Instability in Libya, which is fast becoming an ISIS redoubt, could cause serious discord in Tunisia, which despite it’s challenges stands alone as the single Arab Spring success. So, could Libya bring Tunisia down with it?
A number of recent incidents do not augur well for the stability of the Tunisian state.
On March 7, at least 54 people were killed when militants attacked the town of Ben Gardane in Tunisia and clashes ensued with Tunisian security forces. Among those killed were at least 36 militants, security forces and civilians, including a 12-year-old girl. Although there is some confusion around where the militants came from, Tunisian officials have claimed that many of them were Islamic State militants that crossed the border from neighboring Libya. This assault by ISIS into Tunisia comes after US airstrikes on an ISIS training camp in the Libyan city of Sabratha, near the Tunisian border, which killed at least 49 people. These airstrikes sought to take out a commander who was linked to other attacks on Tunisian soil, including the Bardo Museum and Sousse beach attacks. (The attack on Sousse beach left 39 foreigners and natives dead, including Tunisians, Britons, Germans, Belgians, and French. Another attack left 19 dead at the Bardo Museum in Tunis.)
On March 9, Tunisia closed its border with Libya after claiming that some of the militants had entered the town through Libya and had targeted army barracks and police posts with heavy weaponry that included rocket-propelled grenades.
These incidents are the latest indication that the challenges currently faced in Libya could have region-wide implications.
In choosing to attack military posts, ISIS in Libya seems to have gained confidence in their expertise and skills and is willing to absorb much larger casualties to attempt to destabilize Tunisia. Earlier attacks targeted the Tunisian economy by seeking to deter tourists from visiting. This attack is targeting Tunisia’s security itself.
To make matters worse, the ranks of ISIS in Libya seem to be swelling. And this is fueled in part by the success of US-led air campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq. With ISIS losing much territory and being attacked from all angles by forces such as US-led coalition airstrikes, the Syrian army, Russian airstrikes, a variety of rebel groups and Iranian-backed militias, ISIS is seeking to make up for lost ground in Syria and Iraq by gaining territory in North Africa. ISIS thrives in power vacuums and is attempting to slowly chip away at Tunisian stability by leaking into the country across the Libyan border and undertaking these assaults.
The problem is, Tunisia has been unable to take any meaningful protective measures to secure itself from this apparent ISIS offensive.
As of October, 2015, about 7,000 Tunisians were estimated to have traveled to Syria and Iraq to join ISIS, and about 625 had returned to Tunisia. This is among the highest number of foreign fighters that have joined ISIS ranks. Authorities also claim that the gunmen involved in the Bardo and Sousse attacks were Tunisians who trained in Libya before returning home. Tunisia is already receiving support from the US, Germany and the UK and is building a 122-mile fence along the Libyan border, but it is clear that Tunisia has so far been unable to effectively secure its border to stop the flow of fighters to and from Libya.
Tunisia has taken some steps to back the legitimate government in Libya in its fight against ISIS. But so far, the steps taken have not been commensurate with the threat. Unless Tunisia continues to pursue militants more aggressively, while simultaneously shoring up its economy so that so many of its youth are not enticed into joining ISIS, it may lose the distinction of being the single success story from the Arab Spring.