March 8, 2016
TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State’s Tunisia Strategy
Armed militants are suspected to have crossed into Tunisia from Libya on March 7, carrying out a series of coordinated attacks against Tunisian security forces in the eastern border town of Ben Gardane. The attacks targeted an army base, a national guard post, and a police station, leaving 53 dead—including 35 militants, 11 members of the security forces, and seven civilians. The assault comes less than a week after a March 2 raid by Tunisian security forces that resulted in the death of five militants in a house near Ben Gardane. As the security situation in neighboring Libya has deteriorated, Tunisia has become increasingly concerned about militants—particularly those from the so-called Islamic State—infiltrating the country to carry out attacks. While it is unclear if the militants in Ben Gardane did indeed belong to the Islamic State, Tunisia is the logical next stepping stone for the group’s expansion in North Africa.
The March 7 assault represents a turning point for Tunisia in its battle against the Islamic State. Elevated concerns over border incursions had already compelled the Tunisian government to construct a 125-mile wall along the border with Libya. However, based on the scale and coordination of the assault on security forces, the wall is hardly serving as a deterrent. The five militants killed on March 2 were targeted in a raid on a safe house; the March 7 attacks launched an open assault on the security forces within Tunisian territory—a clear escalation in terms of operational capability. The audacity of this attack was not lost on Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who called the attack ‘unprecedented,’ adding the motive was ‘probably to take control over the region, and to announce a new wilayah.’
Tunisians represent the single largest contingent of foreigners fighting with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and new Tunisian recruits are now being directed to join the group in Libya. Ben Gardane in particular has long been known as a hotbed of recruitment for the Islamic State and other jihadist groups, making the recent uptick in suspected Islamic State activity in the town particularly alarming for Tunisian officials. According to Tunisian intelligence services, the Tunisian militants who carried out the attacks on the Bardo museum in Tunis and the Riu Imperial Marhaba resort in Sousse were trained in an Islamic State camp near the western Libyan city of Sabratha. That camp was the target of a U.S. airstrike on February 19, after intelligence officials became concerned that Islamic State militants were preparing for another attack—though the exact nature of the threat remains unclear. The airstrike specifically targeted Noureddine Chouchane, a senior Tunisian member of the Islamic State in Libya who had been recruiting and training Tunisians to carry out attacks in their homeland.
The Islamic State’s exact strategy in Tunisia remains unclear. It could very well be that the March 7 assault was meant to test Tunisian defenses, and to prepare for a large-scale attempt to take Ben Gardane. Long a haven for militant jihadism, the town’s capture would hold symbolic importance for the Islamic State. The former leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq—the precursor to the Islamic State—Abu Musab al-Zarqawi is reported to have stated: ‘If Ben Gardane had been located next to Fallujah, we would have liberated Iraq.’ The town also lies on key smuggling routes, and has long been used as a smuggling hub. If the Islamic State plans to expand its territory into Tunisia, Ben Gardane would be an ideal beachhead for the group.
However, it is more likely that the Islamic State will continue to use its positions in Libya to chip away at stability in Tunisia. The March 7 assault proved that the group is not yet strong enough to take and hold territory within the country, as Tunisian security forces are well-trained, well-armed, and backed by Western allies; on March 1, prior to the incidents in Ben Gardane, the UK announced the deployment of special operations forces to Tunisia to assist with border security. The attacks on the Bardo museum and the Riu Imperial resort, as well as the November 2015 bombing of a bus carrying members of the Presidential Guard in Tunis, clearly demonstrated the Islamic State's capacity to carry out devastating attacks on Tunisian soil. As long as the group can maintain its operational base in Libya, the risks of repeated direct conflict with Tunisian security forces are unnecessary. Instead, the Islamic State will continue to establish cells in Tunisia, in the hopes that repeated terror incidents will destabilize the Tunisian government. If the government does falter, the Islamic State will be prepared to strike.
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