Tunisia foils attempt at creating ‘ISIS emirate’
TUNIS - Tunisian government forces thwarted a jihadist raid on a garrison town near the Libyan border, killing at least 36 assailants who had declared they wanted to establish an Islamic State (ISIS) emirate in North Africa.
At least 11 security forces members and seven civilians were also killed in Ben Guerdane, 570km south of Tunis, in what Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi described as an “unprecedented” jihadist attack.
The raid took place two days after the announcement that German and US experts were travelling to Tunisia to equip the Libyan border with electronic devices to help prevent intrusions.
British troops are also expected to train Tunisian forces in border control.
Tunisian soldiers and anti-terror police, backed by warplanes, fought for more than eight hours to repel jihadists who attacked from three sides inside Ben Guerdane, a border town from where hundreds of militants have left to join ISIS in Iraq, Syria and Libya.
Among the militants killed were Manita Muftah, 39, and Moez Fezani, 47, who had been imprisoned by the United States at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
They were extradited to Tunisia in 2008 and freed from jail in 2011. They reportedly spearheaded the raid, security sources said.
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said the militants’ aim was to create a “Daesh emirate” in Ben Guerdane but the army and security forces foiled the attempt.
Essebsi said the assault was “maybe aimed at controlling” the border region with Libya, and vowed to “exterminate these rats”.
Ben Guerdane residents said the assailants appeared to be locals who launched the raid at the call to dawn prayers.
Attackers urged the population to join the raid, telling them through loudspeakers that they came “to liberate them” and establish an “Islamic emirate”.
The assailants stopped people, checking identification. They appeared to be selecting people from a hit list and killed an anti-terrorist brigade official at his home, relatives and friends said.
It was the second deadly clash in less than a week. At the end of February, troops killed five militants in a firefight in which a civilian died and a commander was wounded outside Ben Guerdane.
Troops had been on alert following reports of militants moving towards Tunisia after a US air strike on an ISIS training camp in Sabratha in Libya on February 19th in which dozens of suspected ISIS members were killed.
Jihadists have taken advantage of a power vacuum in Libya since the NATO-backed overthrow of long-time dictator Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, to set up several bases, including one in Sabratha, between Tripoli and the Tunisian border.
Terrorism experts in Tunisia said they were puzzled why jihadists would want to take over such a fortified town with no terrain cover and without chance of significant support from across the border while Western military powers are watching jihadist movements in the region.
If the goal of the attackers to set up an “emirate” in Ben Guerdane appeared far-fetched militarily, the choice of the town to stage attacks was predictable.
More than 15% of the 6,000 Tunisian fighters with ISIS hail from Ben Guerdane, a town of 79,000, versus 10.7% from Tunis, with more than 2 million people, according to US intelligence provider the Soufan Group.
The attraction of Ben Guerdane’s young people to jihadism is not new. Dozens of men from the town joined al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and its affiliates in Iraq and North Africa early in the 2000s.
A suicide bomber from Ben Guerdane attacked a Jewish shrine in the Tunisian tourism hub of Djerba in 2002, killing 21 people, most of them foreigners.
It was the first strike claimed by al-Qaeda after attacks in the United States on September 11th, 2001.