In April, paramilitary forces loyal to the Libyan National Army (LNA)—the armed wing of the Tobruk administration—began its campaign to take the capital Tripoli from the UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) and its loose coalition of militia units (Africa Times, April 11). Fighting is ongoing, and GNA defenses are currently holding. While the effect Libya’s endemic instability has had domestically has been well documented, there has been less analytical focus on the implications the escalation in violence has on Libya’s western neighbor, Tunisia (Terrorism Monitor, April 5). Indeed, Tunisian defense officials explicitly responded to the campaign’s commencement by stating it would “take all necessary measures” in the border provinces of Medenine and Tatouine (Middle East Monitor, April 6).
The collapse of a centralized Libyan security and law enforcement apparatus has led to a proliferation of non-state actors seizing control over small sections of territory in western Libya. This has led to an inability to police the Libyan side of the border and has provided militant groups with a reasonably safe zone to train, arm, and prepare to carry out attacks in Libya. Said Rezgui, who carried out the attack against tourists in Sousse in June 2015, trained at an Islamic State (IS) camp near Sabratha. The gunmen responsible for the Bardo Museum assault also attended this facility. As recently as March, three Jund al-Khalifa fighters were shot dead by Tunisian border guards while attempting to penetrate border defenses (Alaraby, March 7). The insecurity on the Libyan side, therefore, creates the conditions for militants to surveil, plan, and infiltrate Tunisia with relative ease, despite security forces’ best efforts. Although at the time of writing information is still emerging over the network that carried out a series of suicide attacks in the capital on June 27, it is likely that it had some level of support from across the border (Alarabiya, June 27).
This complicated patchwork network of territorial control also complicates any attempts by Tunis to secure support from its Libyan counterparts. As territory changes hands and alliances shift, it is exceptionally challenging for Tunisian diplomatic and intelligence staff to maintain and update the necessary contacts, let alone secure support for border security. Indeed, checkpoints are valuable strategic areas, and the groups controlling them are likely to seek to acquire as much economic revenue as possible by extorting fees from those passing through, rather than controlling or checking them. This means that security will entirely be Tunisia’s responsibility for the foreseeable future, as even if the LNA takes Tripoli it is unlikely it will prioritize securing the border areas until after it has consolidated its hold over vital oil infrastructure and ports.
The second consequence of the violence in Libya is the flow of refugees into Tunisia. Although the vast majority of Libyan refugees returned home following the end of the 2011 civil war, there has been a recent uptick in the number of people fleeing across the border due to the return of violence. In the event that LNA forces break through Tripoli’s southern districts and intra-urban fighting breaks out in the city proper, there will be a further spike in the number of people fleeing across the border. Given Tunisia’s political tensions and weak economy, even a relatively modest increase in refugee flows would prove a serious challenge for the government.
However, the most serious security risk the Libyan conflict poses to Tunisia is not individuals coming in, but a shutdown of trade across the border. Cross-border trade, both licit and illicit, is the primary economic activity in the southern border areas, which have been historically economically neglected by the government. Intermittent border closures and increased security deployments render this trade impossible to continue at the same levels. Protests regularly impact Tunisia and often start as small local issues that resonate with the wider population and have the potential to cripple normal business functions. Further restrictions at the borders will likely lead to demonstrations in Ben Guardane and other key border towns, which in turn have the potential to trigger major unrest, which is particularly destabilizing in the context of imminent elections.
Furthermore, the deprivation of economic opportunity could in turn lead to an increased susceptibility among the local population to sympathize, cooperate, or even directly join terrorist organizations. During the apex of IS’ territorial control, there were over 5,000 Tunisians within its ranks, and despite numerous counterterrorism operations, IS and al-Qaeda both retain the domestic recruitment infrastructure to take advantage of rising unemployment and poverty for their own purposes.
The Tunisian border has been well-secured over the past few years. Situated in a military buffer zone, the border is protected by physical infrastructure— trenches, observation posts, fences and towers—and with U.S. and German support, electronic surveillance measures including regular UAV flights. However, these are not deployed uniformly and there are multiple areas in the southern desert areas of Tatouine where militants can circumvent these checkpoints. Upgrading these insofar as is practical is undoubtedly a good start but does not solve the basic dilemma facing the Tunisian security establishment—reinforcing the border worsens the economic situation in the southern provinces and raises the specter of a worse security crisis than the one they seek to avoid.
The solution lies in balancing the two competing impulses; ensuring security while simultaneously minimizing disruption. Over the long term, the Tunisian government must invest in its southern provinces—improving educational and business opportunities and alleviating local perceptions that they are forgotten by their fellow citizens in the north. This would fundamentally change the political calculation. However, significant development is measured over years rather than months, and given Tunisia’s ongoing economic issues, is not something that can realistically be achieved in any timeframe meaningful to the current crisis. As such, the balancing act must continue.