By Frederic Wehery
The escalation and spillover of Libya’s conflict has posed mounting security challenges for Tunisia and exposed shortfalls in the country’s defense transformation, in the areas of capability gaps, interagency coordination, intelligence sharing, strategic planning, and in the military’s relationship with foreign security patrons.
BORDER CONTAINMENT AND ITS IMPACT ON TUNISIA’S MILITARY’S TRANSFORMATION
In tandem with this diplomatic engagement, Tunisia’s defense strategy against current and future threats from Libya has been largely reactive and geared toward containment.
This is epitomized by the construction of a massive border barrier and the militarization of Tunisia’s border regions, which has thrust the Tunisian military into new and uncomfortable roles.
Spanning 220 kilometers of the Tunisian-Libyan border, the complex border structure is comprised of berms, trenches, and water-filled moats, along with sophisticated electronic systems, including motion detectors, cameras, ground surveillance radars, and tethered balloons (aerostats) equipped with optical and infrared sensors.
The project has been accomplished through funding, donations, and training by the United States Defense Threat Reduction Agency and the German Bundeswehr (armed forces) and has been controversial.
Critics have framed it as part of a slide toward increased surveillance in Tunis and the erosion of civil liberties, and some German lawmakers, in particular, have decried the application of a counterterror narrative to stop legitimate migrants and asylum seekers.
Beyond these physical and technical measures, the frontier is controlled through a defense-in-depth strategy. In the northern, populated stretches of the border, MOI forces—Customs and National Guard personnel—are the first line of defense, with the Tunisian army providing on-call backup.
The southern sections of the frontier, from Ras Jadir to Burj Qadra, constitute a military exclusion or buffer zone, with the MOD having primacy for patrolling, interdiction, and arrests. One goal of this hardening and layering strategy, according to a Tunisian army officer, is to “push the [cross-border] terrorists to the south,” out of Tunisia’s population centers to the desert where the army can deal with them.
But the militarization of the southern border regions and the Tunisian army’s increased role has highlighted concerns about capabilities and the operating doctrine that have not been addressed in a systematic way.
At the broadest level, the Tunisian army has become “the face of the Tunisian government” in the south and is interacting with Tunisians in border communities in ways that make some Tunisian military officers uneasy.
Principally, these officers fear that the popularity of the Tunisian army, stemming from their supportive role in the country’s 2011 revolution, could be tarnished as they assume the mantle of enforcement that was once the exclusive purview of the MOI forces.
Relatedly, there is unease that the army’s newfound law enforcement function has not been formalized in terms of the chain of custody for captured contraband.
Similarly, as MOD forces come into close contact with smuggling networks and has taken on border enforcement missions, they are susceptible to corruption, especially among the poorly paid rank-and-file. This is a problem that previously mostly afflicted the MOI forces.
The Tunisian army’s growing posture in the south and the interactions with local populations that accompany this posture highlight its limited capacity in the areas of public affairs and civil affairs.
The first capability includes the dissemination of accurate information to Tunisian citizens about the military’s roles and missions and the second, civil affairs, includes augmenting or enhancing the government’s provision of basic services—in part to win public support.
Some Tunisian officers observed that individual Tunisian commanders have gained practical experiences in such population-centric operations from their deployments in support of United Nations peacekeeping missions in Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, Rwanda, and Cambodia.
But according to both Tunisian and U.S. officers, these functions remain nascent and ill-developed—and if they are implemented today, they are not formalized into doctrine and training. “They don’t organize for civil affairs,” noted one former U.S. defense attaché, “they just do it.”
Such interactions, according to serving Tunisian military officers, include providing medical care to isolated southern populations. “If a pregnant woman shows up at our base, we take her to a military hospital,” noted a Tunisian army commander. But these positive exchanges are often overshadowed by more negative ones.
For example, in instances where the Tunisian army has killed a smuggler in a shoot-out, the families of the deceased have sometimes protested in front of army bases.
Yet the Tunisian army lacks the ability to handle such demonstrations and, perhaps more importantly, convey information to locals. “The army needs communication and local relations,” a European defense attaché noted. “It’s being overtaken.”
Cultural disparities compound these problems. For Tunisian officers who often hail from the coast, serving in the south along Libya’s border “is like a foreign deployment,” but their training does not address these cultural issues.
Another key gap is gender inclusion: women serve in the Tunisian military but not on frontline border positions. Rectifying this would facilitate interactions with local populations on sensitive issues like personal searches.
While recognizing these capability gaps, senior Tunisian military officers acknowledge that fixing them is only half the story; the military should not and cannot be the only tool to address the border. Nor can Tunisia expect to fully seal the border, especially given the importance of cross-border networks of kin and trade.
What is needed, Tunisian defense officials concede, is a whole-of-government approach.47 But doing that is proving challenging for a host of bureaucratic and structural reasons—including the lack of interagency cooperation.
INTELLIGENCE IS INCREASINGLY FOCUSED ON LIBYA
Aside from border hardening and forcing new roles on the Tunisian armed forces, another way that Libya is shaping Tunisia’s defense transformation is by spurring advances in intelligence collection and analysis.
According to Tunisian military intelligence officers, some of these improvements sprung from the 2016 Ben Gardane assault by the Islamic State—the severity of which caught Tunisia off guard. “It was a wake-up call,” a military intelligence officer admitted. “A military success, but an intelligence failure.”
In response, the Tunisian armed forces intelligence arm, the Agence des Renseignements et de la Sécurité pour la Défense (ARSD) has shifted to a policy of “saturation” of intelligence collection roughly 100 kilometers deep into Libya (to the capital Tripoli).
In conversations with analysts, it was evident that ARSD personnel are indeed well-informed about Libyan militia dynamics along Libya’s western seaboard. The ARSD presumably cultivates and runs its own human intelligence sources, though the extent of this is probably limited.
It also participates in bilateral intelligence exchanges, especially with the United States. A senior ARSD officer also attends a working group on Libya chaired by the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL).
Lastly, the ARSD reportedly maintains a cadre of open-source analysts who scour Libyan social media for insights into armed groups and political factions.
Taken in sum, all of this points to the ARSD’s continued transformation into a more professional organization focused on external adversarial threats, moving away from its past mission of what one U.S. official termed “coup-proofing” (in other words, keeping tabs on internal dissent).
Much of this progress has been accomplished with U.S. training assistance. That said, ARSD and other Tunisian officers are candid about their lack of insights into Libya’s eastern region and the structure and dynamics of Haftar’s armed forces.
Moreover, they bemoan their informational shortcomings relative to other Middle Eastern players in Libya who, while not sharing an immediate border with Libya, seem to understand the country better.
BUT INTELLIGENCE SHARING REMAINS A PROBLEM
But perhaps more important than deficiencies in collection and analysis are Tunisia’s endemic problems of information sharing, which are themselves rooted in a long-standing culture of competition among security institutions.
Much of this stems from previous regimes’ efforts at coup-proofing and cronyism and patronage within various ministries and agencies. The negative implications of this extend well beyond intelligence sharing to encompass strategy and planning (discussed below).
At the center of international efforts to overcome this disjointedness is an “intelligence fusion center,” a sort of nerve center for the MOD intended to collate, process, and quickly disseminate various intelligence streams, especially to operational ground commanders.
Demonstrating once again the continued fragmentation of Tunisia’s intelligence enterprises, this MOD fusion center was established separately from an MOI fusion center focused on terrorism and organized crime that has been operational since 2015.
But recent security incidents, especially the Ben Gardane terrorist attack originating in Libya, prompted a move toward greater information sharing among these centers.
“We needed to concentrate our intelligence resources – we were wasting precious time; this was the big lesson of Ben Gardane,” noted one retired Tunisian general who played a key role in establishing the MOD center.
But the MOD project and MOD-MOI intelligence sharing in general—epitomized by the MOD’s abortive efforts to plug into the MOI fusion center—are handicapped by bureaucratic rivalries and habits of information hoarding.
According to outside observers and MOD personnel, the latter dynamic is especially evident in the reluctance of the MOI to share intelligence. And as in other initiatives, the United States is playing an outsized role as a coach and trainer for Tunisian military intelligence but also a mediator for competing agencies. “[Fusion] is a new concept for them,” a former U.S. defense attaché noted. “Without our interest, it would fail,” he added.
Other obstacles to information and intelligence sharing arise from the Tunisians’ inability to integrate concepts of operations (CONOPS) into standard operating procedures and the training of competent personnel. “Those who play with the buttons for imagery don’t know how to get this intelligence to the operational commander,” noted a European defense official.
Outmoded technical issues are further inhibitions for both intelligence sharing and operational coordination.
One U.S. military trainer who works closely with Tunisian counterterrorism forces noted that “while they have the CONOPS of air support to the ground-based Quick Reaction Forces, they don’t have the architecture to do real-time data sharing,” he lamented.
“This is a military that still communicates via fax and a closed, land-line network.” He noted that where Tunisian special operations forces’ positions are three kilometers apart, their operations officers could not talk to one another without MOD permission.
Underpinning these communication problems, the trainer observed, is an endemic aversion to realistic training, rehearsal, and the hard-won mastery of unit- and individual-level skills—with important implications for information sharing.
Referring to a well-known U.S. special operations’ credo, “Brilliance in the Basics,” he noted individual Tunisian soldiers’ inability to master basic combat tasks, often dealing with informational processing efforts like syncing their night vision goggles to their M4 carbines and deploying their ScanEagle reconnaissance drones in such a way to maximize loiter time.
In some cases, these issues were rooted in outmoded hierarchies that fostered distrust among the ranks and slowed communication. For example, Tunisian military pilots (usually officers) resented receiving ground-to-air instructions from a forward air controller (usually an enlisted soldier).
In other instances, the problems stemmed from an ingrained overreliance on technological solutions, which, by themselves, would likely be defeated by adversary countermeasures unless there was an accompanying shift in habits, processes, and tactics.
For example, terrorists’ improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Tunisia increasingly rely on no more than a cigarette lighter as their only metal component in an otherwise plastic assembly.
Such practices render technical detection all but impossible and necessitate countermeasures based on changes in behavior and processes—like staying off certain trails and collecting better intelligence on the geographic patterns of IED attacks.60
Yet, in some instances, the barriers to better intelligence collection are legislative and judicial— which are actually healthy signs of a nascent democracy. For example, in combatting terrorists, U.S. officials have urged Tunisia to capture more biometric data.
But the collection of biometric data remains controversial among Tunisian activists and watchdog groups who fear it would reduce privacy and civil liberties—and the Tunisian parliament recently voted down a draft law that would expand the government’s collection of such sensitive information.
Similarly, adherence to judicial procedures often clashes with intelligence-collection demands—another positive indicator of a burgeoning democracy, though these two channels eventually need to be reconciled.
For example, Tunisia has reportedly requested U.S. assistance with IED jammers but, according to a U.S. trainer, is reluctant to share the frequencies of captured IEDs because this information is used for criminal prosecution.
That said, there are pockets of intelligence-sharing success and, comparatively, the Tunisian military is making steps toward breaking down institutional barriers. This is especially evident in the field.
The farther one gets from Tunis, one U.S. official noted, the better the cooperation between tactical units from the MOI and MOD.
For example, a U.S. trainer of Tunisia’s MOD counterterrorism forces cited a textbook case of real-time information collaboration: The Tunisian army ambushed insurgents in central Tunisia, yielding a trove of actionable intelligence from captured cell phones.
The data were then quickly passed to Tunisian National Guard units, who were in the vicinity of Ben Gardane and used it to seize an arms cache.
Frederic Wehrey is a senior fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. His research deals with armed conflict, security sectors, and identity politics, with a focus on Libya, North Africa, and the Gulf.