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Ben Gardane: an attempt to establish an IS emirate in Tunisia?

Karem Yehia, Tunis , Monday 14 Mar 2016
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid (C) is surrounded by special forces during a visit to a cemetery in Ben Guerdane on March 13, 2016, a week after jihadists launched a wave of attacks on army and police posts in the border town (Photo: AFP)
Views: 1992
Views: 1992

Since last Monday's terrorist attacks, Ben Gardane, which lies around 500 kilometers south of Tunis, has become a talking point for the media even beyond the local realm. The most pressing question raised in the wake of the attacks is, was there an attempt by the Islamic State group to establish an "emirate" along the border with Libya? 

In their statements, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi and Tunisian PM Habib Essid referred to an IS "emirate," a narrative which has been adopted by the media in Tunis and by many Tunisians. In this context, there are mixed emotions of pride for the security forces, who defeated the militants, and fear of terrorism in Tunisia and its impact on the economy and tourism.

After last year's attacks on the capital's Bardo museum, the Sousse hotel, and a presidential guard vehicle, militants struck again and not only with automatic rifles, explosive belts, and bombs but also RPGs in unprecedented simultaneous attacks.

It is true that the IS rhetoric on the Ben Gardane attack in two statements published on Albatar news agency never employed the term "IS emirate" but they refer to Ben Gardane's "battle" as being similar to the attacks of 11 September in the United States.

The two statements vow a "relentless war" in Tunisia. These include an implied admission on the failure of the "battle" or "establishing of an emirate"

Perhaps the rare point of agreement between the official discourse in Tunisia and the militant IS group's statement is that the two sides assert that Ben Gardane is just a battle in an unfinished war.

There are news on security raids and clashes with militants along with news on security campaigns all over the country particularly in the border and mountain area. This strengthens the belief that this is a geographically and chronologically open war.

All the aspects of the Ben Gardane attack, by witnesses, affirm the significance of the 7 March attack and increase the credibility of the scenario of establishing an IS emirate.

In addition to the coordinated simultaneous attacks on the interior ministry and army camps, the militants also targeted security leaders and personnel inside their homes. One of the most prominent leaders was Abdel-Ati Abdul Kabir, head of the anti-terrorism force who was martyred following an attack on his house.

The militants were also in control of downtown and its main streets for a while and there are some accounts in Tunisia suggesting that the militants told shop owners that they are now under the control of the Islamic State group.

Certainly the large number of seized weapons warehouses, as well as the loss of lives, supports this view.

The number of militant causalities until Friday was 49, 37 of whom were killed on Monday only. Meanwhile, 12 were killed among security and army forces in addition to seven local civilians, one of whom was a 12-year-old girl.   

Reading between the lines shows that the militants were not just arriving through the Libyan borders, which are about 14 kilometers away.

This, however, does not eliminate the possibility that a lot of the militants were coming back from Libya, or from Syria and Iraq through Libya, after investigations of the airstrike on IS camps in Misrata last February show that the 22 bodies examined were all Tunisians.

What is worrying is what Al-Sabah newspaper reported on Friday on a report done by the Libyan centre for terrorist studies which states that there are almost ten thousand foreign militants in Libya.

Among the foreign fighters, there are 3200 Tunisians, 699 from Mali, 455 Sudanese, and 111 Egyptians. However the centre says that the perpetrators of the Ben Gardane attacks were locals. In reality, Ben Gardane attracts IS group militants and several other militant groups.

In addition to the conservative culture that prevails, the area suffers from high poverty levels and unemployment. The economy of a large portion of its population depends on smuggling and parallel trade with Libya. There is also an overwhelming feeling of marginalization from the political class.

There are two scenarios when it comes to analyzing the events in Ben Gardane. The first suggests that the militants attempted to direct a preemptive strike after they learned of leaked information about their growing presence in the cities.

The second scenario suggests that it is an adventure doomed to failure and its aim is to establish a safe haven for militants fleeing Libya.

If it is true that the IS group failed in Ben Gardane while succeeding in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, then it is important that the salafist jihadist targeting of Tunisia does not wont dissuade it from continuing on its relatively successful democratic path and rebuilding its modern state institutions.

Terrorism will not be allowed to increase economic hardships and hinder the democratic transition.


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