Two suicide bombers recently blew themselves up near the U.S. embassy in the capital of Tunisia, a Muslim country and U.S. ally in North Africa. Tunisia’s transition to democracy has been marked by Islamic extremist terrorist attacks. Adding to the challenge: its next-door neighbor Libya, where al Qaeda and ISIS grew and still flourish. Scott Thuman takes us to Tunisia’s remote and dangerous eastern border to see how they’re addressing the threat.
Scott (voice-over): Under a desert moon, in southeastern Tunisia, not too far from the Libyan border, we head out to meet a professional smuggler. Just the night before, he told my producer and me that he'd show us how easy it is for people, illicit goods, and even terrorists to get across the long, under-guarded border. Despite his promises, he doesn’t show, nor do the police who said they’d escort us because of the risks.
We continue anyway, stopping in Remada, a town packed with smugglers, often marked by the missing license plates on their off-road vehicles designed for secret desert crossings.
We’re introduced to Nejib Difallah and he agrees to show us a smuggling route while telling us about the shockingly large numbers of young men who over the years, have left this town to join ISIS.
Scott: So you’re seeing more and more young men join Daesh, join ISIS?
Nejib: There are about 100.
Scott: 100 young men from this town have joined ISIS.
Scott: That’s a big number.
Nejib: Yes ...big number.
Scott (voice-over): In such a small town it's an enormous number, and a big concern for this young Muslim democracy that sits between Algeria on one side and on the other: Libya, the most unstable nation in North Africa, where a U.S-backed NATO campaign led to the violent overthrow of the dictator Ghaddafi in 2011, and where four Americans were killed in 2012 during the Benghazi attack by Islamist terrorists. ISIS and al Qaeda terrorists have used the instability to grow their networks and recruit new fighters.
Scott: You were telling me earlier, you’ve even had a distant relative of yours go to join ISIS, go to Iraq and blow himself up.
Nejib: True, true. He’s not a close relative, but a relative. We suddenly heard that he blew himself up in Iraq.
Scott (voice-over): Hours later, we reach the main path for smugglers in and out of Libya. Further on, the border itself. Here at least, it’s well patrolled by heavily armed soldiers, using American humvees and American weapons.
Scott (on-camera): So right now this is about as close to being on Libyan soil as the guards will let us get. There’s a checkpoint about 500 yards away; it’s the second-largest one in the country where they say they’re very busy, looking for everything from massive amounts of cash to contraband to of course, much worse.
Scott (voice-over): In the case of Tunisia, “worse” has been a string of attacks, including just last month, 2 suicide bombers who blew themselves up at the entrance to the U.S. embassy in Tunis. In 2019, there were two more suicide attacks in the capital, prompting the government to ban burqas in public buildings -- though perhaps nothing compared to 2015 when an ISIS militant opened fire on beachgoers in the tourist town of Sousse killing 38. The same year, 22 were murdered in the Bardo museum attack, when ISIS sympathizers, who’d trained inside Libya, returned to their homeland to kill.
Scott (voice-over): Tarek Kahlaoui, now a university professor in the capital, helped create the country’s aggressive counterterrorism strategy - one that to this day remains a highly guarded secret. He says groups like ISIS pose a real threat, to this budding democracy
Kahlaoui: I think ISIS in Syria and Iraq and in southern Libya, very down to the south are still waiting for the right moment to get back. And they said that very clearly. They're in their public statements. They told their basically people that just stay there. We're going to just wait for the right moment again, and this is not a secret. The main message is to make everyone hear that they are present, that they are still active.
Scott (voice-over): But why should Americans care what happens in a country many can’t locate on a map? Because if democracy succeeds here, it could encourage others in Africa and the Middle East to follow and that would be a threat to terrorists and authoritarian regimes.
Back near the border in the town of Tataouine, local women are learning how to prevent radicalization in their own households. Sabrime Wifie started it, after the Tunisian revolution that saw then end of the dictatorship and the start of democracy.
Scott: Last Ramadan you had a few families, 14 people in all, who went to fight?
Sabrime: Yeah, they went to Libya then after maybe to Syria. They said [to] their neighbors, they will go to the Jihad in Syria.
Scott: It’s a big problem?
Sabrime: Yeah. It's abnormal because the people of Tunisia, their nature and their culture is peaceful. Peace. It is not terrorism.
Scott (voice-over): And the U.S. is stepping up with military and diplomatic support. Aside from Egypt, Tunisia is now the biggest recipient of American aid in the region.
Nejib: Tunisia has to succeed. Undoubtedly, it has to succeed. But unfortunately, many people didn’t show patriotism; all they want is power, even if Tunisia [is destroyed] and we are sorry for that.
Scott (voice-over): So the future of the country could well be decided by what happens along this long and difficult to defend border.