Jihadist Leader Killed in Hassi El-Ferid Reminds of Growing Tensions in Tunisia

Publication: Militant Leadership Monitor Volume: 8 Issue: 5

In a statement issued on May 29, the Tunisian Ministry of the Interior announced that the Special Unit of the National Guard (USGN), in cooperation with the Laouina National Crime Research Unit, carried out an anti-terrorism operation in Hassi El-Ferid, in the area of Kasserine. Officers seized a Kalashnikov, a grenade and two boxes of magazines, as well as ammunition and a backpack containing items that could be used to build explosive belts, and one militant was killed in the operation (Kapitalis, May 30). Initially, he was identified as Houssem Tlithi, a militant born in 1997, who already had 11 official warrants for his arrest and was fugitive since 2014. Allegedly, he was planning an attack during the Ramadan period (BusinessNews.com.tn, May 29; Asharq al-Awsaat, May 30). On May 30, however, authorities corrected this information, saying that the name of the militant who was killed was actually Sami Ben Habib Ben Abdessalem Rahimi. Originally from the city of Ezzouhour, near Kasserine, he also was a member of the Uqba Bin Nafi Brigade, and previously worked under Lokman Abou Sakhr (see Militant Leadership Monitor, September 30, 2014). After Abou Sakhr’s death, Rahimi became the leader of a group named Jound El-Khilafa, based in Mount Mghila, and declared allegiance to Islamic State (IS).

The Uqba bin Nafi Brigade, the organization with which Rahimi was first affiliated, is the Tunisian branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Named after the Arab general who spearheaded the Arab conquest of North Africa during the first Islamic expansion, this opaque group emerged out of the cooperation between AQIM and the Tunisian Ansar al-Sharia in the post-Arab Spring period. Many of its potential recruits, however, decided to travel to Iraq and Syria — particularly after the September 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis — with many departing to join the ranks of IS (see Terrorism Monitor, October 24, 2014). However, as IS crumbles, new opportunities open up for rival organizations to capitalize on its weakness.

The Uqba Bin Nafi Brigade’s main target remains Tunisian security forces operating in the mountainous region along the border with Algeria. Its latest attack was in April 2017, when the group wounded a number of Tunisian soldiers in an attack on Mount Ouargha. The group released a statement through its Telegram channel, describing the attack in which militants detonated a landmine on a group of soldiers, injuring several of them. The group’s bloodiest attack was in July 2014, when they killed 14 members of the Tunisian security forces in an ambush in Mount Chaambi (Jeune Afrique, July 17, 2014). It is likely that Uqba Bin Nafi will try to carry out more attacks. This is in line with the wider revival of AQIM, which has returned to more active operations in North Africa, after moving southward in the Sahel and West Africa in search of greater operational freedom in the past few years (see Terrorism Monitor, May 5).

Tunisia is witnessing a rather complex stage of its transitional period, as the dire economic situation and widespread unemployment, particularly in southern Tunisia, continue to fuel protests and strikes. Recently, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi ordered the army to protect oil and gas fields, an unprecedented move to guarantee production (TusTex, May 5). Moreover, a protester was killed during a public rally in Tataouine. Authorities said he was accidentally hit by a car of the Gendarmerie (Jeune Afrique, May 22). This social discontent may provoke waves of instability in the future, and it is very likely that Uqba Bin Nafi will take advantage of the tense political climate. Although still capable of carrying out small attacks, the group will remain primarily a residual military threat along the border with Algeria. That said, the significant number of Tunisian fighters who had previously joined IS and are now returning to Tunisia will instead pose the greater threat. However, the boundaries between jihadist organizations often remain blurred, and militants can easily switch allegiances.