April 24, 2015 – CNN reported on March 24th that the small town of Tataouine in Tunisia (from which George Lucas invented the name “Tatooine”, Luke Skywalker’s home planet) had become “a way-station for jihadists crossing the Libyan border 60 miles to the east.” You can read CNN’s report HERE with its headline “Tunisian Town near ‘Star Wars’ Backdrop Now Features in Battle against ISIS”.
The basis for CNN’s somewhat alarmist (and possibly misleading) headline was the discovery in March of two arms caches, one of which included rocket-propelled grenade launchers and more than 20,000 rounds of ammunition likely stolen from a Libyan armory to the east.
Other news media then picked up the CNN line and conflated the story with sensational headlines of their own: “ISIS Has Taken Over The Real-Life Tatooine” (cinemablend.com); “ISIS overruns town that inspired Luke Skywalker’s home planet” (NYPost.com); and “ISIS Threat: Star Wars fans urged to avoid Tunisian town” (ajc.com).
So when did the discovery of weapons “in the region” near Tataouine (CNN’s report) suddenly become “ISIS overruns Tatooine” (other media reports)? Chalk it up to lazy journalism and geographic ignorance, because these alarmist headlines are not true: There have been no ISIS battles in or around Tataouine – or anywhere in the nation of Tunisia, for that matter. There are no ISIS fighters stationed at Tataouine or any of the other Star Wars filming locations (see map below) throughout the small North African country of about eleven million people.
The CNN report came on the heels of a deadly massacre earlier in March by two or three young Tunisian gunmen at the National Bardo Museum in the nation’s capital to the north, Tunis. Twenty-one tourists died as well as two of the Tunisian gunmen, who had received their training in Libya next door. However, there is no evidence linking the museum attack to the discovery of two stolen weapons caches near Tataouine. And nothing definitively links the two weapons caches with ISIS. The drive from Tataouine to Tunis is about 331 miles (533 kms), or over six hours each way. Therefore, it would be farfetched to link the attack to the north with the weapons caches – or to media claims that the very isolated and rural Tataouine is suddenly a hotbed of ISIS activity.
Other more thoughtful observers have come to the same conclusion, including thedailybeast.com (“ISIS Hasn’t Seized Luke Skywalker’s Farm”) and a similar video analysis here:
So is it safe for diehard Star Wars fans to make the pilgrimmage to these Tunisian filming sites used in Star Wars Episodes I, II and IV? It depends on your level of risk-tolerance.
The good news is that the U.S. State Department has lifted the Travel Warning Advisory for Tunisia effective 28 March 2015. The other good news is that there are no real reports of ISIS fighters and battles anywhere in Tunisia, notwithstanding some sloppy journalism noted above.
The Tunisian government has posted about 1,500 troops to patrol the Tataouine area. The CNN report also notes that the government has created a 1.8-mile “No Go” zone inside the border with Libya as well as a wider 12-mile zone, requiring special permission to enter. The Tunisian military has also built fortified positions every couple of miles, though it’s impossible to make a 380-mile-long border (611 kms) airtight.
Of course, keep in mind that the situation is fluid. Tataouine is roughly 60 miles (97 kms) from the Libyan border. After the overthrow of Muammar al-Gaddafi in 2011, Libya has remained essentially lawless and without a national government, its regions controlled by different warring factions. Fighters loyal to ISIS control certain towns and parts of northern Libya.
A healthy dose of commonsense when traveling abroad always applies: Don’t attract unnecessary attention. Be aware of your surroundings. Let trusted individuals know your daily itinerary. Don’t take unnecessary risks. Always ask the locals (and your nation’s local embassy/consulate) about travel advisories.
So would I go? You betcha.
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