CAIRO/LONDON – As they confront the rising threat of modern jihadi violence, many of the nations most at risk are retreating behind one of the oldest forms of defense.
Tunisia became the latest to invest in a border barrier after dozens of foreign tourists were killed in two attacks by Islamist militants trained in neighboring Libya and armed by smugglers. The fence and watch towers ordered by Prime Minister Habib Essid will for now stretch 100 miles (160 km) inland from the coast along the most vulnerable stretch of the shared frontier.
From Morocco to Saudi Arabia, boundaries are being fortified at a rate not seen since the months following the Sept. 11 attacks.
“The Middle East and North Africa is now the most walled region in the world,” said Said Saddiki, a professor of International Relations and International Law at Al-Ain University of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi. They range from “fences inside cities to anti-migrant walls and separation barriers to counter-insurgency” barricades, he said.
The builders have often been spurred by fear of Islamic State, after its conquests in Iraq and Syria and the group’s ability to inspire Muslim extremists elsewhere, or concern over failed or failing nations next door. The jihadi group has built its own walls to fend off attackers and keep people from escaping, including around the Iraqi cities of Tal Afar and Mosul. Syria’s embattled government has placed concrete shields around areas of regime support in Homs.
Fences offer a quick fix, though they are costly and may ultimately do little to solve the problems, analysts say.
Of the Middle East’s most-famed physical defenses, the majority failed. Jerusalem’s ancient walls did little to halt a succession of conquerors, and Byzantine Constantinople’s elaborate fortifications didn’t thwart the Ottomans.
Though modern barriers may curb trafficking and illicit crossings in the short term, they almost never deliver prolonged security without cross-frontier cooperation.
“Israel’s barriers have worked well for them so far,” said Brent Sterling, author of “Do Good Fences Make Good Neighbors?” and a professor at Georgetown University. Long- term, though, they remove the incentive to try and reach a permanent accord with the Palestinians, he said.
In the fight with jihadi movements, where would-be militants are often homegrown and indiscernible from the crowd, and instruction or indoctrination can be doled out over the Internet, barriers are especially ineffective. Saudi Arabia, which has strung heavily militarized fences along its land borders, saw suicide bombings at two mosques this year.
“Wall builders are just trying to improve their leverage and hope for the best,” Sterling said. “They aren’t a panacea, and if you do build a wall, you have to use the time it buys to deal with problems and not sit behind it forever and hope they’ll go away.”
In Tunisia, where European holidaymakers were gunned down at a beach resort in June, militancy is being fanned by poverty away from a prosperous northeastern coast. While governments in Tunis have vowed to tackle radical preachers and stem travel to Libya’s war zones, activists say little has been done to end economic marginalization, and protests demanding change have been met with police repression.
Hardship in border zones can even be exacerbated by barriers, and the people who profit the most are smugglers, said Elisabeth Vallet, a scholar at the University of Quebec in Montreal and author of “Borders, Fences and Walls.”
Construction, meanwhile, comes at a price. Saudi Arabia’s “Great Wall” separating its north from Iraq includes observation towers with cameras and motion detectors, part of a $3.4 billion security system. Tunisia expects to pay at least $81 million for the first phase of its fence. Barriers have to be maintained and patrolled.
“If we spent money on acquiring good intelligence or addressing some of the social and economic problems that create it rather than building walls, we’d be economically, socially and morally much better off,” said Liza Schuster, a former lecturer at City University London, who studies the issue.
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