After Ben Guerdane
Tunisians will remember the March 7th Islamic State terrorist incursion in the border town of Ben Guerdane for a long time.
Analysts and officials have speculated that the aim of the assailants was to establish an Islamic State (ISIS) emirate near the Tunisian-Libyan border and use this base to infiltrate other parts of Tunisia where dormant cells were waiting to be ordered into action.
The terrorists killed and captured by Tunisian security forces in Ben Guerdane came from different parts of Tunisia. They gathered in the small southern town with the purpose of lending support to elements already there.
By targeting Tunisia, ISIS sought to boost the morale of the terrorist groups in Libya, where a great number of Tunisians and other African nationals, who are part of the group, are based.
How did this come about? There are old and new factors that provided a favourable climate for this development.
The attack was the result of the lax policies towards extremism and terrorism during the 2-year rule of the Islamist-led government after 2012. Such policies allowed radical Salafist preachers to propagate a narrative dividing Tunisians into believers and non-believers. They also allowed jihadists to move freely and smuggle weapons into the country, especially from Libya.
The involvement of some Ben Guerdane natives in the attack shows how that jihadist narrative managed through the years to attract young people and divide Tunisians.
The attack also highlighted the disastrous consequences of the February 2011 pardon of convicted terrorists who were serving prison terms in Tunisian jails. These pardoned terrorists were allowed to organise and travel without being monitored. It is not a surprise that 13 of the ISIS fighters killed in Ben Guerdane were among the terrorists pardoned in 2011.
The more vigorous effort conducted in recent months by authorities against cross-border trafficking may have contributed to the Ben Guerdane attack. Some smugglers might have found common cause with the jihadists as the interests of both groups were hurt by the government’s tough measures to curtail their activities and its seizure of tens of millions of dollars’ worth of smuggled goods.
What does the future hold?
ISIS is likely to continue its attempts to instil fear through surprise attacks and bombings.
ISIS may revise its calculations in view of the lacklustre performance of its fighters and supporters in Ben Guerdane and the swift reaction of security forces. Its fighters were probably surprised by the local population’s strong rejection of the notion of an Islamist emirate. Few if any local residents rallied around the terrorists.
They were also surprised by the level of readiness and the decisive response of the police and army, who killed 49 of the attackers and arrested dozens more.
As it loses ground in Iraq and Syria, ISIS would like to gain a foothold in North Africa and will continue to try to establish a strong presence in the Libya- Tunisia-Algeria triangle. Implicit in the ISIS plan is the desire to drag Algeria into regional turmoil after earlier attempts failed and to expand its influence to parts of the Sahel and Western Africa so it can link with such terror groups as Nigeria’s Boko Haram.