A Leaky Border Threatens Tunisia’s Transition

Last week, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry reported that its forces had arrested eight Libyan militants who had entered the country with the aim of carrying out attacks against Tunisian officials. The ministry described the men as “Islamists.” The news jangled nerves in a country that’s already worried about contagion from the deepening turmoil in post-Qaddafi Libya. Tunisians, who ...

BORNI Hichem/AFP/Getty Images
BORNI Hichem/AFP/Getty Images

Last week, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry reported that its forces had arrested eight Libyan militants who had entered the country with the aim of carrying out attacks against Tunisian officials. The ministry described the men as “Islamists.” The news jangled nerves in a country that’s already worried about contagion from the deepening turmoil in post-Qaddafi Libya. Tunisians, who have had their own troubles with religious militants, have followed the steadily rising tide of bombings, shootings, and militia escapades in their neighbor to the east.

On May 16, a general with old CIA links, Khalifa Haftar, sent his troops into the streets of Tripoli to battle Islamist militias and attack the General National Congress (GNC), the Libyan interim government. He called on the GNC to relinquish power to a council composed of top judges that will oversee future elections. Haftar claims the government and parliament are no longer legitimate because they’ve failed to curtail the power of extremist groups roaming the country.

Tarek Kahlaoui, an analyst with the Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies, says that Libya’s neighbors have good reason to be worried. As the political crisis in Libya deepens, jihadist groups operating in the country “will grow even stronger,” he says. “It may become possible for them to stage attacks inside Tunisia as elections draw nearer.” These groups, such as Ansar al-Sharia (which claimed responsibility for the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Chris Stevens in 2012), have transnational structures and aims. If the remaining state structures in Libya collapse, says Kahlaoui, there’s a high likelihood that the militants will attempt to expand their operations across its borders to Tunisia and other adjacent states.

Borders, in fact, are a big part of the problem. North Africa is a place of sweeping and often empty territories, making it hard to police state boundaries. In a recent report, Geneva-based researcher Moncef Kartas focuses on a border region called the Jefara. One of the most worrisome aftereffects of the Libyan civil war, Kartas notes, has been the dispersion of weapons looted from Qaddafi’s arsenals into the regions around Libya. Most of the arms that have entered Tunisia have done so through the Jefara.

Jefaran society is largely divided between two tribal federations spanning both sides of the Tunisian-Libyan border. Prior to European colonization, the tribes developed a complex yet stable social order in the Jefara, enjoying what Kartas calls “a solid, if unspectacular, economy.” French and Italian colonists shattered this stability by drawing borders that cut through the region.

With the growth of the Libyan oil industry in the 1960s, Tunisian migrants to Libyan markets began sending remittances, fueling cross-border trade. The Tunisians sealed the border on numerous occasions, among them when Qaddafi sponsored unsuccessful coups against then-Tunisian president Habib Bourguiba in 1978 and 1980. Yet members of a tribe on the Tunisian side soon learned to deal with disruptions in the official border economy, developing a black-market system replete with money-changing businesses, remittance deliveries, and people-smuggling networks. The U.N. embargo imposed on Libya in 1992 inadvertently spurred illicit trade in the Jefara. By 2010, an estimated 10,000 Libyans and Tunisians were crossing the Ras Jdir border point every day.

During the U.N. embargo, Qaddafi relied increasingly on Tunisian smuggler networks to change money and to help acquire overseas assets. Former Tunisian President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime tacitly encouraged the emergence of the trafficking cartels as a driver of economic growth in the long-neglected region. “The previous government was smart enough to realize that if they allowed the trade, they could police it,” Kartas told me. But post-revolutionary governments in Tunis have been cracking down on all illicit activity along the border, which may unwittingly strengthen the role of militants as traffickers seek ways to keep up the smuggling business by other means. “Now traffickers are making agreements with armed groups to control portions of the border for smuggling.”

The outbreak of the Libyan civil war in early 2011 brought a massive influx of Libyan refugees into Tunisia. In severe need of cash, they sold whatever they could carry with them after crossing the border. Some sold gold and other valuables, and some sold weapons, largely handguns and AK-47 rifles. “A lot of the Libyans in Tunisia were supporters of the Qaddafi regime, and they will continue to support particular [counterrevolutionary] tribes and factions,” Kartas said. This can serve to erode stability in Tunisia, he noted.

While the war raged between Qaddafi’s army and revolutionary militias in May 2011, I remember seeing some of these cross-border nomads in the Tunisian border town of Dhehiba. Tunisians in Dhehiba had given shelter to the families of rebels from the anti-Qaddafi strongholds in Libya’s nearby Nafusa Mountains. (The photo above shows Libyan rebels patrolling the border near Dhehiba in 2011.) Upon arriving in Dhehiba, I ran into a group of heavyset, thick-bearded revolutionary fighters. Between bouts of battling Qaddafi’s army, the Libyan fighters sat sipping tea at outdoor coffee houses, chatting and laughing with Tunisian locals. Their worn garments were the same as the Tunisians’, their accents in Arabic almost indistinguishable. It was as though the border was merely a formality, a line scratched in the Jefara’s desert earth.

The arms that Libyan refugees exchanged for cash were only the tip of the new weapons iceberg. Traffickers in the Tunisian city of Ben Guerdane on the northern edge of the border availed themselves of the plentiful supply of arms from Qaddafi loyalists taking refuge in Tunisia. These large stockpiles of weapons apparently still exist, yet Tunisian security forces appear hesitant to seize them.

Some of those guns have recently begun appearing in the hands of three groups in Tunisia, Kartas points out. The first are jihadi Salafists, those who support armed combat to overtake the state. Though they are relatively few, jihadi Salafists in Tunisia have links to al Qaeda units in the Maghreb in Algeria and Libya. Tunisian security officers say that they’re keeping close tabs on all jihadi Salafists, but claim that they’ve never received orders from the government to arrest them. The second group is made up of tribes and clans in the Tunisian far south and interior regions. Since 2011, these tribes have also increasingly used firearms in disputes that have left several dead and scores wounded. Finally, there are ordinary Tunisians. Growing perceptions of vulnerability, whether real or imagined, have increased demand for firearms among average Tunisians, who, observing a decrease in police presence after the uprising, want to protect themselves.

Near Ben Guerdane, volatility has increased due to conflicts between tribal groups over trafficking networks and their confrontations with militias on the Libyan side, making the border crossing more difficult to control. In Dhehiba, farther to the south, smugglers have forged ties with militias in the Nafusa Mountains, attempting to erode cartel control of smuggling networks in Ben Guerda
ne. Dry riverbeds known as oueds, crisscrossing the Tunisian-Libyan border below the Nafusa Mountains, are another possible entry point. They allow access deep into Tunisia without checkpoints that could hamper arms smuggling.

Meanwhile, Algerian armed forces have discovered caches of hundreds of anti-tank and anti-air missiles and rocket-propelled grenades deep in the Sahara where the borders of Tunisia, Libya, and Algeria come together. Weapons smuggled through this route are likely run from Libya into Algeria and then find their way into Tunisia.

The continuing collapse of state institutions in Libya gives Tunisians real reason to worry. Over the mid-term, this is likely to be one of the main threats to Tunisia’s security. “Continued fragmentation in Libya makes it much harder for Tunisia to make sound judgments on how to protect its borders,” Kartas added. “This makes the potential for armed groups to infiltrate Tunisia much higher than it was two or three years ago.”

Sam Kimball is a freelance journalist based in Tunis. He has reported previously from Yemen and Egypt.

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