Clashes in Tunisia near the border with Libya left at least 53 people dead Monday in what may be a sign of the spreading influence of the extremist group Islamic State.
No group immediately claimed responsibility for an attack that led to the fighting between militants and Tunisian forces near the city of Ben Gardane. But Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid directly accused Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL.
“This attack was aimed at confusing the security situation in Tunisia in order to create an ISIL emirate in Ben Gardane,” he said at a news conference Monday.
Scores of people were killed in Islamic State attacks on tourist venues in Tunisia last March, June and November, and Tunisia has become a major provider of Islamic State recruits, authorities say.
According to the Tunisian Interior Ministry’s estimates, at least 2,400 of its citizens have become Islamic State combatants in Syria since 2011, with about 400 of them later returning to Tunisia.
Political turbulence in neighboring Libya enabled Islamic State to infiltrate that oil-rich country in 2014 and declare the establishment of an emirate, with the Libyan city of Surt as its headquarters.
Islamic State attacks in Tunisia and Egypt are a sign of the group's spreading influence, said Kamal Sharaf, an independent political analyst based in Cairo.
“We have seen ISIL easily carry out deadly attacks in countries like Egypt and Tunisia even though the group has no announced emirates there,” he said. “Every action in any Arab or Muslim country has its reaction somewhere else; you fight ISIL in one place so they carry out reprisal attacks in another.”
Sharaf said he believes that Western-led attacks on Islamic State make it easier for the group to gain sympathizers and recruits.
“It is very easy to justify ISIL’s jihad to potential newcomers when their direct enemy is Western and non-Muslim,” he said.
Monday’s clashes took place as militants divided into groups launched consecutive attacks at police and army premises in Ben Gardane. Army and police forces responded “successfully” to the assault, killing 35 militants and capturing seven, the official news agency TAP reported, citing police and army officials.
“There is no place for ISIL or terrorism in Tunisia,” Defense Minister Farhat Horchani said. He said operations against the militants were continuing.
In addition to an overnight curfew that was announced in Ben Gardane, Tunisian authorities closed two border crossings with Libya.
Monday’s attack came weeks after a U.S. airstrike killed nearly 40 people at an Islamic State training camp in the Libyan city of Sabratha, near the Tunisian border.
The U.S. State Department alerted Americans to the risks of traveling to Tunisia after the Sabratha strike.
Hassan is a special correspondent.