Tunisia will be most affected if the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) continues to expand in Libya, Tunisian terrorism experts say.
“Libya is a ticking bomb,” former Brigadier-General Mohammed Sellami told Al Arabiya News.
“Not dealing with terrorism in Libya is likely to shake security in Tunisia, and even the Maghreb region in the long run.”
Libya descended into war after the toppling of Muammar Qaddafi in a NATO-backed uprising in 2011.
The North African country now has two rival governments and parliaments, each backed by armed militias. The absence of law and authority in the oil-rich country has turned it into a beacon for extremists.
Last week, an ISIS-style video was released that purported to show the beheading of 21 Egyptian Copts, prompting hundreds of Egyptians residing in Libya to flee to Tunisia.
The video was one of the first to come from outside ISIS’s main enclaves in Syria and Iraq, suggesting that the group has exported its fight to North Africa.
“One of ISIS’s strategies is expansion. It has already threatened to go to Tunisia on multiple occasions,” said political analyst Noureddine Mbarki. “The terrorist threat is the most serious danger facing Tunisia right now.”
Tunisia has been dealing with its own insurgency since the 2011 revolution that toppled President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.
Last week, around 20 militants from the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade opened fire at a police checkpoint, killing four officers.
The brigade operates in Mount Chaambi near the Algerian border, and was responsible for killing 14 soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades in July 2014.
Tunisia is also dealing with a hard-line Salafist movement called Ansar al-Shariah, which was formed in 2011 and later officially declared a terrorist group.
Ansar al-Shariah was reportedly behind an attack on the U.S. embassy and school in the capital in 2012.
The government also blamed the group for the assassination of two secular opposition members in 2013.
The high-profile murders resulted in a political deadlock and a wave of protests that led the government to resign.
ISIS’s presence in Libya could further exacerbate the terrorist issue that Tunisia is dealing with, said Sellami.
Reports suggest that some 3.000 Tunisians have gone to Syria and joined ISIS or other extremist groups, making Tunisia the largest exporter of fighters.
Calls for intervention
Calls for military intervention in Libya to thwart terrorism and reach a reconciliation in the conflict-riven country are growing louder in diplomatic circles.
However, such a scenario could harm the economy in Tunisia, a country already poor in resources, said Mbarki.
“Any intervention in Libya would result in a humanitarian crisis,” he said, adding that Libyans would flee to Tunisia.
“The situation in Libya affects Tunisia from all angles. Historically, there has always been an economic exchange between Libya and Tunisia. This exchange lessened in recent years, and the more it lessens, the more it effects Tunisia, especially on the border.”
Concerns over weapons-smuggling through the Libyan-Tunisian border crossing of Ras Jdeir is another issue. This week alone, around 100 trucks forced their way into Tunisia, according to local reports.
Security forces “say they chased them and questioned them. I doubt that. They entered by force. We don’t know what they brought in with them. It could be weapons,” Sellami said.
The Ras Jdeir crossing is controlled by Fajr Libya, a coalition of Islamist militias that seized control of the Libyan capital Tripoli and the country’s biggest cities in the summer of 2014.
“Names differ, but the face is one. Ansar Shariah, Kata’eb or Fajr Libya - they control Derna, Tripoli, Sirte and Benghazi,” Sellami said.
“Tunisia has been making big efforts for three years now, but [terrorist groups] know that Tunisia has limited means.”
Sellami said there should be some sort of intervention in Libya to prevent terrorism from spilling over into Tunisia.
“We have enough time to intervene and thwart the threat if we’re provided with intelligence, and if Tunisia employs its allies and friends like France and the United States.”
Intelligence is key because what makes terrorist operations successful is the “element of surprise,” he said, adding that intelligence-gathering was disrupted following the fall of Ben Ali.
However, Tunisia has already announced its rejection of direct intervention in Libya. “The solution of the conflict [in Libya] shouldn’t be military [but] political,” Tunisian Foreign Minister Taieb Baccouche said on Wednesday, Agence France Presse reported.
“Military solutions won’t solve problems. They complicate them further and lead to mass migration.”SHOW MORE