With the US-led coalition attempting to ‘degrade and destroy’ ISIS with a combination of air power, logistical support and slow-moving training of indigenous armed forces, Tunisia has taken a different approach to tackling the growing terrorist threat.
Prime Minister Habib Essid has announced intentions to build a wall of sand, accompanied by a moat, along his country’s 160km border with Libya. An almost failed state rife with factionalism and militia violence, Libya has become a hotbed of terrorist activity and there is already a strong ISIS presence there. The man responsible for the recent massacre at Imperial Marhaba Hotel, Sousse trained with Islamic militants in Libya and the Tunisian government is understandably wary about repeat attacks.
Some may be sceptical about their response, yet it is a military defence that has been replicated for millenia. The most famous walled barrier, China’s Great Wall, had its inception in the 8th century BC, eventually reaching a peak some 22,000km in length. Effective against the nomads of the Eurasian steppe, it even proved a formidable barrier to the rampaging Mongol Hordes, who otherwise routed the armies of the Ming emperor in the Middle Ages.
Walled fortifications along borders have certainly shaped history until the present day. Think of the Berlin Wall and its manifestation of an ideological divide. Even currently, the Israeli West Bank Barrier (still under construction) delineates the Jewish homeland and has come to define the stark territorial division in the Middle East.
The decision by the Tunisians to also dig a moat is interesting, for such barriers have fallen out of fashion for the purposes of defence, accruing rather more frequently for architectural purposes. Still, these too are a primitive line of preliminary protection. They are known to have existed throughout the ancient world, particularly across Egypt, Nubia and Assyria.
Perhaps, though, moats are most synonymous with the medieval castles of Europe. No movie about the kings and queens of England is complete without a scene of a castle besieged, the drawbridge being pulled back to leave the enemy horsemen stranded on the opposite side of the watery channel. Of course, the siege potential was always an issue for the medieval monarchs. If an opposing army could win control of the area surrounding one’s castle then, no matter the impenetrability of the moat and the walls, the occupiers could easily be starved into submission.
In this respect, the Tunisian endeavour makes more sense, for we no longer live in the days of pitched battles and mass encirclements of enemy positions, at least not for long periods of time. ISIS, or any other terrorist entity, is not going to surround Tunisia until the inhabitants perish. Rather, it will seek to breach any wall and recruit those from within.
That said, moats went out of military fashion because of the invention of effective artillery in the Middle Ages, which negated the need for hand-to-hand combat. ISIS has artillery in abundance and so the question of a Tunisian moat and sand wall must be brought into question.
Indeed, it seems more a symbolic statement that the country’s leaders will not allow its borders to become as porous as those of other states in the region. Being a fairly small country, this aim is not unreasonable. A wall and moat will necessitate extra manpower along the Libyan border and this, at least, will provide greater opportunities for screening entrants and preventing militants from crossing into sovereign territory.
In this respect, the resurrection of an age-old tactic does not seem so mad.