When over 50 fighters linked to the Islamic State (IS) attacked Ben Guerdane on March 7, they were hedging their bets on the insurrectional spirit of the town’s population. They probably hoped the conflict would spark anger against Tunis among the tribes that live in the region.
The South of Tunisia and notably the border region has long been a hotbed for discontent, riots and uprisings. 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the violent suppression by the French colonial forces of the uprising of the Werghema, a confederation of tribes centered near Tunisia’s border with Libya. The uprising had resulted from the creation of the border itself by France in 1910, as well as the violent Italian colonization of Libya beginning in 1911.
The border divided in two the Jefara, a region stretching from Djerba to Tripoli, occupied for centuries by a number of semi-nomadic and sometimes feuding Arab and Amazigh tribes. The common struggle against colonial oppressors created a tight alliance between the Werghema and its counterpart on the Libyan side, the Nouayels. In addition, the forced sedentarization of proud “warriors” into new urban settlements such as Ben Guerdane and the de facto termination of the caravan trade led to the pauperization of the population. It marked a peak in the centuries of economic marginalization and violent encounters with Tunis.
With independence in 1956, Bourguiba’s progressive vision of state-formation left little space for legal tribal organisation. The naïve notion that tribalism could be simply abolished by denying the people of the region their traditional livelihood pushed the tribes into secrecy. Tribal organization persisted, and resistance to the post-colonial state took the shape of informal trade made possible, ironically, by the existence of the border and steep price differences due to tariffs and taxes as well as subsidized products. While the simultaneous fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Muammar Gaddafi have shaken up tribal dynamics, informal trade remains strong in the region.
In contrast to the picture painted by the media, Ben Guerdane has not been particularly prone to jihad in its past. Though religiously conservative, the South has been predominantly and deeply Pan-Arab. The Jefara has always been the bridge between the Maghreb and the Mashriq and its gaze oriented toward the Arab world and the Sahara rather than the Mediterranean and Europe.
For groups like the Islamic State, however, Ben Guerdane is strategically valuable. Some commentators believe the town is seen as a key entry point for IS to extend their dream of caliphate across the Maghreb. This is, however, a long-term goal; for now the aim is to destabilize the region, ease the mobility of violent extremists between Algeria and Libya, and weaken tribal armed groups in Tripolitania by temporarily bringing down the business they do with the families of Ben Geurdane.
Others have speculated that IS would like to take over informal trade in the region, but this idea is not very realistic either. What seems more probable is that IS has seen an opportunity in the Jefara tribes’ growing discontent with Tunis, due amongst other things to the creation of a trench along the border.
Now that the South is under attack, it is critical that Tunisian security forces gain the support of the population. The creation of economic opportunities is certainly necessary, but only a long-term solution. In the short- and mid-term the Tunisian authorities will have to integrate the local communities into their security strategy. The decision to dig a trench and build up the security system along the border was a centralized decision from Tunis. It was yet another measure imposed on the people of the Jefara without consulting them. The risk of continually excluding the population in the South is not that people will radicalize and join IS, but that the Tunisian state loses them as a resource.
Unfortunately, the security forces have a wrong appreciation of the situation. Civilians in Tunisia generally provide information to authorities because of fear, or even with the expectations of personal favors, but not because they trust the security forces and feel empowered to contribute to the safety of their community. The calls by many experts for a national anti-terrorist strategy are unfortunate. It will have only limited impact without a broader national strategy to fit in. Furthermore, it can only be as good as the data and input it receives. For the time being there is no input from citizens and no fine-grained analysis of the security needs of the communities. There are not even reliable crime statistics.
The lessons that can be learned from recent European terror attacks is that all the investment in security of the past decades has gone into surveillance and cutting edge counter-terrorism units, but the daily policing at the base has been neglected. In neighborhoods where security forces are at the heart of the communities, chances of preventing radicalization and detecting terror suspects are much higher. Tunisia needs to rethink its approach to borders. It is not about protecting a line in the sand, but about managing a space.