The Middle East Channel

Confronting Tunisia’s jihadists

Confronting Tunisia’s jihadists

"You are not going to war against the youth, but against the religion of Allah." The statement, which appeared Sunday night on the Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) Facebook page, was attributed to Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, AST’s emir and the founder of the al Qaeda-linked Tunisian Islamic Combatant Group (TICG). Coming after Tunisian authorities suppressed AST preaching events in multiple cities, the text is part of an escalating war of words and deeds between AST, Tunisian security forces, and the Islamist Ennahda-led government over the past several months, compounded by the September 14, 2012 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Al-Tunisi’s statement also threatened, in subtle but unmistakable tones, a jihad against Tunisian authorities.

The risk of open conflict may have become even more likely Wednesday after Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi announced that AST’s annual conference in the city of Kairouan, scheduled for Sunday, would not be allowed to take place, though an AST spokesman vowed Thursday that the event would go forward. But the immediate spark came when Tunisian security forces began striking homemade landmines in the rugged region around Jebel Chaambi near the country’s western border with Algeria.

For more than two weeks, Tunisian security forces have been conducting intensive operations around Jebel Chaambi, Tunisia’s tallest mountain. Security forces have struck four mines in that time, resulting in 16 wounded Tunisian soldiers, five of whom have had limbs amputated as a result of the explosives, fabricated using as a base the fertilizer ammonium nitrate. However, Tunisian forces have bombarded the mountain with heavy weapons, and reportedly seized food, books, and explosive material from a series of caches. Tunisian soldiers are said to have uncovered training camps on the mountain, while Algerian forces have tightened surveillance around the border separating the countries. Tunisian forces continue to look for two groups of fighters reportedly numbering 32, with approximately 20 fighters loose in or around Jebel Chaambi, with another dozen in the area of El Kef to the north.

The ongoing operations have splashed across Tunisian media and political debates. They have brought increasing attention to the presence of jihadist fighters in the country, strains on an already overstretched Tunisian, and persistent accusations that Ennahda has turned a blind eye to violent Salafi-jihadi movements and broader religious radicalization — of a violent and non-violent nature — since the fall of dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011. These shifts, including the inroads made by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in Tunisia are years in the making. But a number of security and political challenges may be coming to a head, in a way that could have lasting implications for Tunisia.

Little quiet on the western front

Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh and Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jedou have confirmed links between the fighters believed to be in Jebel Chaambi, a shadowy group known as Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi, and AQIM. Ben Jedou indicated that some of the fighters on Jebel Chaambi had spent time with jihadist groups in northern Mali, while anonymous interior ministry sources have said that group is composed of 11 Algerians and nine Tunisians, as well as some Libyans.

The first public identification of Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi — named for the Umayyad general who set up a camp that would later become the city of Kairouan in 670 — came in December 2012. On December 21, then-Interior Minister Larayedh announced that 16 people ostensibly linked to AQIM and Uqbah Ibn Nafi (reportedly including three Algerians and a Libyan) had been arrested, following other arrests and multiple incidents involving Tunisian security services, including a gun battle on December 10 in Kasserine that resulted in the death of National Guard officer Anis Jelassi.

Larayedh said at the time that Uqbah Ibn Nafi fell under the leadership of three Algerians with close links to AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, but was largely composed of recruits from the region of Kasserine, on the border with Algeria. The goal of the organization, he told reporters, was to set up camps in the Kasserine region and to provide initial training for recruits before sending them to other AQIM training camps in Algeria and Libya. Larayedh and other officials described the group essentially as an AQIM initiative to set up a jihadist organization in Tunisia, with aim of training and eventually carrying out attacks in Tunisia. He also alleged (albeit without proof) that the members of Uqbah Ibn Nafi were all active in AST. Larayedh’s prevarications on this point did not, of course, stop some writers from drawing a direct line between AST and Uqbah Ibn Nafi/AQIM. Other outlets claimed that the fighters were a mix of Tunisians recruited from around Kasserine and others "linked" to AST, with no precision as to what those links might entail.

Larayedh also linked these fighters to previous firefights involving suspected AQIM members. In May 2011 a shootout between militants and National Guard members in the village of Rouhia resulted in the deaths of two members of the security services (including a colonel) and two Tunisian AQIM members, though earlier accounts s
uggested the men were Libyan
. At Bir Ali Ben Khalifa in February 2012 fighting between security services and militants resulted in the deaths of two "terrorists," the eventual arrests of 12 other suspected militants, as well as the seizure of 34 weapons, ammunition, and nearly 90,000 Tunisian dinars (nearly $55,000). Present in both cases, according to the Tunisian government, were fighters who had been part of the so-called Suleiman Group, in which jihadists who had trained with AQIM’s forerunner the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC) entered Tunisia in the area of Jebel Chaambi and tried to set up camps, but were quickly dispersed and then killed or captured by Tunisian authorities.

AQIM, Mali, and the other side of the border

The francophone Algerian journal El Watan reported that Uqbah Ibn Nafi is led by an Algerian and two Tunisians, and termed it the "Tunisian section of AQIM." El Watan also emphasized the ease with which the group operates on both sides of the Tunisia-Algeria border, while others have noted the apparent relationships and cooperation between Uqbah Ibn Nafi and local traffickers, an expansive term in an area where fuel, drugs, and weapons flow back and forth. These trades, in particular the movement of arms, have by most accounts exploded in recent years, though weapons did move through this area during the Algerian civil war of the 1990s.

However, the most recent twist to this story appeared to be Ben Jedou’s statement that the jihadists on Jebel Chaambi included militants who had returned from fighting in Mali. The Tunis-based France 24 and RFI journalist David Thomson, noted earlier on Twitter that the use of ammonium nitrate resembled explosives used by jihadists in Mali. And some analysts have suggested that the French intervention in Mali in January has pushed AQIM’s area of operations north to Tunisia and Libya.

This influence is not new; one of the interesting developments to emerge during the occupation of northern Mali was the increasing recruitment and visible presence of non-Algerian North Africans in AQIM, especially Tunisians, in addition to Egyptians and Saudis. The heavy involvement of Tunisians in the January In Amenas gas plant attack in Algeria, as well as the current mix in Uqbah Ibn Nafi, would seem to provide further evidence of this deep intermingling of North African jihadis within AQIM and affiliated groups.

Prior to 2011, most analysts had concluded that AQIM had largely failed to integrate the key North African militant movements in existence at the time of the GSPC’s merger with al Qaeda in 2006, a move that saw the GSPC change its name to AQIM. While there were certainly Moroccans, Tunisians, and Libyans in AQIM, the organization was still dominated by Algerians, though Mauritanians began to play more significant roles as the group increased its presence and operations in the Sahara after 2004 and 2005. There are diverse reasons for this disposition, including (but not limited to) the massive imprisonment of Libyans after the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group’s (LIFG) failed offensive in Libya, the strained relationship between the LIFG and the GSPC’s predecessor the Armed Islamic Group (GIA), the major crackdowns on Moroccan and Tunisian Salafis and Salafi-jihadis following the Djerba Synagogue attack in 2002 and the passage of Tunisia’s new anti-terrorism law in 2003, and the wave of bombings that struck Casablanca in 2003.

Interaction between Tunisian and Algerian militants, by available indications, remained somewhat limited, though GSPC networks likely helped Tunisian and other North African fighters travel to Iraq. A good example of these limited connections is the Suleiman Group; while the group would eventually recruit up to 40 members, only a handful (one of whom was Mauritanian) received training with the GSPC in Algeria. And according to scholar and researcher Alison Pargeter there is little evidence that the GSPC provided funding or other support to the Suleiman Group once they left Algeria.

It is clear that by late 2011, however, that significant numbers of arms and explosives were pouring across Algeria’s eastern border, with some coming straight from Libya, and others traversing Tunisia before entering Algeria. The region of Tébessa in particular, which abuts the Tunisian border and in particular the area around Jebel Chaambi, became known as an entrepôt for all sorts of small arms. According to an Algerian account from October 2012, one dealer was even offering a gold-plated Smith & Wesson that he claimed had belonged to deposed Libyan leader Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi.

Nor were these shipments restricted to small arms. In July 2011, El Watan reported that authorities nearly 56 miles south of Tébessa seized 20 quintals, or more than 2 tons, of ammonium nitrate that had purportedly come from Tunisia. Ammonium nitrate was (and is) a favorite material for AQIM’s bomb makers in northern Algeria, where improvised explosive devices have been common for years, and in insurgencies across the world.

Nor was the flow of weapons one-way after 2011. In September of that year, a large weapons convoy that came under attack from Algerian forces fled across the border into Tunisia, again in the Jebel Chaambi region. Tunisian government sources as well as Western analysts have also suggested that weapons were coming into Tunisia both from Algeria and Libya, contradicting Larayedh’s statements that there are no arms trafficking networks in Tunisia.

More interestingly, though, the post-2011 period also saw a wave of distinctly military activity in this region, one that is concurrent with an uptick in militant violence in northern Algeria. This includes not just fairly regular confrontations with security services, but also specifically bombings targeting Algerian security forces in the province of Tébessa and neighboring Khenchela, and explosions in March in Biskra
that wounded 17 Algerian soldiers. While some of the violence during this period appears to be the work of arms traffickers, the targeting and tactics used for other incidents, notably the bombings, are more likely the work of militants.

These attacks have also escalated at times beyond improvised explosive devices (IEDs). In February, nearly 50 militants conducted a sophisticated and coordinated attack on an army base in Khenchela. The group of attackers seemed suspiciously like Uqbah Ibn Nafi; its reported size matches descriptions in the Tunisian and international press, and the group reportedly contained Tunisians and Libyans, in addition to Algerians, and beat a hasty retreat toward Tunisia after the attack.

The state of jihadist violence in Tunisia

Tunisia, on the other hand, had seen little of this kind of jihadist activity until recently. On the one hand, since 2011 activist violence (particularly that allegedly committed by Salafis) has skyrocketed, targeting bars, artists and art exhibits, politicians (presumably including leftist opposition figure Chokri Belaid), and journalists and other individuals. Since the fall of Ben Ali, religious activism in general has grown tremendously, whether linked to Ennahda or Salafi and Salafi-Jihadi movements like AST, all of which are deeply enmeshed in politics, including previously apolitical movements. As political and religious violence has grown, both Ennahda (through the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution) and AST have been accused of using or encouraging violence as a means of advancing certain goals within Tunisia.

For Ennahda, vigilante violence likely allows the party to strategically apply pressure on political opponents while also providing a means of keeping more hardline Tunisians within the fold of the organization by giving an outlet for those who seek more aggressive change through violence. For AST, which has publicly favored a split between jihad abroad and Dawa and charitable acts in Tunisia (as first noted by Aaron Zelin, fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy), vigilante violence and the aggressive enforcement of moral codes and structures related to areas like alcohol consumption might serve a similar purpose, allowing the movement to maintain its public stance that Tunisia is not a land of jihad, while providing an outlet for associates that are more inclined to violence and pressuring political opponents in the opposition and in Ennahda.  This is not to imply that all violence or Salafi-jihadist tendencies fall under either Ennahda or AST. As researcher and scholar Monica Marks has argued, for instance, jihadi Salafism can in some ways be seen as its own "subculture" in contemporary Tunisia, one that plays a strong social role among some Tunisian youth. Tunis-based journalist and researcher Anne Wolf has also done valuable work on this subject.

After the September 14, 2012 assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis, in which many analysts and officials — including the Tunisian government — allege AST played a key role, an already strained relationship between the Ennahda-led government and AST has degenerated even further. Many Salafis and Salafi-jihadis were already angry with Ennahda for its failure to push for enshrining sharia within the Tunisian constitution, and Salafi-jihadi social media frequently depicted Ennahda and particularly Larayedh as stooges of the United States and others. 

After September 14 Abu Iyadh went into hiding — though he has still given interviews, issued statements, and occasionally appeared in public — and the government cracked down on suspected jihadis, with a number of imprisoned Salafis going on hunger strikes that have resulted in two deaths. More recently, Larayedh further stepped up his public allegations against AST, directly accusing Abu Iyadh in March of involvement in smuggling weapons and other violent incidents. In this context, the government has a real incentive for blaming jihadist violence on AST and Abu Iyadh. This is especially true as opposition politicians continue to attack the government for taking a lax approach to radicalization, whether in Tunisia’s mountains or in its mosques.

Then there is the question of how, exactly, the fighters in El Kef and Jebel Chaambi may (or may not) be linked to AST. One of the reasons people inside and outside of Tunisia are so suspicious of AST is the strong jihadist pedigree of Abu Iyadh, and in particular his close collaboration with Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda structures. Given these past relationships and the use of the Ansar al-Sharia brand as a fig leaf for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and to a lesser extent AQIM/MUJAO in Mali (not to mention the endorsement of the name by jihadist ideologue Abu Mundhir al-Shinqiti and possible links between Ansar al-Sharia organizations in Libya and al Qaeda Core in Pakistan), some analysts are quick to draw a connection between AST and al Qaeda, in this case AQIM.

The reality, however, may be a bit more complicated. Despite Abu Iyadh’s professions and past connections, there is little public information about the organizational structure of AST and the level of command and control exercised over its members. Indeed, given the spread of Salafi-jihadi ideas in Tunisia and the spread of protests and vigilante violence that may or may not be linked to AST, it is possible that some of Uqbah Ibn Nafi’s fighters could be tied in to AST while also participating in other groups based on their own inclinations and connections. This kind of loose organizational structure based on overlapping connections would likely suit AST, allowing for fighters inclined toward violence and military activity to pursue those avenues. Yet this kind of loose organizational structure also poses considerable risks to the organization and its continued ability to balance different ideas and personalities under one organization.

What future for Tunisia? 

Returning to the Algeria-Tunisia border, the last two years have seen no shortage of security incidents. However, the patterns differ depending on the specific location. Even taking into account the run-ins with security forces that, according to the government, were linked to AQIM, the confrontations in Tunisia appear to be largely disrupted attempts to smuggle weapons or fighters, either within Tunisia or between Tunisia and Libya or Algeria. The picture is complicated, and a number of incidents resulting in the injury or death of security forces (including a number of assaults on police and military posts) could be linked to jihadist groups, or it could be linked to broader tensions between Salafis, Salafi-jihadis, and the Tunisian security services.

Still, the use of IEDs in Tunisia against armed forces personnel is a new and troubling development. While their use appeared to be defensive (protecting installations and caches on Jebel Chaambi), the explosions, subsequent military efforts, and crackdown on AST Dawa events and gatherings may mark another shift in how the government addresses security threats, and particularly that posed by jihadist groups. Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi responded to the events this week by condemning the violence and calling for Tunisians to support the armed forces, and the public attention to the jihadist threat appears likely to push the government to take further steps to crack down on extremist networks. These steps could include Ennahda changing past positions to support the implementation of the 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law that Ben Ali used to imprison large numbers of Salafis, Salafi-jihadis, and political opponents and suppress radical imams.

These actions and the suppression of the Kairouan meeting, in turn, could push AST and fellow travelers further toward open conflict with the state. While criminalizing radical preaching and further crackdowns may be a necessary step, it could also further radicalize these figures and their followers. This would be problematic for Ennahda, which has long tried to strike a careful balance with more hardline figures. For young radicals and leaders alike, such aggressive actions from the Ennahda-led government will likely blur the line further on whether or not Tunisia is a land of jihad or a land of Dawa, and would be seen as another example for many of hypocrisy from Ennahda, something Abu Iyadh makes clear in his statement. This in turn could drive youth who would have opted otherwise for Dawa in Sousse or jihad in Syria to decide instead to take up arms at home. 

Moreover, if Uqbah Ibn Nafi is linked to AQIM, it is a group that appeared until now to be largely focused on Algeria, with Tunisia serving as a recruiting ground and a space to train and move or collect supplies, including weapons. This does not mean that the group wasn’t also planning attacks in Tunisia or an expansion of militant activity; AQIM has undergone multiple "fragmentations" since 2011, though what appear on the outside to be splits driven by tensions within the organization can also be interpreted as internal divisions to better cope with new recruits and changing operational environments.

Uqbah Ibn Nafi could thus be an attempt to diversify regionally and spread AQIM’s influence while maintaining a local orientation and face for its operations, as well as local networks for recruiting and equipment. Or it could be a more flexible attempt to steer and train Tunisian fighters while maintaining some autonomy from AQIM’s central command. We simply do not know enough about Uqbah Ibn Nafi or broader AQIM or al Qaeda planning and operations in Tunisia to draw conclusions at this point. But the situation is changing, and the coming weeks will be pivotal in showing what kind of path Tunisia’s government and militants want to chart.

Andrew Lebovich is a security and political analyst based in Dakar, Senegal. Follow him on Twitter at @TweetsintheME.