Tunisian army rides wave of support after Ben Guerdane

Friday 18/03/2016
Members of the Tunisian police stop a suspicious car driver and his passengers on March 10th, in Bouhamed, 40km south of the town of Ben Guerdane, as security forces continue hunting jihadists in the area.

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.