Tunisia scrambles to seal border amid growing ISIS threat

Tunisia town where ISIS goes to recruit
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Story highlights

  • Mass disappearance of 33 citizens from border town a sign of radicalization among young Tunisians
  • Government is to build a ditch and earth wall along nearly 170km (110 miles) of border with Libya
  • Tunisia is the only Arab state to have made a lasting transition to democracy after the uprisings of 2011

(CNN)The desert town of Remada in southern Tunisia has suddenly lost 33 of its citizens. They vanished overnight last week and are thought to have crossed the nearby border into Libya, amid a crackdown by the Tunisian authorities against suspected jihadist cells.

The Interior Ministry said "the missing individuals are between 16 and 35 years old. Most of them are radical extremists," but did not confirm all were from Remada. Two were said to be former soldiers, another an air force pilot.
    The mass disappearance is another sign of radicalization among young Tunisians, especially in the poorer and more conservative interior, and the lure of Libya as a safe haven for jihadist groups.
    Towns like Remada, Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid are fertile recruiting grounds for militants. They suffer from high unemployment, especially among the young, and a heavy-handed police presence. Remada is a town of nearly 10,000 people surrounded by desert and scrub. To the south-east are ochre-colored hills and cliffs along the border with Libya, criss-crossed by smugglers' tracks.
    A CNN team in Remada last March encountered several military checkpoints around the town and a substantial plain-clothes intelligence presence. Even then, Tunisian authorities had imposed a no-go zone extending several kilometers from the Libyan border, with military outposts every couple of kilometers along the frontier in an effort to stem the jihadist traffic in both directions.
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    The government's next step is to build a ditch and earth wall along nearly 170 kilometers (110 miles) of the border, from Ras Jedir on the coast to Dhehiba, a remote border town where a road snakes through the hills to Libya.
    "We have 500 kilometers of border with Libya, mostly desert, and we need special equipment to control that border that we don't have," said President Beji Caid Essebsi last week as he declared a state of emergency for 30 days. The U.S. State Department approved last year the sale of 12 Blackhawk helicopters to Tunisia to improve border security. But Tunisia also shares a long and porous border with Algeria: sealing its frontiers is virtually impossible.
    The government can point to one recent success in its battle against jihadist groups affiliated with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al Qaeda. On Friday, security forces killed five extremists belonging to an offshoot of al Qaeda -- the Katibat 'Uqba ibn Nafi (KUIN) -- near Mount Orbata in central Tunisia.
    Presidential spokesman Moez Sinaoui said one of those killed had been identified by DNA tests as Mourad Gharsalli, a senior figure in the group, which is fighting the Tunisian army in mountains along the Algerian border.
    On Saturday, Kamel Jendoubi, the minister heading the government's crisis response, said 127 suspected "terrorists" had been detained since the attack in the resort of Sousse on June 26th, in which 38 people were killed, the majority of them British tourists. According to Jendoubi, 100,000 members of the security forces -- police, national guard and army - are now deployed, with 3,000 protecting tourist destinations and archaeological sites.
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    But the scale of the challenge is considerable. The U.N. Working Group on mercenaries said last week that complex recruitment and travel networks had moved thousands of Tunisians to Syria and Iraq, including families.
    Tunisia is the only Arab state to have made a lasting transition to democracy after the uprisings of 2011, and yet Tunisians make up the largest group of foreign fighters with ISIS in Syria and Iraq, and are an increasing presence in Libya. According to the U.N. group, some 4,000 Tunisians are in Syria, 200 in Iraq and between 1,000 and 1,500 in Libya. The number in Libya swelled after the militant group Ansar al Shariah was banned in Tunisia.
    "It was reported that recruiters in these networks are well paid - around $3,000 to $10,000 per new recruit, according to human skills," said Working Group director, Elzbieta Karska, after a recent visit to Tunisia. Karska said she had been "told repeatedly that many foreign fighters are undergoing training in Libya before heading to Syria."
    The gunman responsible for the Sousse massacre, Saif al-Deen al Rezgui, trained in Libya -- as did the two men who attacked the Bardo Museum in March, according to Tunisian officials.
    The promise of money lures some young men but more are influenced by Salafist preachers in local mosques or are radicalized online. Many are teenage school drop-outs. Residents of Remada quoted by Reuters said the group that disappeared last week had left after a meeting at a local mosque.
    Mokhtar Awad at the Center for American Progress, whose research focuses on North Africa and the Middle East, says "jihadists in countries like Tunisia still invest in scouting inside mosques or developing recruits in their local areas."
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    Awad told CNN that some high-profile members of Ansar al Shariah have remained loyal to al Qaeda and have joined groups like al Nusra in Syria. But there also appear to be a generational split among Tunisian militants, with senior figures aligning themselves with al Qaeda while younger fighters are easily attracted to ISIS.
    Awad identifies an "intelligence deficit" as one of Tunisia's main problems. He says senior police and military officers distrusted the previous Ennahda government, regarding it as far too soft on Salafist groups. By the same token, Ennahda, an Islamist party inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood, distrusted the security apparatus, because many senior officers were holdovers from the Ben Ali era.
    The Tunisian state's ability to finance ambitious security measures won't be helped by the acute loss of tourism revenue, which made up some 15% of national income in 2014, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council. After a steep decline in 2011, when the ousting of the Ben Ali regime contributed to a fall of about one-third in tourist arrivals, the sector had been recovering.
    The British government's advice to tour operators last week to bring home all their clients in Tunisia immediately was deeply disappointing and surprising, according to Tunisian officials. Hundreds arrived home on special flights at the weekend after Britain's Foreign Minister, Phillip Hammond, said another terrorist attack was "highly likely."
    That is certainly the intent of ISIS affiliate Jund al Khilafa. In a statement at the weekend it warned of "further attacks in the future that will target people who ally with the non-believers as well. A foreigner who is Muslim is a dear brother to us while a secular Tunisian is an enemy to us," the statement said.
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    For now, France and Germany have not followed Britain's move. The French Foreign Ministry told CNN on Friday: "France and its main partners do not forbid, to this date, travel to Tunisia." French citizens visit Tunisia more than any other nationality.
    The long-term challenge for the Tunisian state is to give people living in the poor interior some hope of work and opportunity. Mokhtar Awad says this will require western investment to be focused on deprived regions, as well as incentives by the Tunisian government.
    But the loss of tourism revenue, higher spending on security and the emergence of ISIS cells inside Tunisia make for an immediate crisis. In the words of President Essebsi, "if attacks like Sousse happen again, the country will collapse."