At the end of December, the Tunisian Interior Ministry reported that during 2014, 23 security force members (mostly soldiers and members of the National Guard) had been killed during the past year by Islamist militants. The ministry also said that government counter-terrorism operations during the same period had killed at least 30 jihadists and led to the arrest of more than 1,000 other suspects (Marsad, December 30, 2014). As in 2013, most counter-terrorism operations had focused on northwestern Tunisia, particularly in areas bordering Algeria and around the mountains of Jebel Chaambi. The government figures underlines that the Tunisian government is continuing its efforts against Islamist militancy.
However, as this data also shows, Tunisia continues to face a considerable jihadist challenge, both in the form of the approximately 3,000 Tunisian fighters reportedly active in Iraq and Syria and as shown by the government’s continuous dismantling of local jihadist cells, some of which also sporadically conducted attacks inside Tunisia (al-Arabiya, December 15, 2014). The overlap between these two trends of growing domestic radicalization and increasing connections between local militants and jihadist groups abroad is underscored by the recent actions of Boubaker al-Hakim, a Tunisian jihadist. In a video posted in December, he claimed responsibility for the 2013 killings of two leading secular politicians, Chokri Belaid and Muhammad Brahmi, and declared himself to be a member of the Islamic State (Tunisie Secret, December 18, 2014).  These and related developments have led some local experts to estimate that there are around 400 active terrorist cells in Tunisia linked, ideologically or materially, to the Islamic State (Echourouk [Algiers], January 15). Even if such estimates are not entirely accurate, it is nonetheless clear that Tunisia is currently home to a range of terrorist cells, some of which have global links.
Recent Attacks and Counter-Strategy
Typical of the pattern of counter-terrorist operations and jihadist attacks during the last year are the events of late October and early November. First, the Tunisian Army led a counter-terrorism raid on October 28, near Krib in northern Tunisia, which led to the arrest of eight suspects (Business News, October 28, 2014). The suspected terrorists were found in possession of explosive devices with electronic detonators as well as solar powered charging systems for electronic devices, such as cell phones and laptops (Tunisie Numerique, October 28, 2014). This unusual equipment suggested that these individuals were in contact with jihadist cells operating in isolated areas of Jebel Chaambi, where militants are typically without access to electric power. A few days later on November 5, jihadists attacked a bus carrying a convoy of soldiers with their families near Nebeur in western Tunisia, close to Algeria. Five soldiers were killed in the ambush (African Manager, November 5, 2014). A few days after that, the Tunisian authorities announced the arrest of two Syrian nationals, who the government identified as belonging to the Islamic State, on the border between Algeria and Tunisia (El Watan, November 5, 2014). The timing of this apparent infiltration attempt coincided with an announcement by the Okba ibn Nafaa Brigade, a Tunisian jihadist group, that it was now affiliated with the Islamic State. A short period after this, on December 1, 2014, jihadists ambushed a car in Kef; one of its occupants, a National Guard member, was killed and beheaded by the attackers (Jeune Afrique, December 1, 2014). These episodes, taking place in the course of just over a month, show that Tunisian jihadist elements are still active in several parts of country, particularly near the Algerian border, and are capable of carrying out a wide variety of attacks.
In response to such developments, between November and December, the Tunisian army conducted several anti-terrorist operations in the Jebel Chaambi and Ouergha areas, which have been the base for various jihadists during the last two years. During these operations, the army deployed about 1,000 soldiers and 2,000 rapid intervention special forces, leading to the identification and killing of at least seven jihadists and the discovered of 13 improvised mines (Le Temps, December 31, 2014). These operations have continued through January 2015. In addition, after a policeman was assassinated in Zaghouan, the army launched a large-scale anti-terrorist operation in the Kasserine region (Direct Info, January 4; Tunisie Numerique, January 11). Following this, on January 11, Tunisian security services identified a cell in northern Tunisia that was allegedly preparing an attack, prompting the security forces to move promptly against it (Hakaekonline, January 11). In the subsequent raid on the group’s hideout, the cell’s members were found in possession of military uniforms, which were apparently to be used in an ambush. Five further arrests were made on January 14, in Menzel Bourguiba, a town approximately 40 miles northwest of the capital Tunis, further indicating the wide geographical spread of jihadist cells.
As these successful raids indicate, the Tunisian government has taken several important and effective steps in its fight against terrorism. Most recently, on December 2014, Prime Minister Mehdi Jomaa inaugurated a new Counter-terrorism and Organized Crime Division and a new counter-terrorism force, following the earlier creation of a joint intelligence, security and defense agency in November in order to produce “a comprehensive vision of the successful fight against terrorism” (Tunis Afrique Presse, December 16, 2014). In the long-run, these institutions – if effectively managed – have the potential to greatly help the Tunisian authorities combat domestic terrorism. However, officials have also said that they remain concerned about external threats too. Jomaa himself said in January that the situation in Libya poses a potential threat to Tunisian stability and security (Medafrica, January 3). To combat such external threats, the Tunisian authorities have stepped up their cooperation not only with Algerian intelligence, but also with France, Italy and the United States (Le Figaro, November 11, 2014; AllAfrica, January 19; Magharebia, August 28, 2014).
Further highlighting the government’s growing anti-terrorist capabilities, in recent months policing efforts have also focused on tackling jihadist groups’ financial resources. For instance, a major operation conducted in October led to the arrest of six suspected terrorists in Ben Guerdane in southeastern Tunisia and the seizure of around $700,000 in cash (Echourouk [Algiers], October 18, 2014). The arrested individuals were allegedly dealers in arms and counterfeit goods and, according to official sources, they also recruited fighters to travel to Syria. Taken together, these developments show that Tunisia is developing an increased capacity to tackle terrorism threats both at home and abroad.
At the same time, however, there are indications that the terrorist threat is continuing to develop rapidly. On October 24, two days before the country’s elections, Tunisian security forces identified and raided a terrorist cell in Oued Ellil, a neighborhood of Tunis (Kapitalis, October 24, 2014). During the resulting siege of the apartment where the militants had taken refuge, six suspected jihadists were killed. The episode highlighted two important emerging trends. On the one hand, as outlined above, it showed the Tunisian security forces acting proactively, successfully identifying and destroying the terrorist cell before it became operational and illustrating the government’s capacity to conduct effective intelligence gathering. On the other hand, this raid was the first time that a high percentage of women were found among suspected terrorists; of the six militants who were killed, five were young women who, according to some sources, were radicalized in Tunisia in the previous months (Tunisie Numerique, October 24, 2014). This development underlines the fast-mutating nature of the jihadist threat in Tunisia, even as the government ramps up its own capabilities.
While it is often difficult to determine the exact nature and origin of terrorist cells operating in Tunisia, or their exact affiliation with jihadists groups abroad, their ongoing ideological alignment with militants operating in Syria and Iraq is growing clearer, as illustrated by some of the above recent declarations of allegiance to foreign organizations. For instance, if al-Hakim’s claimed role in the political assassinations of 2013 were confirmed, it would indicate not only an ideological affiliation to the Islamic State among some jihadists, but also potentially direct contact between the Islamic State and Tunisian jihadist groups, even if some such links postdate the assassinations themselves. This trend would go hand in hand with other developments in North Africa, including the recent proclamation by jihadists in Derna, Libya, of their own allegiance to the Islamic State (al-Arabiya, October 6, 2014).
At the same time, however, other developments also suggest that the divisions between the Islamic State and al-Qaeda-related groups have also reached North Africa. For instance, in one of his most recent messages, Abu Iyad al-Tunisi, the leader of Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia, made an appeal to all jihadists to unite under one banner in an apparent attempt to repair the breach between al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and their respective affiliate groups in the region (African Manager, June 14, 2014). Similarly, after the appearance of Islamic State affiliates in Libya, the Algerian group Jund al-Khalifa and the Tunisian group Okba ibn Nafaa, led by the Algerian jihadist Abu Sakhr, publicly declared their affiliation to the Islamic State; such groups had previously gravitated towards al-Qaeda (al-Akhbar, October 23, 2014).
In addition to the above developments, the January 7 jihadist attack in Paris on the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo magazine highlighted both the potential influence of Tunisian radicals abroad. In particular, one of the Paris attackers, Chérif Kouachi, was reportedly in contact with Boubaker al-Hakim via the “Butte-Chaumont network” of French jihadists, which funneled fighters to Iraq in the early and mid-2000s (Tunisie Numerique, January 9). Similarly, in the wake of the Paris attacks, the Italian authorities announced that they had expelled nine people suspected to have links with the Islamic State, five of whom were Tunisians, (La Repubblica, January 19). These events indicate that the threat from Tunisian jihadists is not only confined to Tunisia and that Tunisian radicals may also pose a danger to third party countries, particularly if operating in conjunction with local al-Qaeda affiliates such as AQIM and other groups such as the Islamic State.
Stefano Maria Torelli 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).
1. The video, now removed, was posted on YouTube on December 18, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kmQem1XlCuY.