Fences Rise Across Middle East as Jihadi Threat Escalates

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Saudi Arabia-Iraq border
A Saudi border guard patrols the fence on Saudi Arabia's northern border with Iraq. Photographer: Fayez Nureldine/AFP/Getty Images

As they confront the rising threat of modern jihadist violence, many of the nations most at risk are retreating behind one of the oldest forms of defense.

Tunisia and Turkey are the latest to invest in border barriers, both announcing the plans in the immediate aftermath of attacks on civilian targets. A fence and watchtowers will guard Tunisia’s border with Libya, where the militants who killed foreign tourists on a Tunisian beach are said to have been trained. Turkey said late Wednesday it will fortify the border with Syria after a suicide bomb in a nearby town.

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 jihadist 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.

Quick Fix

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 jihadist 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.

Border Poverty

“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.”

Tunisia’s barrier was ordered by Prime Minister Habib Essid after European holidaymakers were gunned down at a beach resort in June. It will stretch 100 miles inland from the coast along the most vulnerable stretch of the frontier with Libya, into a region where militancy is being fanned by poverty away from the 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.

Drone Surveillance

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.”

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Turkish deputy premier Bulent Arinc, who announced plans late on Wednesday to prevent militants entering from Syria, said that the “physical security system” will be aimed at stopping smugglers too. Two days earlier, a suspected Islamic State suicide bomb killed more than 30 people in a border town.

Arinc said the government has identified “critical sections” of the 910-kilometer (566-mile) frontier where the barriers will go up. Daily Sabah published a graphic it said came from the official plans, showing a trellis fence and concrete wall on either side of a patrol road, with facilities for surveillance by drone and balloon.

Such projects come at a price -- $2 billion in the Turkish case, according to Sabah. 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 also 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, who has studied the issue as a lecturer at City University London.

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