War on ISIS triggers blowback in Tunisia, Jordan
TUNIS - The day-long battle between Islamic State (ISIS) extremists and security forces in the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane and the smashing of an ISIS plot in Jordan indicate how jihadists are seeking to open new fronts as their self-proclaimed caliphate comes under growing pressure in Syria and Iraq.
The March 7th attempt to take over Ben Guerdane, a garrison town and desert smuggling hub near the Libyan border that has produced many jihadists, was ISIS’s biggest and boldest operation in Tunisia, which has been the site of three terrorist attacks over the last year in which scores of people were killed.
More than 50 militants took part in the dawn assault, the sort of attack Tunisian authorities have long feared as ISIS has gained ground in the terrorist maelstrom that has gripped Libya since the 2011 overthrow of Muammar Qaddafi.
“This is an unprecedented attack, planned and organised and whose goal was probably to take control of this area and to announce a new emirate,” Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi declared.
Six days earlier, Jordanian security forces said they foiled an ISIS plot to attack military and civilian targets, reportedly including shopping malls, cinemas and Western-owned hotels. Seven jihadists were killed and 13 captured in one of the kingdom’s largest security operations in years when special forces stormed a militant hideout in the northern city of Irbid in a night-time raid.
The ISIS assault on the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane was seen as a response to a February 19th US air strike on an ISIS camp near the western Libyan town of Sabratha that killed 30 militants. Most of them were Tunisian, including Noureddine Chouchane, who allegedly helped mastermind the 2015 Sousse Beach and Bardo National Museum massacres in Tunisia carried out by Tunisians trained in Libya.
The attack on Ben Guerdane, with a population of 79,000, targeted army and police bases. Authorities reported 36 militants, 11 soldiers and seven civilians were killed. Six militants were captured.
Military analyst Faysal Cherif of the International Centre for Military and Security Strategic Studies in Tunis, observed: “This was a desperate attempt by Daesh (ISIS) fighters after they came under pressure in Syria, Iraq and Libya.”
Ben Guerdane has long been a jihadist hotbed. International reports indicate 15% of the estimated 6,000 Tunisians who have joined ISIS and other groups in Syria and Iraq came from the town, compared to 10% from Tunis, which has a population of 2 million.
Six jihadists were killed and ten arrested March 8th in a follow-up raid in Ben Guerdane.
If, as has been suggested, the attackers expected the population, hard hit by a crackdown on the local smuggling industry that is the area’s economic mainstay, to rise up with them against the state, they failed dismally.
“They didn’t expect the local population to steer clear of them,” Cherif observed. “They were surprised by the sheer force of the reaction from government forces.”