Tunisian army rides wave of support after Ben Guerdane
Tunis - Tunisians have shown mixed reactions to jubilant young soldiers taking selfies with the dead bodies of jihadists after troops thwarted the Islamic State’s bid to establish an “emirate” in Ben Guerdane, a garrison town near the border with Libya.
More than 60 people were killed, including at least 47 jihadists, in the March 7th-8th battle.
Although some assailed the selfie pictures as “too morbid”, many others hailed the soldiers’ actions as testimony to the forces’ ability to ward off the threat of the Islamic State (ISIS) and other jihadists.
“Bravo, may God grant victory to our army and our boys,” wrote one Tunisian on Facebook.
Some people had the photos embossed on T-shirts with a bold black caption reading: “I love my army.”
Abdessattar Ben Moussa, the head of the Tunisian Human Rights League, one of four civic groups that won the Nobel Peace Prize for fostering peace and dialogue in Tunisia, defended the selfie pictures as a display of the young soldiers’ enthusiasm in the fight against ISIS.
Hundreds of Tunisian jihadists are reported to have returned from fighting in Syria since last December. Tunisians constitute the largest contingent of ISIS fighters in Syria and Iraq. Their number is estimated to be about 6,000.
Members of an al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb affiliate and other jihadist groups have kept bases in the mountainous areas near Tunisia’s border with Algeria since 2012.
There has been speculation the Ben Guerdane attackers were planning to take control of the border town as a starting point to creating their emirate, in a manner similar to what ISIS did in Syria and Iraq.
The morale of Tunisian troops is currently high after its performance in Ben Guerdane and due to the support of a populace that views ISIS as an existential threat to the Mediterranean nation.
The Tunisian armed forces have seen their budget increase steadily since 2011 and are becoming a key employer for young men, mostly from poor regions, and offer decent wages and vocational training. But some argue more money is needed to acquire sophisticated weapons and provide additional training.
“The long-marginalised Tunisian military has begun to see its position improve after the revolution,” said analyst Sharan Grewal, of Princeton University, in a recent Carnegie Endowment for Peace study.
While government forces won the battle in Ben Guerdane, there is no shortage of nightmare scenarios for the future.
“A few kilometres from Ben Guerdane, Zarzis… or Djerba, a touristic hub and centre of Tunisia’s Jewish community, could be targeted. In the west of the country, jihadis operating in the forested mountains along the border with Algeria could take advantage of any new crisis to attack nearby Kasserine or reach as far as central Sidi Bouzid,” said Michael Ayari, senior Tunisia analyst with that International Crisis Group.
The government forces’ battle against ISIS assailants in Ben Guerdane was the bloodiest confrontation in the country since January 27, 1980, when regime opponents assisted by Libya and Algeria took over downtown Gafsa, the capital of Tunisia’s main phosphate-producing area.
With military help from Morocco, France and the United States, Tunisia put down the Gafsa rebellion after seven days of fighting in which 24 soldiers, three assailants and 21 civilians were killed.