Islamist militant attacks in Tunisia have caused the government to consider building a wall in the desert to keep future attackers out. 38 tourists were killed in Sousse on 26 June 2015 and 22 others were killed at the National Museum in Tunis earlier in March 2015. These attacks have caused tourists to flee the country and are crushing the tourism economy.
In response to the flight of tourists 1300 police and armed guards have been deployed to secure tourist sites. Intelligence reports that the attackers were trained in Libya and entered Tunisia through the porous border. As a result Tunisian authorities want to build a 100-mile wall along the northern part of the border with Libya to stop the flow of militants into Tunisia.
Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid said the country is constructing a wall or berm between the major border crossings of Ras Jedir on the northern coast and Dhehiba 100 miles to the south. In the future, according to Mr. Essid, they will install an electric fence along the border. The Prime Minister asserted that the construction of a wall was nothing new as the Americans had constructed a wall along the border with Mexico.
Distant Walls are not the Solution
Unfortunately, the wall will not be cheap and likely not very effective in deterring motivated attackers. The cost of the construction of the basic wall is estimated at 10 million dinars ($507,885 USD) and the electric fence should cost 150 million dinars ($76,182,737 USD). It is likely the actual cost of the Tunisian wall or berm will be much more than estimated. For example, the U.S.-Mexico wall costs on average $1 million per mile. The Tunisian government has already signaled that it does not have sufficient funds by the project by announcing that it was expecting donations of money and equipment in order to complete the project. The cost of the wall may be less affordable due to the shocks to the economy from the loss of tourism.
Walls have not been very effective in the past in keeping out insurgents or traffickers. The Great Wall of China was eventually breached by raiders who destroyed the dynasty. The French Maginot Line did not stop the Germans from going around the wall in World War II and invading France. The U.S.-Mexico wall is a modern example of a slightly effective wall as people still manage to go over, under, or even around the wall as it does not traverse the entire border with Mexico.
The wall between Tunisia and Libya will also not be a complete wall, leaving 200 miles of the frontier unblocked. The wall in Tunisia will also not be surveilled except at the principal border crossings. At border crossings and checkpoints corrupt officials and poorly paid police will still let people pass for a fee.
The envisioned electric fence would need constant power to be effective and many communities away from the large cities and tourist centers have inconsistent or non-existent power. The Tunisian power grid would need to be upgraded and new infrastructure installed in order to make an electric fence a viable barrier. It’s likely the new fence materials will be harvested by Bedouins in the less patrolled areas and incorporated into huts and shacks.
Wall maintenance costs will be high, as the desert conditions will quickly degrade the wall unless it is constantly assessed and repaired. Theft of materials will add to the cost of the wall as likely it will constantly need to be rebuilt, sections replaced, and foundations reinforced. The long-term cost of maintaining the wall will easily exceed the initial installation cost.
Protect the City, not the Frontier
A berm or even an electric fence will not stop the traffic from Libya as Tunisia lacks the resources to maintain garrisons along the Libyan border to monitor the entire distance. Over-watch from unmanned aerial vehicles or cameras with sophisticated sensors would be too expensive for the 300-mile border but the Tunisian government can more likely afford to protect the cities and major tourist centers.
Ancient cities in the desert had walls with guarded gates to stop attackers and modern day Tunisia can adopt a similar system for much cheaper than a $75 million electric fence across the desert. The government can build a smaller wall around the city and force traffic to enter through manned checkpoints that are equipped with explosive detecting sensors and bomb dogs to examine the inbound traffic. A smaller wall can be equipped with cameras and other sensors to detect intruders as well as garrisoned by local police.
Further out at key intersections checkpoints can interdict attackers on the high-speed avenues of approach. Overhead imagery from satellites, UAVs, or signals intelligence from radars or other sensors can also provide long distance warning for the cities for cross-country attackers.
Defending less terrain is cheaper and more effective than attempting to guard a wall across a long expanse of the desert. A wall, berm, or electric fence across the desert along the frontier with Libya will only waste scarce Tunisian resources that could be better used protecting the population and tourist centers.