By Susan Katz Keating
A security crisis in North Africa is on the verge of exploding while defense bureaucrats in Northern Virginia postpone sending long-promised support to an embattled ally. The crisis centers on Tunisia, which finds itself in the gunsights of an increasingly aggressive ISIS while the Pentagon’s Defense Threat Reduction Agency repeatedly defers deadlines for awarding a desperately needed security contract.
The United States pledged support to Tunisia last summer after terrorist gunmen massacred 38 people at the popular Sousse beach resort. At the time, the U.S. offered a “Jordan lite” style program to fortify the porous border between Tunisia and neighboring Libya.
Tunisia gratefully welcomed the offer.
“The border project between Libya and Tunisia is an urgent and immediate need,” said Brigadier General Montasser Sakhouhi, Retired General Director of the National Guard, in an interview from Tunisia.
The border with Libya is key to Tunisian security, Sakhouhi said, given its proximity to tourism destinations and unprotected oil fields and gas pipelines.
Additionally, he said, the south border is the main gateway for smugglers who, among other things, bring arms and Libya-trained terrorists into the small democratic nation.
In order to fortify itself, Tunisia wanted a sophisticated technology-based system to track and prevent incursions along 119 miles of vulnerable territory.
“We hope that this project is not just a construction project,” Sakhouhi said. “We need a technically sophisticated solution that is based on national defense systems since the Tunisian border is ‘the wall of Hadrian’ in the battle against ISIS.”
The United States offered to supply a solution similar to what DTRA installed last year in Jordan. That project was on time and on budget, and was viewed with great success.
But while DTRA quickly awarded the Jordan project, the Fort Belvoir, Virginia-based agency repeatedly has missed its own deadlines on the Tunisia project. The contract at one point was set to be announced on February 26, followed by a number of unexplained and indefinite extensions.
“Word within the contracting community is that DTRA simply didn’t pay attention to this one, and then suddenly realized it was important,” says a source with knowledge of the situation. “My guess is, someone is scrambling.”
Attacks on Tunisia, meanwhile, have not abated since U.S. assistance was offered.
In November, Tunisia arrested 17 terrorists who planned assaults on politicians, security centers, and again on the Sousse resort.
Earlier this month, militants launched an attack on the town of Ben Gardane, targeting army and police posts.
In February, U.S. airstrikes against enemy fighters in Libya prompted Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi to extend a state of emergency, amid heightened fears that refugees would stream into Tunisia.
This latter scenario is of particular concern to the small North African nation.
A crush of refugees would overwhelm Tunisia. Gen. Sakhouhi said, and “would certainly include numerous insurgents and ISIS Fighters determined to continue attacks on Tunisia.”
The overall situation could become even more critical in days to come, as developments in Libya unfold.
A newly appointed government in Tripoli may trigger new rounds of violence in that long-troubled nation’s capitol. Fresh streams of migrants – with ISIS fighter disguised as refugees – soon could add to the security crisis in Tunisia.
The success of North African AO efforts from AFRICOM, SOCAF, and the regional allies, meanwhile, depends upon the security of Tunisia. Which itself may ultimately depend on the still indecisive DTRA.