North Africa, West Asia

Why airstrikes on ISIS in Libya could worsen the situation in Tunisia

Concerns that bombing ISIS in Libya might destabilise Tunisia were tragically confirmed last week, as ISIS militants assaulted military and security facilities in Ben Guerdane, killing more than 50 people.

Olfa Lamloum
15 March 2016

Fathi Nasri/AFP/Getty Images. All rights reserved.Just a few weeks ago, International Alert expressed concern that bombing ISIS positions in Libya might ‘add war to war’ in the region and destabilise its Tunisian neighbour.

Our fears were tragically confirmed last week, as ISIS militants assaulted military and security facilities in the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane on the border with Libya, killing more than 50 people, many of them civilians.

The attack was the most devastating of those perpetrated by ISIS in Tunisia, and reveals a shift in the organisation’s tactics. Feeling the squeeze in Libya, especially following the US airstrikes on Sabratha on 19 February, the fighters are now looking for a new war front in southern Tunisia.

After the attack, Ben Guerdane residents mobilised in support of the security forces, showing their rejection of ISIS. But the presence of a large number of Tunisians among the attackers, according to preliminary information, remind us that jihadist Salafism is not a purely external threat in Tunisia.

Six years since the fall of Tunisian President Ben Ali, Ben Guerdane remains marked by high unemployment and school dropout rates, affecting young people and deepening economic and political marginalisation. Ruled for decades by a laissez-faire system based on a clientelistic control of smuggling and border taxes, Tunisia still lacks a strategy for development and a policy against huge regional disparities.

Today, thousands of young Tunisians who believed in the revolution remain on the margin of what has been dubbed as "the Tunisian exception" to the Arab Spring by the media.

These young people are disenchanted, as shown in our work in several neighbourhoods in the country’s marginalised areas. They have no work, no social security, no prospects and no hope of things ever getting better

With this in mind, the militarisation of the Tunisian border since 2013 cannot alone protect the country from a Libyan spillover and block the road to ISIS. Worse, there are indicators that the militarisation has increased corruption, whilst preventing the poorest of young Tunisians from making a living from smuggling. 

In Tunisia, as in Libya and elsewhere, the ‘war against terrorism‘ cannot be won solely with a sudden military operation. The ‘war’ must be fought on economic, social, cultural and political fronts, involving local people along the way. Above all it must give hope to young people and marginalised communities.

Countering ISIS should involve also a real overhaul of the governance of marginalised areas in Tunisia. This involves not only the establishment of a democratic security governance that respects the rule of law and is accountable to its citizens, but also one that considers their needs in terms of economic and social security.

Only then can we speak of a peaceful alternative to the terrorist threat that is currently plaguing the region.

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