The Tunisian Salafist movement Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AST) was declared a terrorist organization by the government of Tunis in August 2013. Since then, it seems to have adopted concealment tactics, given the impossibility of operating openly. Meanwhile, Tunisian authorities have launched an unprecedented counter-terrorism campaign aimed at combating the jihadism phenomenon, though these measures may have actually contributed to the creation of small, isolated cells that both state authorities and Salafist leaders may find even more difficult to control. It is likely that the jihadi networks currently active in Tunisia – mainly related to the Algerian jihad – will be able to attract new recruits among these local pockets of resistance to the Tunisian institutions.
Counter-terrorist operations have proliferated under the government of Prime Minister Mehdi Joma’a, who has identified the fight against terrorism as a national priority. The jihadists in turn, have renewed their previous focus on attacks along the Algerian border after focusing earlier this year on attacks in urban centers:
· On February 3, Tunisian security forces had a firefight with a group of militants in Raoued, near Tunis. A member of the National Guard was killed, as well as eight suspected terrorists, among them being Kamil Gadhgadhi, a suspect in the February 2013 murder of opposition politician Chokri Belaid (Direct Info [Tunis], February 11).
· On February 9, another security operation led to the identification of a jihadist cell, the killing of a militant and the arrest of three others (Business News [Tunis], February 9). Among those detained was Hamid al-Maliki (a.k.a. “the Somali”), a suspect in the July 2013 assassination of Muhammad Brahmi (Jawhara FM [Tunis], February 14).
· On February 16, a group of five men with fake uniforms mounted a sham checkpoint and killed four people, including two members of the National Guard (Tunisie Numerique, February 16). The attack took place in the village of Ouled Manaa, near Jendouba. Three of the terrorists were identified as Tunisians, while the other two were Algerian, suggesting a correlation between the Algerian jihadi network and local elements in Tunisia.
· On March 14, seven militants were killed by the Algerian army on the border with Tunisia. The militants were armed with Kalashnikovs, grenades and ammunition (Le Courrier d'Algerie, May 7). These alleged jihadists were for the most part Tunisians and may have been under the guidance of Djebbar Abd al-Kamil (a.k.a. Abu Djafaar), an Algerian militant accused of having planned attacks in Algeria. This would appear to confirm ties between the Algerian and Tunisian jihadist groups. Confirmation of this relationship came in another operation conducted in the Algerian region of Tinzaouatine on May 6, in which ten suspected terrorists (including Tunisian citizens) were killed (Business News [Tunis], May 8).
· On March 16, Tunisian counter-terrorist forces conducted an operation in Jendouba, during which three suspected jihadists were killed, including Ragheb Hannachi, previously identified as one of the militants who had taken part in the February 16 Ouled Manaa attack (African Manager [Tunis], March 17; Tunis Times, February 17).
· On April 11, the explosion of a mine on Jabal Chaambi caused the wounding of five soldiers (Business News [Tunis], April 11). Mines continued to take a toll at Jabal Chaambi, with one soldier killed and two others wounded on April 18 and another soldier killed in a mine explosion on May 23 (Jeune Afrique, May 23).
· At the end of April, nine people were arrested in Douar Hicher and Ettadhamen, accused of planning an attack against institutional objectives in Tunisia (Direct Info [Tunis], April 28).
· On May 5, eight other militants were arrested in Kasserine (Business News [Tunis], May 6).
· The escalation of violence and instability in neighbouring Libya is an additional source of concern for the Tunisian security forces – on May 21, eight suspected jihadists who infiltrated Tunisia from Libya were arrested (Shems FM [Tunis], May 21).
The wave of arrests and preventive actions seems to have had the effect of forcing the jihadists to withdraw into the ??Jabal Chaambi region near the Algerian border, but it has not eradicated their presence.
AST’s mode of action seems to echo the tactics of the Algerian jihadists during the 1990s; for Tunisian militants, the tactic of donning government uniforms and setting up fake military checkpoints is a novelty (Réalités [Tunis], February 24).
The government mounted a determined response to the latest manifestations of jihadism in the Jabal Chaambi region – already on April 11, the area of Jabal Chaambi and Sammama was declared a closed military zone (Tunisie Numerique, April 21). According to Ministry of Defence spokesman Colonel-Major Taoufik Rahmouni, security forces launched a campaign on April 18 against the supposed positions of the militants, using helicopters, fighter planes and artillery (Direct Info [Tunis], April 21).
The escalation in counter-terrorism operations started following the visit of Prime Minister Joma’a to Washington, during which the United States pledged its support to Tunisia in an area that is becoming increasingly sensitive for regional security (Agence Tunis Afrique Press, April 5). Joma’a himself announced on May 14 the creation of a special center exclusively committed to counter-terrorism (Globalnet [Tunis], May 14). The declared intention of the Tunisian government is to move from a reactive approach to a preventive one to combat new forms of jihadism – with explicit reference to cyber-terrorism – in coordination with Algeria and Libya. This has not resulted in an end of the terrorist attacks. On the contrary, on May 27, militants raised the stakes by assaulting Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou’s home in Kasserine, killing four policemen, in a rare urban attack (Tunisie Numerique, May 28).
The references to cyber-terrorism and to Libya bring us to one of the most interesting developments of the Tunisian Salafi-Jihadism.
As Abu Iyad – the AST leader wanted by the Tunisian authorities – has found refuge in Libya, the coordination between the Libyan and Tunisian radical Islam’s networks could become ever closer. In particular, many AST militants have moved to Libya taking advantage of the unstable conditions of the country and have begun to re-organize their network of contacts through the coordinated action of several internet sites.
In March 2014, a new channel for the dissemination of the Tunisian jihadist message appeared – Shabab al-Tawhid Media (STM). Most messages conveyed by the channel are related to Tunisia; on April 21, STM released a video of Mohamed Bechikh, the Tunisian diplomat kidnapped in Libya on March 21 by a local Islamist group (Shabab al-Tawhid Media, April 21). The video message was addressed directly to the Tunisian government and called for the release of Libyan activists arrested in Tunisia. These elements suggest that there is a sort of “Libyan connection” linking AST and jihadi movements active in Libya. This has led to the supposition that the creation of STM could be just a way for AST to resume its da‘wa (preaching) activities in Tunisia without succumbing to government pressure (For detailed discussion of this issue, see Aaron Y. Zelin, “Shabab al-Tawhid: The Rebranding of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia?”, Policy Watch, no. 2250, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, May 9, 2014).
Tunisia has implemented a new counter-terrorism strategy since Joma’a has assumed the office of prime minister. As in the past, this policy requires regional (Algeria and Libya) and international (France and the United States) cooperation. However, despite the banning of AST, jihadi attacks on the border with Algeria continue, indicating the presence of active cells. Moreover, in recent months a new concern has arisen concerning the connections between Tunisian and Libyan jihadist elements in conjunction with the deterioration of the security situation in Libya. Tunis has ordered the deployment of a further 5,000 troops on the border with Libya and there is some evidence indicating infiltration attempts by militants in Tunisia from Libya are ongoing (Libya Herald, May 18). If so, this would create a new combat frontline to for Tunisian counter-terrorism efforts in addition to the existing frontline on the border with Algeria.
Stefano Maria Torelli, Ph.D., is a Research Fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and a member of the Italian Centre for the Study of Political Islam (CISIP). His research topics include Middle Eastern studies, Political Islam and International Relations.