Desperate Tunisia joins Kenya in building wall to keep out terror merchants

But as militancy becomes more sophisticated, physical barriers may be equated with groping in the dark, while growth at risk.

A SIX-hour flight separates Tunisia from Kenya, in addition to a host of cultural and political differences, but their current circumstances could hardly be more similar.

On Tuesday, Tunisian prime minister Habib Essid said his government would build a wall along its border with Libya, as it reeled from a beach front attack that killed 38 tourists.

The wall, meant to prevent the infiltration of Islamist fighers, will cover about a third of the 500-kilometre (310 miles) border and would be ready by the end of the year, Essid said in a television interview, on the day that Kenya woke up to news of another terror attack

Construction has already started, Essid said, but warned that protecting the border would be “difficult, very difficult.”

While Tunisia has escaped the worst of the unrest that swept through Libya, Syria and Egypt since 2011, the violence is hurting an economy struggling to recover after the uprising that toppled President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

The barrier is one of the measures Tunisia has announced to counter the threat of Islamic militancy that has targeted the tourism sector, which contributes directly to 7% of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and 14% of the workforce. A month-long state of emergency was declared on July 4.

The Tunisian government has said that the gunman who carried out the attack in the Sousse resort last month was trained in Libya. Perpetrators of another fatal shooting at the country’s main museum in March also came from the war-torn neighbour.

The Islamic State branch in Libya claimed responsibility for both attacks.

Tunisia would join Kenya which is planning a wall along its porous border with Somalia, following frequent infiltration by Somali militant group Al-Shabaab, which has carried out deadly attacks that has harmed the tourism-dependent economy.

The latest attack in the East African nation came on Tuesday, when militants killed at least 14 workers in northern Kenya. A pro-Shabaab website said the Al-Qaeda-affiliated rebels had confirmed they carried out the attack against “Christian Kenyans”.

The attack occurred just outside the town of Mandera in Kenya’s far northeastern region, which borders Ethiopia and war-torn Somalia.

While officials blamed sleeper cells latent in the town, Interior Minister Joseph Nkaissery said the attackers had “sneaked into the country” from Somalia and had then “run back to Somalia”.

Under pressure in Somalia, where it has for years been fighting to overthrow the internationally-backed government, Shabaab has now increasingly targeting Kenya.

In late 2014, 28 passengers were dragged from a bus near Mandera and executed. Days later in the same area, 36 quarry workers were pulled from their tents at night and murdered—after which many have moved to more secure locations such as the one that was attacked.

In 2013, four Al-Shabab gunmen killed at least 67 people in an assault on the Westgate mall in the capital Nairobi. A college attack this year claimed nearly 150 people.

The upsurge in cross-border attacks and the emergence of Kenya-based Shabaab cells is now Kenya’s number-one security headache, as well as a strategic blow given that Nairobi sent troops into southern Somalia in 2011 in the hope they would protect the long, porous border.

Tunisians walk by armed security. The country is under a state of emergency.

Officials are now contemplating a barrier of fences and observation posts along sections of the Swiss Cheese-like border, which would cut across culturally similar populations as a form of control over movement.

With terrorism also now firmly Tunisia’s main headache, and the chief domestic concern of countries neighbouring Libya, the breakdown of states is threatening to reshape the African continent, as under-pressure governments short of new counter-terrorism ideas seek a silver bullet.

It threatens to undermine the region’s domestic ambitions of lifting millions out of poverty, and its regional ones of claiming a better seat on the global dinner table, where for decades it has continued to feed on morsels as the big world powers carve up the best steaks for themselves.

In its final report on the millennium development goals, the United Nations identified conflict as a major drag on the 15-year anti-poverty effort.

Nearly 60% of the world’s 1 billion extremely poor people lived in just five countries in 2011 it said: India, Nigeria, China, Bangladesh and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

The presence of Nigeria, despite being Africa’s biggest economy, is not a blip—Boko Haram terrorists operating boldly across its borders have displaced tens of thousands, while further exacerbating regional insecurity.

Despite a clutch of continental conferences and strategies—yielding mainly conventional solutions— the African Union admits militant attacks are setting the continent’s grander ambitions back.

“Terrorism is the greatest threat of this century,” AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergu, said at the bloc’s recent summit in South Africa.

The weaknesses of current strategies and a constantly-evolving enemy are threatening the very functioning of African countries, and punching a hole at wider initiatives such as integration and free movement on the back of concerns over the transnational crime that sustains such armed groups.

New extremists fronts, many of them non-traditional targets, are sprouting all over: the Ivory Coast has now been drawn in, with anti-terrorism legislation being scrambled up and foreign Imams and the construction of new mosques suspended in the north of the country.

Counter-terrorism experts say that walls and barriers are only as  good as those guarding them, and the smart use of technology by emergent actors such as the IS suggests ideology has even more effective ways of crossing cartographic lines.

As Nigeria demonstrates, many African states are flirting with dysfunction and structural weaknesses, and with state power diminishing, are increasingly unable to deliver on their social contracts with citizens.

The immediate effect has been the shrinking of economic opportunities and the rise in local grievances, but the wider impact is of thriving jihadism, leaving thousands of youth at the risk of radicalisation by increasingly sophisticated militant groups selling seductive messages in glitzy packaging, and that appeal to even the middle-class.

While walls give the illusion that something is being done, analysts say the longer-term solutions to terrorism are inherently political-economic, even as rising militancy fuels the rise of the security state across Africa from Egypt to Kenya, its takers seduced by the perceived effectiveness of models such as Algeria and Ethiopia. 

The jury remains out over if strong-arm counter-terror tactics governments are sustainable.

—Additional reporting by Agencies


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