The call of “Allahu Akbar” (“God is great”) echoed from a megaphone in the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane on March 7. Islamic State militant group (ISIS) fighters, mostly Tunisian nationals, had arrived from neighboring Libya. They beckoned residents towards them as they launched an assault on security forces, killing 12 and seven civilians.
Security forces ended the assault, killing 36 militants and arresting six others. ISIS’s attempt to capture the area and establish what President Beji Caid Essebsi called “a new emirate,” had failed. But as the first mass-coordinated ISIS attack to strike Tunisia, it highlighted the danger the North African country faces from militants returning from its permeable border with Libya, a country wracked by instability.
Now, as pro-government Libyan forces, backed by U.S. airstrikes and Western special forces, near victory in the central coastal city of Sirte—ISIS’s only stronghold in North Africa—Tunisian authorities expect a new wave of returning jihadis. With the returning fighters comes a heightened extremist threat.
While some ISIS fighters have flocked south in the face of intense military pressure in Sirte—seeking refuge in the vast Sahel desert region, or joining other Libyan groups such as the Al-Qaeda-affiliated Ansar al-Sharia—many Tunisians are trying to return home. Tunisians represent the majority of foreign fighters in Iraq and Syria, according to official figures. But of more than 4,000 Tunisians to travel to Iraq and Syria to fight for radical Islamist groups, some 700 have come back.
Fighters returning from Iraq or Syria face the most obstacles on the journey back, with the prospect of arrest at the airport if they choose to fly from Turkey. But those based in Libya can move easily, crossing Tunisia’s eastern border, as many smugglers do, to sell cheap Libyan goods such as petrol on the streets of Tunisia’s towns and cities. Jihadis can even pay smugglers to help them across the border, according to experts. The fighters are managing to enter the country despite Tunisia building a 125-mile barrier on its border with Libya to keep them out.
“Tunisia’s military continues strengthening its border defense capabilities, but the flow of goods and people across the border is constant, both through legal crossing points and through smuggling routes,” says Haim Malka, senior fellow at the Washington D.C.-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Returning fighters can take advantage of the relatively porous border to cross from Libya into Tunisia.”
ISIS is resisting the Libyan forces in Sirte but many of its fighters are leaving, according to local officials and the country’s unity government. Pro-government forces killed 10 ISIS fighters fleeing Sirte in October and reports have emerged of militants attempting to blend in with the local civilian population—anti-ISIS forces have found sinks full of shaved-off beards and long hair in Sirte buildings previously housing militants. ISIS has also developed a presence near the Western Libyan city of Sabratha—less than a two-hour drive to Ben Guerdane—where U.S. airstrikes and Libyan security force raids have cornered the group.
Both Tunisian and French governments have called for greater cooperation to deal with the threat that neighboring countries face from the spread of ISIS fighters once they are defeated in Sirte, which held around 5,000 militants at its peak, according to U.S. official estimates.
“The danger is real,” Tunisian Defense Minister Farhat Hachani told journalists on the sidelines of a meeting of defense officials in Paris in September. “Those who leave Sirte are heading south to eventually join Boko Haram, but some are also going west.”
He added that international cooperation is “not up to the level of the danger” posed by ISIS in North Africa. “We are in a decisive moment. The threats endanger all the region. We have to cooperate before the boat sinks.”
While regional cooperation will aid the fight against ISIS, the key issues that Tunisia should focus on are border security, corruption and countering domestic radicalization, experts say.
“Tunisia must continue to do more to secure its borders with Libya and control smuggling activities because this would be the only way for returning fighters to get back into the country,” says Mohamed Eljarh, non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Centre for the Middle East, based in the eastern Libyan city of Tobruk.
“It must take tough measures against corruption of the police force—especially those manning roads or checkpoints—and there is no doubt that Tunisia must work on the wider socio-economic issues that lead Tunisians to the path of radicalization.”
The Tunisian government’s inability to tackle these root causes has allowed ISIS an increased presence in the country. The tourism industry—a vital stream of revenue for the economy—suffered severe losses in the wake of the assault on the Bardo museum in Tunis in March 2015, which killed 22 people, and the beach massacre in the coastal city of Sousse three months later, which killed 38 people. The four attackers responsible had all received training in Libya.
But the residents of Ben Guerdane did not rise up against security forces to meet the call to arms as ISIS had hoped. According to Tarek Kahlaoui, a former adviser to Tunisia’s first Arab Spring leader Moncef Marzouki, and Professor of Islamic History and Art at Rutgers University in New Jersey, the militants’ failure demonstrates that Tunisia does not have the right conditions for ISIS to capture territory in impoverished areas—unlike the northern Iraqi city of Mosul in June 2014.
“I think [the threat] is huge,” Kahlaoui says. “You have hundreds of Tunisians who are trying to escape and this factor may provide a platform for possible attacks. But clearly what happened in Ben Guerdane shows they don’t have a popular incubator.
“Attacking a whole city is only possible when you expect some kind of popular support.”
As Tunisian jihadis fail to hold onto territory in Libya, as well as Iraq and Syria, ISIS is likely to focus its efforts on more attacks led by small cells of radicalized individuals, rather than the mass assault seen in Ben Guerdane.
“I think one of the lessons that terrorists took from Ben Guerdane is that the approach of a large, overwhelming attack on a single city is not yet possible in Tunisia,” Kahlaoui adds. “This is going to push ISIS back to the classic lone-wolf approach.”