Gaza-Israel border falls quiet after 3 days long deadly surge of rocket fire

Rockets are fired from Gaza towards Israel, in Gaza May 5, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A surge in deadly violence in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel petered out overnight with Palestinian officials reporting that Egypt had mediated a ceasefire on Monday ending the most serious spate of cross-border clashes for months.

The latest round of fighting erupted three days ago, peaking on Sunday when rockets and missiles from Gaza killed four civilians in Israel. Israeli strikes killed 21 Palestinians, more than half of them civilians, over the weekend.

Two Palestinian officials and a TV station belonging to Hamas, Gaza’s Islamist rulers, said a truce had been reached at 0430 a.m. (0130 GMT), apparently preventing the violence from broadening into a conflict neither side seemed keen on fighting.

Israel did not formally confirm the existence of a truce with Hamas and its allied Gaza faction Islamic Jihad, militants that it, like much of the West, designates as terrorists.

Officials in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government spoke in more general terms of a reciprocal return to quiet, with one suggesting that Israel’s arch-enemy Iran – a major funder for Islamic Jihad – had been behind the Gaza escalation.

Suffering under renewed U.S. sanctions and Israeli strikes against its military assets in Syria, Iran may have seen stoking Palestinian violence as a way of telling Israel, “we will get back at you through (Islamic) Jihad and Gaza”, Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz told the Israeli radio station 90 FM.

Israel’s military said that more than 600 rockets and other projectiles – over 150 of them intercepted – had been fired at southern Israeli cities and villages since Friday. It said it shelled or carried out air strikes on some 320 militant sites.

The violence abated before dawn, just as Gazans were preparing to begin the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Rocket sirens in southern Israel, which had gone off continuously over the weekend, sending residents running for cover, did not sound on Monday and there were no reports of new air strikes in Gaza.

Egypt and the United Nations, who have served as brokers in the past, had been trying to mediate a ceasefire.

LEVERAGE

The violence began when a sniper from the Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad fired across Gaza’s fenced border at Israeli troops on routine patrol, wounding two soldiers, according to the Israeli military.

Islamic Jihad accused Israel of delaying implementation of previous understandings brokered by Egypt in an effort to end violence and ease the economic hardships of blockaded Gaza.

This time both Islamic Jihad and Hamas appeared to see some leverage to press for concessions from Israel, where annual independence day celebrations begin on Wednesday and with the Eurovision song contest due to kick off in Tel Aviv – the target of a Gaza rocket attack in March – next week.

Some 2 million Palestinians live in Gaza, the economy of which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades as well as recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ West Bank-based rival.

Israel says its blockade is necessary to stop arms reaching Hamas, with which it has fought three wars since the group seized control of Gaza in 2007, two years after Israel withdrew its settlers and troops from the small coastal enclave.

One of Islamic Jihad’s leaders in Gaza said on Sunday that the group was trying to counter efforts by the United States to revive peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East team has said it will unveil its peace plan in June, after Ramadan is over. Peace negotiations have been moribund since 2014.

“What the resistance is doing now is the most important part of confronting Trump’s deal. We all have to get united behind the decision by the resistance to fight,” Islamic Jihad’s Jamil Eleyan said in a statement.

Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus said that over the past few weeks Islamic Jihad had been trying to perpetrate attacks against Israel in order to destabilize the border. “This isn’t some local initiative, it is part of a strategic choice to escalate matters,” Conricus said.

During the eight-year civil war in Syria, Iran’s military has built a presence there backing President Bashar al-Assad.

Israel regards Iran as its biggest threat and has vowed to stop it from entrenching itself in Syria, its neighbor to the north, repeatedly bombing Iranian targets in Syria and those of allied Lebanese Hezbollah militia.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said on Sunday the administration was deploying a carrier strike group and bombers to the Middle East in response to troubling “indications and warnings” from Iran and to show the United States will retaliate with “unrelenting force” to any attack.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Teen from New Mexico compound says he was trained for jihad: FBI

FILE PHOTO: Personal articles are shown at the compound in rural New Mexico where 11 children were taken in protective custody after a raid by authorities near Amalia, New Mexico, August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Andrew HayREUTERS/File Photo

By Andrew Hay

TAOS, N.M. (Reuters) – A 13-year-old boy who was part of group taken into custody at a squalid New Mexico compound last month has told FBI agents his mother’s boyfriend was training him to conduct “jihad” against non-believers, according to federal court documents.

The boy was among 11 children and five adults living at the compound in Taos County when it was raided on Aug. 3 by local sheriff’s deputies who discovered a cache of firearms and the children living without food or clean water. The dead body of a three-year-old boy was found buried at the site later.

They initially faced state charges, then on Friday, the five adults including a Haitian woman described as the group’s leader, 35-year-old Jany Leveille, were arrested by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and accused of conspiracy and firearms offenses.

In an affidavit filed in support of a criminal complaint, an FBI special agent wrote that Leveille’s 13-year-old son told investigators that his mother’s boyfriend, Siraj Ibn Wahhaj, 40, wanted to “get an army together” and train them for jihad.

The boy told agents that Ibn Wahhaj trained him and another of Leveille’s teenage sons in firearms and military techniques, including rapid reloads and hand-to-hand combat, and told them jihad meant killing non-believers on behalf of Allah, according to the affidavit filed in U.S. District Court in New Mexico.

The 13-year-old also told the FBI that his mother believed she received messages from God, and that he watched her and Ibn Wahhaj perform supposed “exorcism” rituals over the three-year-old boy, including one during which the boy choked and his heart stopped, according to the special agent’s affidavit.

The teenager said his mother and others at the compound told him not to talk to anyone about the three-year-old ever being at the compound because they would “all go to jail.”

Defense lawyers have said that the five adults were exercising their constitutional rights to practice their religion and own firearms, and that the group is being discriminated against because they are black and Muslim. The defense attorneys could not immediately be reached for comment on Saturday.

The five defendants came under FBI surveillance in May after Leveille wrote a letter to Ibn Wahhaj’s brother asking him to join them and become a “martyr,” state prosecutors have said.

They are due to appear in court in Albuquerque on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Andrew Hay; Additional reporting and writing by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Marguerita Choy)

Malaysian teacher seen as new ’emir’ of pro-Islamic State militants

Soldiers distribute pictures of a member of extremist group Abu Sayyaf Isnilon Hapilon, who has a U.S. government bounty of $5 million for his capture, in Butig, Lanao del Sur in southern Philippines February 1, 2017.

By Rozanna Latiff and Joseph Sipalan

KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) – The battlefield deaths of two leaders of an Islamic State alliance in the southern Philippines could thrust a Malaysian who trained at an Al-Qaeda camp in Afghanistan as the militant group’s new regional “emir”, experts and officials say.

Intelligence officials describe Malaysian Mahmud Ahmad as a financier and recruiter, who helped put together the coalition of pro-Islamic State (IS) fighters that stormed Marawi City in May.

Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia, and Omarkhayam Maute, one of two Middle East-educated brothers at the helm of the militant alliance, were killed in a raid on a building in Marawi and their bodies recovered on Monday, Philippine Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said.

Philippine authorities said they were still searching for Mahmud.

“Based on our information, there is still one personality, Dr. Mahmud of Malaysia, and he is still in the main battle area with some Indonesians and Malaysians,” military chief, Gen. Eduardo Ano, said on Monday. “But their attitude is now different, they are no longer as aggressive as before.” He did not elaborate.

Ano urged the 30 militants remaining in a shrinking combat zone to surrender and free hostages as troops stepped up their fight.

Abdullah Maute, the alliance’s military commander, was reported killed in August, though no body was found.

Intelligence officials in Malaysia believe Mahmud left Marawi months ago.

Malaysia’s police counter-terrorism chief Ayob Khan Mydin Pitchay told Reuters in July that Mahmud “managed to sneak out from Marawi city to another safe place with his followers”.

The 39-year-old Mahmud, who holds a doctorate in religious studies and was a university lecturer in Kuala Lumpur, was Hapilon’s second-in-command in the IS’s Southeast Asia “caliphate”, according to a July report by Indonesia-based Institute of Policy Analysis and Conflict (IPAC).

 

RECRUITMENT AND FINANCING

Sitting in the inner circle of the Marawi command center, Mahmud controlled recruitment and financing, the IPAC report said.

He was the contact for foreigners wanting to join the fight in the Philippines or with IS in the Middle East, it said.

“It wasn’t just Indonesians and Malaysians contacting Dr. Mahmud … he was also the contact for Bangladeshis in Malaysia who wanted to join the fighting in Mindanao,” IPAC’s director Sidney Jones told Reuters.

Rohan Gunaratna, an analyst at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, described Mahmud as

“the most important IS leader in Southeast Asia”.

Ahmad El-Muhammady, a lecturer at the International Islamic University of Malaysia (IIUM) and a counter-terrorism advisor to the police, said Mahmud often solicited funds for IS operations.

“He’s always the one asking people “does anyone have any money they’d like to donate?”, and he will usually reply when followers in the region ask him about the situation in the Philippines,” Ahmad said.

 

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017.

FILE PHOTO: Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017. Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via REUTERS TV/File Photo

 

‘JUST DISAPPEARED’

Mahmud grew up in Batu Caves, a crowded Kuala Lumpur suburb, famous for a Hindu temple housed in a large complex of caverns.  Mahmud’s wife and three children were last known to be living there, although Reuters could not locate them.

Before leaving Malaysia in 2014, Mahmud taught young Muslim students at a tahfiz, a school to memorise the Koran, in Nakhoda, a village near Batu Caves, residents said.

“When he (Mahmud) started the school, he did stay there for the first one or two years, but then he just disappeared,” said 50-year-old Zainon Mat Arshad, a Nakhoda resident who went to the mosque where Mahmud prayed.

“When he was at the tahfiz school, he kept mostly to himself and if he had come over to pray on Friday, I don’t think anyone would have recognized him,” said Zainon. “He didn’t mingle with the local community.”

Security experts say Mahmud studied at Pakistan’s Islamabad Islamic University in the late 1990s before going to Afghanistan where he learned to make improvised explosive devices at an al Qaeda camp.

In 2000, he returned to Malaysia to get a doctorate, which earned him a post as a lecturer in the Islamic Studies faculty at the University of Malaysia in Kuala Lumpur.

Former students described Mahmud as a quiet person who kept to himself.

“He wasn’t the kind of lecturer who hung out at cafes with his students as some others did,” said one former student, who declined to be identified.

 

WROTE JIHAD BOOK

The few signs of his militant beliefs were discovered later, including a book he wrote on jihad under his nom de guerre, Abu Handzalah, said Ahmad, the IIUM lecturer.

He was put on Malaysia’s most-wanted list in April 2014 after leaving the country with several others, including his aide, a Malaysian bomb maker named Mohammad Najib Husen, to work with the Abu Sayyaf group, notorious for violent kidnappings and beheadings in the southern Philippines, Ahmad said.

Mahmud received funding for the Marawi operation directly from IS headquarters, through the group’s Southeast Asian unit led by Syrian-based Indonesian militant Bahrumsyah, the IPAC report said.

In a video released by the Philippines army in June, Mahmud is seen alongside Hapilon as well as Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute – the pair of brothers who orchestrated the Marawi siege.

 

 

(Editing by Praveen Menon and Bill Tarrant)

 

Islamic State seeking alliance with al Qaeda, Iraqi vice president says

A member of the Iraqi rapid response forces walks past a wall painted with the black flag commonly used by Islamic State militants, at a hospital damaged by clashes during a battle between Iraqi forces and Islamic State militants in the Wahda district of eastern Mosul, Iraq,

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Islamic State is talking to al Qaeda about a possible alliance as Iraqi troops close in on IS fighters in Mosul, Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi said in an interview on Monday.

Allawi said he got the information on Monday from Iraqi and regional contacts knowledgeable about Iraq.

“The discussion has started now,” Allawi said. “There are discussions and dialogue between messengers representing Baghdadi and representing Zawahiri,” referring to Islamic State leader Abu Bakr al Baghdadi and Ayman al Zawahiri, the head of al Qaeda.

Islamic State split from al Qaeda in 2014 and the two groups have since waged an acrimonious battle for recruits, funding and the mantle of global jihad. Zawahiri has publicly criticized Islamic State for its brutal methods, which have included beheadings, drownings and immolation.

It is unclear how exactly the two group may work together, Allawi said.

Islamic State blazed across large swathes of northern Iraq in 2014, leaving the Iraqi central government reeling. Baghdadi declared a caliphate over the territory the group controlled from the al-Nuri mosque in Mosul the same year, which also became a point of contention with al Qaeda.

Last October, Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite volunteer fighters, commonly referred to as the Popular Mobilization Units teamed up with an international coalition, including the United States, to drive Islamic State from of Mosul and the areas surrounding the city.

The group has been pushed out of the half of Mosul that lies east of the Tigris River, but Iraqi soldiers and their allies are now bogged down in tough fighting in the narrow streets of the Old City of Mosul, west of the river, according to Iraqi security officials .

Islamic State has used suicide bombers, snipers and armed drones to defend the territory under their control. The group has also repeatedly targeted civilians or used them as human shields during the fighting, according to Iraqi and American security officials.

The militant group has lost ground in Mosul but still controls the towns of Qaim, Hawija and Tal Afar in Iraq as well as Raqqa, their de facto capital in Syria.

Even if Islamic State loses its territory in Iraq, Allawi said, it will not simply go away.

“I can’t see ISIS disappearing into thin air,” Allawi said, referring to the group by a commonly used acronym. “They will remain covertly in sleeping cells, spreading their venom all over the world.”

(Reporting By Babak Dehghanpisheh, editing by Larry King)

Boko Haram attacks destroy farm communities, bring famine risk

Nigerian Women and Children waiting at a nutrition clinic

By Alexis Akwagyiram

MAIDUGURI, Nigeria (Reuters) – Fati Adamu has not seen three of her six children nor her husband since Boko Haram militants attacked her hometown in northeast Nigeria in an hail of bullets.

Two years on, she is among thousands of refugees at the Bakassi camp in Maiduguri, the city worst hit by a seven-year-old insurgency that has forced more than two million people to flee their homes.

The United Nations says 400,000 children are now at risk from a famine in the northeastern states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe – 75,000 of whom could die from hunger within the next few months.

A push against the jihadists by the Nigerian army and soldiers from neighboring countries has enabled troops to enter remote parts of the northeast in the last few months, revealing tens of thousands on the brink of starvation and countless families torn apart.

“I don’t know if they are dead or alive,” Adamu, 35, said of her missing relatives.

There is a renewed threat of Boko Haram attacks. The start of the dry season has seen a surge in suicide bombings, some of which have targeted camps, including one at Bakassi in October which killed five people.

The World Food Programme said it provides food aid to 450,000 people in Borno and Yobe. Some 200,000 of them receive 17,000 naira each month to buy food, soon to rise to 23,000.

At least 15 camps, mostly on the outskirts of Maiduguru, the Borno state capital, are home to thousands of people unable to return home and surviving on food rations.

At one known as New Prison, women and children visibly outnumber men, many of whom were killed by Boko Haram or are missing.

One man — 45-year-old Bukaralhaji Bukar, who has eight children from his two wives — said the food he buys with the monthly stipend finishes within two weeks.

“We are suffering. It is not enough,” said Bukar, who begs on the street to make money.

In the center of Maiduguri, life seems to be returning to normal. Food markets are bustling but soldiers in pick-ups clutching rifles are reminders of the need for vigilance.

MALNOURISHED CHILDREN

In a ward in Molai district near the Bakassi camp, the air is filled with the sound of crying babies and the gurgle of those who lack the energy to cry. Some, whose skin clings tightly to their bones, are silent – too weary to even raise their heads.

“Many of them are malnourished, which is already bad enough, but they also develop things like malaria which further worsens their illnesses because they can’t eat and start vomiting,” said Dr Iasac Bot, who works at the unit overseen by the charity Save the Children.

Children have conditions ranging from diarrhea and pneumonia to bacterial infections and skin infections.

Hauwa Malu, 20, fled with her husband and their two-week-old daughter, Miriam, from her village in Jere after Boko Haram militants burned the farming community to the ground and took their cattle.

Miriam, now aged 10 months, has suffered from fevers, a persistent cough and is malnourished. Her mother said they have been left without a home or livelihood.

Tim Vaessen of the Food and Agriculture Organization said a failure to restore their ability to farm would in the long term mean displaced people would depend on expensive food aid.

“They would remain in these camps, they would become easy targets for other armed groups and they might have to migrate again – even up to Europe,” he said.

(Reporting by Alexis Akwagyiram, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Islamic State calls on members to carry out jihad in Russia

An Islamic State flag is seen in this picture illustration taken February 18, 2016. Picture taken February 18, 2016. REUTERS/Dado

CAIRO (Reuters) – Islamic State called on its group members to carry out jihad in Russia in a nine-minute YouTube video on Sunday.

“Listen Putin, we will come to Russia and will kill you at your homes … Oh Brothers, carry out jihad and kill and fight them,” a masked man driving a car in the desert yelled while wagging his finger in the last couple of minutes of the video.

The video with subtitles showed footage of armed men attacking armored vehicles and tents and collecting arms in the desert. “Breaking into a barrack of the Rejectionist military on the international road south Akashat,” read one subtitle.

It was not immediately possible to independently verify the video but the link to the footage was published on a Telegram messaging account used by the militant group.

It was not immediately clear why Russia would be a target, but Russia and the U.S. are talking about boosting military and intelligence cooperation against Islamic State and al Qaeda in Syria.

Islamic State has called on its supporters to take action with any available weapons targeting countries it has been fighting.

There has been a string of deadly attacks claimed by Islamic state in Europe over the past weeks. Last week, assailants loyal to Islamic State forced an elderly Catholic priest in France to his knees before slitting his throat. Since the mass killing in Nice, southern France on July 14, there have been four incidents in Germany, including the most recent suicide bombing at a concert in Ansbach.

(Reporting by Ali Abdelatti writing by Amina Ismail; Writing by Amina Ismail; Editing by Alison Williams and Marguerita Choy)

Activists put pressure on Nigerian government for kidnapped schoolgirls

Bring Back Our Girls" campaigner Christabell Ibrahim, 8, speaks during the media conference marking two years from the abduction of the Chibok girls, in Abuja

By Ulf Laessing and Alexis Akwagyiram

LAGOS/ABUJA (Reuters) – A video showing 15 of the 219 schoolgirls held by the jihadist group Boko Haram has added pressure on the Nigerian government to secure their release, after activists accused authorities of mishandling the case in the two years since their mass kidnap.

Weeping parents identified the girls captured by Boko Haram fighters, who want to establish an Islamist state in northeast Nigeria and have waged a seven-year campaign of violence, killing thousands of people and displacing two million.

President Muhammadu Buhari, elected a year ago on a promise to end endemic graft and crush the group, said in December the government could talk to Boko Haram if credible representatives emerged.

In January he said the government was launching a new investigation into the kidnapping, vowing to return the girls captured at a school in the town of Chibok while taking exams. But little has emerged since then.

In the video, apparently taken in December and given to government officials by Boko Haram as proof of life for the negotiations, a person asks the 15 girls to say their names as they stand quietly in two rows, wearing headscarves.

“I saw all the girls and they are Chibok girls,” Esther Yakubu, a parent of one of the abducted girls who saw the video broadcast by CNN said. “I recognize some of them because we are in the same area with them.”

Yakubu was marching with some 30 other parents and activists to the presidential villa in the capital Abuja to demand the government do more to return the girls. Police stopped them at the road leading to the villa.

Witnesses to the kidnapping, Nigerian military and security officials, Western diplomats and counter-terrorism experts blame a series of failings by politicians and the military in dealing with the militants, including a lack of co-ordination.

Information Minister Lai Mohammed told CNN the government was still reviewing the video. When asked about efforts to get the girls released he only said: “There are ongoing talks.”

A top government official who declined to be named said an official reaction would only be made once the military had established the video’s authenticity.

INFORMATION “LOST”

Activists said Buhari’s government is not doing enough, urging the state to use the video for clues to find the girls and speak to girls who had managed to flee Boko Haram captivity.

“The incredible wealth of information that victims of terrorists can offer our security forces is being lost in the current undefined and ineffective approach,” Aisha Yesufu of the #BringBackOurGirls group said in a statement.

Buhari has blamed his predecessor Goodluck Jonathan who was slow to react to the abduction.

Under Buhari’s command, Nigerian troops backed up by Chad, Niger and Cameroon have recaptured most of territory held by Boko Haram, which pledged allegiance to Islamic State last year.

However, Boko Haram has no unified leadership which makes it difficult for the government to find someone to negotiate with, analysts say.

Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau appeared in a video circulated last month in which he seemed to suggest he was ailing and Boko Haram was losing its effectiveness. But another video emerged last week saying there would be no surrender.

Fulan Nasrullah, a security analyst, said there was little chance of a breakthrough in the talks between the government and the militants after the failure of previous efforts.

“The government is angry about the leak, as are the insurgents,” he said. “The insurgents are not currently willing to negotiate for the girls following the government’s alleged bad faith in previous negotiations,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Felix Onuoha, Writing by Ulf Laessing; Editing by James Macharia and Dominic Evans)

Border attack feeds Tunisia fears of Libya jihadist spillover

TUNIS/ALGIERS (Reuters) – The signal to attack came from the mosque, sending dozens of Islamist fighters storming through the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdan to hit army and police posts in street battles that lit the dawn sky with tracer bullets.

Militants used a megaphone to chant “God is Great,” and reassure residents they were Islamic State, there to save the town near the Libyan border from the “tyrant” army. Most were Tunisians themselves, with local accents, and even some familiar faces, officials and witnesses to Monday’s attack said.

Hours later, 36 militants were dead, along with 12 soldiers and seven civilians, in an assault authorities described as an attempt by Islamic State to carve out terrain in Tunisia.

Whether Islamic State aimed to hold territory as they have in Iraq, Syria and Libya, or intended only to dent Tunisia’s already battered security, is unclear and the group has yet to officially claim the attack.

But as fuller details of the Ben Guerdan fighting emerge, the incident highlights the risk Tunisia faces from home-grown jihadists drawn to Iraq, Syria and Libya, and who have threatened to bring their war back home.

Despite Tunisian forces’ preparations to confront returning fighters, and their defeat of militants in Ben Guerdan, Monday’s assault shows how the country is vulnerable to violence spilling over from Libya as Islamic State expands there.

Authorities are still investigating the Ben Guerdan attack. But most of the militants appear to have been already in the town, with a few brought in from Libya. Arms caches were deposited around the city before the assault.

“Most of them were from Ben Guerdan, we know their faces. They knew where to find the house of the counter-terrorist police chief,” one witness, Sabri Ben Saleh, told Reuters. “They were driving round in a car filled with weapons, my neighbors said they knew some of them.”

Troops have killed 14 more militants around Ben Guerdan since Monday. Others have been arrested and more weapons seized.

ISLAMIC STATE

Officials say they are still determining if the militants had been in Libya before or had returned from fighting with Islamic State overseas. But that such a large number of militants and arms were in Tunisia is no surprise.

After its revolt in 2011 to topple Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, Tunisia has struggled with growing Islamic militancy.

More than 3,000 Tunisians have left to fight with Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, according to government estimates. Tunisian security sources say many are with Islamic State in Libya.

Gunmen trained in Libya were blamed for attacks on tourists at the Bardo Museum in Tunis a year ago and at a beach hotel in Sousse in June.

Tunisians also play a major role in Islamic State in Libya where they run training camps, according to Tunisian security sources.

But the scale of Monday’s attack was unprecedented. The militants were well-organized, handing out weapons to their fighters from a vehicle moving through the city, with knowledge of the town and its military barracks.

“We came across a group of terrorists with their Kalashnikovs, and they told us: ‘Don’t worry we are not here to target you. We are the Islamic State and we are here for the tyrants in the army,'” said Hassein Taba, a local resident.

The attack tests Tunisia at a difficult time. After Islamic State violence last year, the tourism industry that represents 7 percent of the economy is struggling to tempt visitors to return.

With its new constitution, free elections and secular history, Tunisia is a target for jihadists looking to upset a young democracy just five years after the overthrow of dictator Ben Ali.

“The battle of Ben Guerdane in Tunisia, 20 miles from the Libyan border … is proof enough that the Islamic State has cells far and wide,” said Geoff Porter, at North Africa Risk Consulting. “But what these cells can reliably do … and how they are directed by Islamic State leadership in Sirte, let alone in Iraq and Syria, is not known.”

AIR STRIKES

Islamic State has grown in Libya over the past year and half, coopting local fighters, battling with rivals and taking over the town of Sirte, now its main base.

That has worried Tunisian authorities, who have built a border trench and tightened controls along nearly 200-km (125 miles) of the frontier with Libya.

Western military experts are training Tunisians to protect a porous border where smuggling has been a long tradition. Ben Guerdan is well-known as a smuggling town.

“There are still some blind spots in intelligence, but they are advancing with the cooperation of neighboring countries and with the West,” said Ali Zarmdini, a Tunisian military analyst.

But Tunisia’s North African neighbors worry about the spill over impact of any further Western air strikes and military action against Islamic State in Libya.

After a U.S. air strike killed 40 mostly Tunisian militants in the Libyan town of Sabratha last month, Tunisian forces went on alert for any cross-border incursions.

Just days before the Ben Guerdan attack, Tunisian troops killed five militants who tried to cross from Libya.

But the fact that even after that setback, militants mustered a force of 50 fighters to strike the town shows the group’s ability to keep testing the Tunisian military.

(Writing by Patrick Markey; Editing by Giles Elgood)