Ben Guerdane, a year on

Sunday 12/03/2017

March 7th marked an anniversary that went largely unnoticed in much of the Arab region and the rest of the world.

Yet there are lessons to be learned from why and how, a year ago, Tunisians thwarted an attempt by the Islamic State (ISIS) to establish an emirate in Ben Guerdane, a town on the Tunisian- Libyan border.

Scores of ISIS militants brazenly tried to seize the military garrison, national guard and police stations in the town of 60,000 inhabitants, who mostly live off smuggling goods across the border with Libya.

The militants were clearly helped by their local knowledge. They had enough intelligence to target security officials and anti-terrorism officers in their homes and on the streets of Ben Guerdane. In the initial hours of the attack, they killed two policemen.

They planned to use large caches of arms and explosives smuggled in from Libya from 2011 onward. Much of the weapons horde was discovered only after the attack.

What the militants did not expect, however, was the reaction of the local population.

Unlike similar situations elsewhere, the residents of Ben Guerdane did not leave the army and security forces to battle the militants alone.

Instead, they stayed on the risky streets, keeping watch and guiding security forces to enemy positions. They filmed street battles with their smartphones and posted the footage on social media. In their posts, they made clear they were taking sides and which one it was.

Eventually, 55 terrorists were killed and 42 arrested, while 13 members of the security forces and seven civilians died in the fighting.

The most obvious lesson of the battle of Ben Guerdane is that wins and losses in the fight against terrorism largely depend on whether terrorists or the government forces enjoy the people’s support.

Counting on local support was probably ISIS’s most serious miscalculation in Ben Guerdane. As in the rest of Tunisia, there were no major sectarian or ethnic cleavages that the jihadists could exploit. The militants may have counted on the economic grievances of a region that felt neglected for decades, a feeling that was aggravated by events since 2011.

The violence in Libya and upheaval in Tunisia dented the town’s business over the border, including both regular trade and illegal trafficking. Even so, when they saw their security forces under attack, Ben Guerdane’s people rallied around the flag of Tunisia, not that of ISIS.

This is significant, not least because it was the last major attempt by jihadists to strike at Tunisia. The Ben Guerdane attack was one of a series of high-profile ISIS-claimed attacks starting in 2015 with assaults on the Bardo National Museum and the Sousse beach resort.

It also coincided with a review of the country’s anti-terrorism tactics, including the construction of a 201km fence and a ditch south of Ben Guerdane to prevent infiltration from Libya.

A new antiterrorism strategy as well as the psychological impact of ISIS’s failure to take Ben Guerdane changed the course of events in Tunisia’s fight against jihadist terrorism.

Fittingly, Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed called Ben Guerdane the “town of resistance” on the anniversary of the attack and said that “your victory in the March 7th battle, the victory of security agents, of our soldiers, marked a turning point in the struggle against terrorism”.

Even so, cross-border trafficking will probably remain an issue until the informal economy is checked. The terrorists who infiltrated Ben Guerdane are thought to have used smugglers’ routes to enter Tunisia. Across North Africa, the Sahel and the entire Middle East, traffickers often cross paths with jihadists. The overlap between the two groups must end but that would require an economic recovery — jobs and growth — that the region is yet to enjoy.

For Tunisia and other North African countries, cross-border security will depend in large part on the restoration of central government authority in Libya. At home, Tunisia needs to exorcise the demon of regionalism, which feeds on developmental imbalances and encourages opportunistically inclined local populists. Border areas, which are now deservedly receiving special attention, should see more development projects implemented.

Ben Guerdane shows that it takes loyal citizens as well as effective security forces to beat ISIS. This lesson was a turning point for Tunisia and maybe beyond its borders.