satellites. “Not all of these applications are necessarily legal in your country, so be responsible,” warns a manufacturer’s website. It is prohibited to enter Tunisian territory with such an object without declaring it to customs.

Neighbouring Libya is at the heart of the interior ministry’s concerns. In 2017, two senior officials – Saber Laajili and Imed Achour – were arrested for “conspiracy against state security” and “making themselves available to a foreign army in peacetime”. They were linked to Libyans. Their defence lawyers say the two men were only looking for a potential informant for Tunisian intelligence and that they were fooled by false statements. They were released two years later, in April 2019, after 26 MPs signed a petition calling for their release.

Other precedents have been reported. The Inkyfada news site revealed a case of false documents implicating Tunisian officials. From 2010 to 2015 they allegedly provided birth certificates to Russian spies under diplomatic cover. They have since been convicted. It is difficult to say, however, that Tunisia was the target. The documents could have been used by Russian agents to establish credible backgrounds, i.e. new identities to operate in various countries.

In December 2016, the murder of Tunisian engineer Mohamed Zouari in Sfax shook the country. An investigation reveals that the people behind it had met in New York, Eastern Europe and Italy. The alleged murderers, Alen Camdzic and Elvir Sarac, of Bosnian nationality, pretended to be tourists before shooting the engineer from a car. Some attributed the crime to Israel’s Mossad because Zouari was linked to Hamas, which paid a vibrant tribute to him, presenting him as a leading figure in the construction of armed drones. The spokesman of the Tunisian anti-terrorist prosecutor’s office confirmed that no link between this case and Mossad could be established.

The article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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