GABORONE, Botswana — The Tunisian government is erecting a fortified security fence that will cover 220 kilometers of its 459-kilometer border with Libya to prevent the free flow of fighters, weapons and goods trafficked from the war-torn neighboring country.
The Tunisian security project follows US approval in June of the possible sale of a $100 million mobile surveillance sensor system to Egypt for its border with Libya under the US Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program. Egypt currently lacks remote detection capability for border violations and needs the equipment to stop foreign fighters, weapons, and goods, and human trafficking operations from crossing into its territory.
Site clearance work for Tunisia's fence began July 15. It is located 8 kilometers into Tunisian territory from the frontier with Libya.
The government has not revealed the cost or announced any contractors that will work on the border fence, but images of the site published by Libyan media appear to show military bulldozers at work on one section.
In an interview with private Tunisian TV station Attasi, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi said the barrier his country plans, which features a fence ringed by a defensive ditch, seeks to prevent Libyan militant groups from transiting through or basing in Tunisia. Tunisia also hopes that the wall will stop the flow of weapons from Libya, where Islamist groups allied to al-Qaida and the Islamic State group are battling militias allied to two rival governments fighting for control of Libya.
Some of the known Tunisian jihadist groups which that originated from Libya include Ansar al-Sharia and the Katibat Uqba Ibn Nafi (KUIN), which operate from the Chaambi Mountains on the border with Libya and the central region on the border with Algeria, respectively.
In his Attasia interview, Essebsi said there is a need to seal the border with Libya to prevent incidents like the June 26 terrorist attack in the resort of Sousse, where a lone gunman killed 38 foreign tourists, most of them British.
"We have 500 kilometers of border with Libya, mostly desert, and we need special equipment to control that border," Essebsi said.
Addressing the threat of armed attacks on the frontier fence by Libya-based militants, Essebsi said Tunisia will fight to protects its borders because Libya continues to be a source of militants, weapons and a base for armed groups actively destabilizing North Africa.
"Any possible attack against the fence being constructed on the border could lead to a military response because we are very concerned about the security situation in Libya, and the [activities of] militias allied to Daesh [the Islamic State group] which are active there," he said.
Defense Minister Farhat Horchani said the fence will have observation towers to track movements across the desert on both sides. It will also be monitored by an electronic sensor system to detect border infringements and alert strategically located command-and-control posts. UAVs will also be deployed to patrol the border, Horchani said.
Construction of the fence is set to be completed by year's end.
Tunisia is a close ally of the US and has over the past two years received massive US military aid, including aircraft, patrol boats, training and weapons for its special anti-terrorism units.
Nearly 7,000 Tunisians are fighting in jihadist wars in the Middle East and North Africa, according to a recent report released by the UN Working Group on mercenaries. At least 4,000 are believed to be in Syria and 1,500 in Libya, while 200 are thought to be in Iraq.
Egypt's Border Project
Announcing approval of Egypt's request request in June, the Pentagon's Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) said the US will procure and construct one commercial "Border Security Mobile Surveillance Sensor Security System," including mobile surveillance sensor towers, mobile command-and-control systems, and a regional command-and-control system to monitor Egypt's western border with Libya. The system will also include voice/data communications equipment, spare parts, support equipment, personnel training, training equipment, publications and technical documentation.
"This mobile surveillance sensor security system will provide Egypt with advanced capabilities intended to bolster its border surveillance capabilities along its border with Libya and elsewhere. This procurement is intended for Egyptian Border Guard Forces, which currently lack any remote detection capability along unpatrolled areas of Egypt's borders," the DSCA said in its announcement.
The sale also requires periodic travel to Egypt by US government officials and contractors for program and technical review meetings, testing and training for up to five years.
The notice did not specify a delivery date.
Like Tunisia, Egypt is battling a growing 3-year-old insurgency led by the Islamic State group and al-Qaida-affiliated militant groups in the Sinai Peninsula. Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi is leading a coalition which wants a regional military task force to intervene in Libya and flush out the various transnational terrorist groups that have set up training, logistical and operational bases there.