Tunisia: A ripe target for militants

No militant group has yet claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on the national museum that left 17 tourists dead

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With militants holed up in inaccessible hinterlands, an uncontrollable border with chaotic Libya and thousands of youths returning after fighting in Syria, Tunisia is a vulnerable target for Islamic extremists.

No militant group has yet claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attack on the national museum that left 20 tourists dead, but extremists have in recent months stepped up their threats against the authorities in Tunis and threatened to hit them where it hurts -- in the lucrative tourism sector.

Since the Arab Spring revolutionary movement in 2011, militants loyal to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) or the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group have been hiding out in the mountains near the Algerian border.

Despite several efforts, the army has failed to dislodge them and lost dozens of soldiers in the process, especially in the Chaambi range.

Read Also: Libya chaos likely to affect Tunisian security, experts say.

The chaos in neighboring Libya, where rival militias -- some openly loyal to ISIS -- are scrapping over power, has also hit Tunisia hard, especially given the long and uncontrollable border in the desert between the two countries.

In some border regions, contraband with Libya is the only source of income, meaning that closing the border is effectively impossible.

“The geographical proximity obviously increases the risks,” said Jamil Sayah, president of the Tunisian Observatory of Global Security.

All the countries in the region need “a common strategy to wipe out Islamic State [ISIS] in the Libyan border regions,” said Sayah.

Tunisia is estimated to have contributed more jihadists to the ranks of the ISIS group than any other country, with some two to three thousand young men leaving the country for the frontlines in Syria and Iraq.

The Tunisian authorities say they have stopped 9,000 more from leaving, but are struggling to monitor the estimated 500 that have returned to the country.

“These Salafist jihadist groups have made the strategic choice to send young people to Syria to prepare and train them to be ready for combat in Tunisia,” said Tunisian analyst Slaheddine Jourchi.

Armed groups have fought a constant battle against security forces in the country.

Also Read: From beaches to dunes, the shifting sands of Tunisia’s tourism industry.

In February, around 20 militants ambushed a police patrol near the Algerian border, killing four and making off with their weapons.

A Franco-Tunisian jihadist, Boubakr El Hakim, claimed responsibility in December for the 2013 murder of two secular politicians that plunged Tunisia into crisis.

Hakim had joined the ISIS group and made the claim in a video released on the Internet.

“We are going to come back and kill several of you. You will not have a quiet life until Tunisia implements Islamic law,” he said.

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