The United States’ latest strategy in containing the spread of terrorism, particularly in North Africa, has focused on reinforcing border security –– a response to growing regional instability since the Arab Spring. Following the 2011 NATO coup that deposed President Moammar Gaddafi, ISIL insurgents have filled the resulting power vacuum in Libya, establishing several bases throughout the fragile country, including one in Sabratha, next to the Tunisian border. In 2015, ISIL claimed responsibility for three violent attacks in Tunisia, including one that killed 38 foreign tourists (1). Like Tunisia, neighboring Egypt must contend with the evolving insurgency of ISIL and al-Qaida affiliates in the Sinai Peninsula –– a development that has prompted Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to advocate for a regional military task force to intervene in Libya and combat transnational terrorist groups there (2). Through the provision of multi-million-dollar aid packages that enhance border security, the U.S. has not only symbolically expressed support for its two allies, Tunisia and Egypt, but also insulated two countries indeed responsible for the spread of global terrorism.
In Tunisia, the issue of terrorism is largely homegrown; however, with the support of the U.S., the country has embarked on an ambitious project to protect its borders from the infiltration of terror. The government has erected a barrier covering 200 kilometers of its 459-kilometer border with Libya, in order to halt the uninhibited flow of fighters, weapons and trafficked goods out of Libya. In July of 2015, news surfaced that the United States had agreed to fortify this barrier with a $24.9 million project to install an electronic security surveillance system. The Defense Threat Reduction Agency (DTRA) reportedly awarded the contract to two American contractors –– the construction group BTP, and the consulting and engineering firm AECOM (2). Over the past three years, Tunisia has received significant aid from the United States. Washington has provided aircraft, patrol vehicles, training and arms to Tunisia’s anti-terrorism defense units, in an effort to meet the exigencies of a country in such close proximity to a war-torn state, where ISIL- and al-Qaida-affiliated combatants are fighting two opposing governments wrestling for control of Libya (2). What remains missing from the multi-million-dollar agreements and other efforts to contain outside threats is the recognition that an estimated 7,000 Tunisians are fighting jihadist wars in the Middle East and North Africa, including Ansar al-Sharia and the Katibat Uqba Ibn Nafi (KUIN) –– two Tunisian Islamist groups that have established a following in Libya (2). Indeed, such numbers would suggest that, for Tunisia, an effort to effectively combat terrorism begins neither abroad nor along its borders but, rather, at home.
The Tunisian government must seek to uncover the causal factors that have encouraged the growth of terrorism within the country’s borders. Active disregard for human rights and economic disenfranchisement have been largely responsible for the radicalization of the Tunisian population. ISIL has particularly focused its recruitment of Tunisians in the country’s interior and southern regions, where unemployment and under-funded education among youth are most pronounced (3). Economic reform that prioritizes quality education and employment with dignity will be the beginning of an effort to successfully mitigate the issue of homegrown terrorism. But the government must not stop here. The government must recognize that its own abuse of human rights undermines counterterrorism efforts. In an open letter entitled “No to Terrorism, Yes to Human Rights,” published by Human Rights Watch last April, 46 national and international human rights organizations highlighted the myriad ways in which the Tunisian government actively violates human rights, consequently promoting radicalization. The use of torture to extract confessions from terror suspects, along with repressive counterterrorism laws that target innocent civilians, were just a couple of the listed grievances (4). Pressure from the international community and, more specifically, the United States, which has willingly remained silent despite its stated intention to combat terrorism, will be necessary for any fundamental changes to occur.
Across Libya to the eastern end of the continent, Egypt, like Tunisia, suffers from the threat of terrorism, while the United States allows the government to act with impunity and foments the growth of extremism. In addition to $1.3 million in annual military and security assistance, Washington signed a $100 million deal with Cairo last summer to provide the country with a mobile surveillance sensor security system along its border with Libya. The agreement, which Congress approved, promises mobile surveillance sensor towers, new communication equipment and training from American defense contractors on how to use the equipment (5). In a news release distributed last summer, the Defense Security Cooperation Agency referred to Egypt as a “friendly country” and “an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East” (6). While the United States and Egypt alike fear the growth of extremist factions of ISIL and al-Qaida in Libya and the Sinai Peninsula, both countries readily turn a blind eye to injustice occurring within Egyptian borders. One might argue that the authoritarianism of Sisi’s regime is the primary reason why extremism threatens Egypt today. Where oppression rules and the hope of democracy has vanished, ISIL has appealed to the victims of Sisi’s regime, thus providing an alternative that promises power and an escape from marginalization. Defeating ISIL and al-Qaida in either Egypt or Tunisia will require a fundamental paradigm shift in the foreign policy of the U.S. and its regional allies. Coalition strikes and raids will not stop groups like ISIL. Rather, support for civil society institutions that advocate for democratic transformation will most effectively address oppression and authoritarianism, and consequently diminish the spread of radical ideologies.
(1) "Tunisia Calls for Wage Donations 'to Fight Terrorism'." AJE News. Al Jazeera Media Network, 12 Mar. 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(2) Nkala, Oscar. "Tunisia, Egypt Boost Libyan Border Security." Defense News. Sightline Media Group, 26 July 2015. Web. 14 July 2016.
(3) Yerkes, Sarah. "Fixing Tunisia's Terror Problem Should Begin at Home." Lawfare. Brookings Institute, 18 Mar. 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(4) "Tunisia: Uphold Rights While Fighting Terrorism." Human Rights Watch. Human Rights Watch, 28 Apr. 2016. Web. 14 July 2016.
(5) Lamothe, Dan. "Egypt, Facing Terrorism, Wants High-tech American Border Security System." Washington Post. The Washington Post, 8 July 2015. Web. 14 July 2016.
(6) "Egypt – Border Security Mobile Surveillance Sensor Security System." Defense Security Cooperation Agency, 8 July 2015. Web. 14 July 2016.
Image: © Paul Prescott | Dreamstime.com - <a href="https://www.dreamstime.com/stock-images-egyptian-police-car-patrol-image2825474#res14972580">Egyptian police car patrol</a>