Meeting the Jihad Challenge in Tunisia: The Military and Political Response

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 17

Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki visiting military officers in Jebel Chaambi, western Tunisia, close to the Algerian border, May 7, 2013 (Source AP).jpg

Tunisia continues to go through a critical phase—to its economic and social difficulties, it now adds a political crisis. It is in this context that new security challenges have emerged. In a climate already made ??tense by the July 25 assassination of a leading member of the opposition, Muhammad Brahmi, Tunisia has witnessed an unprecedented act of terrorism. On July 29, a jihadist commando attacked a military patrol on the mountains of Jebel Chaambi (on the border with Algeria), killing eight soldiers and fueling fears that Tunisia could become one of the new regional theaters of jihad. Who are the groups responsible for the attack—and other attacks that occurred in the same area in the previous months—and how is the Tunisian security apparatus facing the renewed threat coming from these fighters? In analyzing these issues, it must be kept in mind that, even today it is not clear who is behind the attacks on Jebel Chaambi, nor how widespread and deep the jihadist threat really is.

Since last December, the Tunisian government has claimed to be aware of a jihadist cell in the Jebel Chaambi area (All Africa, December 21, 2012). Between late April and early June some explosive devices positioned around the area caused dozens of casualties in the army and National Guard (see Terrorism Monitor, June 14). In the midst of the emergency, the Tunisian army has been affected by changes in its leadership. In fact, the Jebel Chaambi affair and the difficulties of the army in coping with this emergency could be behind the surprising June 24 resignation of the Chief of Staff, General Rachid Ammar, following opposition accusations of inefficiency (Tunisie Numerique, June 24). Although Ammar stated his age was behind the resignation, he stated that the army was not in possession of adequate intelligence information to combat the jihadist threat and warned of the possibility Tunisia might become a “second Somalia” (Ettounsiya TV,  June 2;, June 24). 

On July 9 Brigadier General Muhammad Salah Hamdi was appointed the new Chief of Staff (La Presse de Tunisie, July 9). Hamdi is a prominent member of the Tunisian army and was trained by the U.S. military (All Africa, July 9). The Brigadier will have to face a number of interconnected challenges: 

  • Tunisia is in the midst of a political and institutional crisis, characterized by a resurgence of political violence
  • Arms and drugs trafficking at the borders with Algeria and Libya have increased significantly in recent months
  • According to the Ministry of Interior, there could be a return flow of Tunisian jihadists who have previously fought in Syria [1]
  • The government is increasingly at odds with the Salafist group Ansar al-Shari‘a in Tunisia (AST) and this has resulted in an escalation of verbal and physical violence between Salafists and the security forces (see Militant Leadership Monitor, August 2013). 

In particular, the terrorist threat represented by the supposed presence of a jihadist group on the Jebel Chaambi continued to be the subject of constant attention by the Tunisian army. On July 2, Defense Minister Rachid Sabbagh stepped up counterterrorism operations, pushing for the formation of a new national security structure that would be able to cope with the emerging challenges thanks to a more effective intelligence system, while Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh declared that the jihadists at the border with Algeria had not yet been defeated (Magharebia, July 24). One of the strategies implemented by the Tunisian government has been to forge security cooperation with Algeria due to the common threat posed by the jihadists and the Algerian army’s extensive experience in counterterrorism operations. 

In addition to a series of agreements on border control signed with the Algerian government, cooperation involves intelligence sharing. According to Algerian sources, in the first six months of 2013 there were 84 attempts to infiltrate Algeria’s borders, many of which came from Tunisia (al-Khabar [Algiers], July 9). Libya is another worrisome front to the Tunisian authorities as it would be from here that most of the weapons intended for jihadists on Jebel Chaambi would pass (Business News [Tunis], August 6).

In connection with the re-emergence of political violence, Tunisia has been afflicted by terrorist incidents, some of which are unprecedented. On July 27, a bomb exploded in Tunis, in the district of La Goulette near the Marine Guard post, causing no injuries (Tunis Times, July 27). On July 31, a home-made bomb exploded at the passage of a National Guard patrol near the town of Mhamdia, a few kilometers south of Tunis (Tunisia Live, July 31). On August 2, a religious extremist reportedly blew himself while making a bomb in a home near the capital Tunis (al-Arabiya, August 3). These incidents have directly affected urban centers for the first time. Although these attacks raised fears that Tunisia could enter into a new phase of urban jihad, it is in the area of ??Jebel Chaambi that more severe episodes have continued to occur. The July 29 attack that killed eight soldiers represented a real turning point in the Jebel Chaambi issue due to its brutality (including mutilations) and its apparent confirmation that jihadist elements were actually present in the region. In previous months, military casualties had been caused only by the explosion of landmines placed in the area and not a single firefight with militants had been recorded (see Terrorism Monitor, June 14). 

In facing the new threat posed by the presence of jihadist combatants on the border with Algeria, the Tunisian security apparatus has a double challenge. The first is to identify who is behind the attacks; the second, at a more purely strategic level, is to put in place measures to face the threat. On August 2 the Tunisian army launched a large scale military operation aimed at locating and neutralizing the fighters (Jeune Afrique, August 2; see Terrorism Monitor Brief, August 9). Fundamental at this stage is the coordination and cooperation with the Algerian army: a new information-sharing cell was created between Tunisia and Algeria and about 4,000 Algerian troops deployed to prevent cross-border movement by the jihadists (Tunisie Numerique, August 3). The operations produced some tangible results, with roughly ten fighters killed in the early days of the operation (Kapitalis [Tunis], August 4). However, at the same time the tactics used by the jihadists have continued to prove effective. On August 4, an explosive device killed two Tunisian soldiers and wounded five others (Mosaique FM, August 4; Tunisie, August 4). The biggest problem for the Tunisian army is its relative inexperience in counterterrorism operations of this kind, as well as difficulties in defending itself against attacks using non-conventional Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) that are difficult to trace with traditional metal detectors, as they often consist of non-metallic materials such as plastic. The only military vehicles potentially able to withstand such attacks are Tunisia’s M60 tanks, but they are challenging to maneuver on the difficult terrain of Jebel Chaambi. Alternatively, the Tunisian army has M113 and FIAT 6614 type armored personnel carriers, but they are vulnerable to IED explosions and attacks by RPG- 7s, a weapon the jihadists are believed to possess (Jeune Afrique, August 22). 

Moreover, the Tunisian army suffers from more structural weaknesses, such as the fact that the Air Force has only 20 helicopters and 20 combat aircraft and defense spending levels are lower than those of other countries in the region. [2] The area in which jihadists operate is extensive and requires more sophisticated means of patrolling and flushing out the terrorist presence, leading to reports that the Tunisian military may turn to greater use of drones for surveillance (Ettounsiya TV [Tunis], August 14). 

Meanwhile, the army renewed land operations on August 23 and launched aerial bombing operations on August 26 (Tunisie Numerique, August 25; Tunis Afrique Presse, August 26). Further changes have also come to the military command; on August 22, Brigadier General Bechir Bedoui was appointed the new Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Brigadier General Nouri Ben Taoues became the new Director General of Military Security and Brigadier General Muhammad Nafti was appointed as the new Inspector General of the armed forces (Tunis Times, August 22). The moves are an acknowledgement of the difficulties the army is facing vìs-a-vìs the jihadist challenge to the Tunisian security apparatus.  

What is still not clear in the Jebel Chaambi affair is who might be behind it. According to some sources, the cell responsible for the July 29 attack was led by an Algerian militant named Kamal Ben Arbiya (a.k.a. Ilyas Abu Felda) (Business News [Tunis], July 29). Ben Arbiya is a prominent Algerian jihadist implicated in cross-border operations who was arrested on July 27 by Algerian security forces and the attack may have been a response to his arrest (al-Watan [Algiers], July 27; Mosaique FM, July 29). According to other interpretations, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) could be behind the attack through the involvement of Abu Abd al-Rahman, an Algerian jihadist in direct contact with AQIM amir Abd al-Malik Droukdel (Tunisie Numerique, July 31). This interpretation is supported by the “Algerian-style” of the attack, which differed from other attacks in the Jebel Chaambi region in its brutality and the subsequent theft of military uniforms, weapons and ammunition. According to the confession of Muhammad Habib al-Amri, an alleged jihadist who filmed the attack with his cell phone before his arrest, the operation was carried out by 16 jihadists divided into four cells, a formation used by Algerian jihadists against security forces during the Algerian civil war (All Africa, August 19). 

Other interpretations suggest the violence in Jebel Chaambi could be part of a retaliatory operation by former members of the deposed Ben Ali regime’s Interior Ministry and security apparatus (Tunis Times, August 21). One of the suspected killers of Chokri Belaid, Ezzedine Abdelawi, is in fact a former police officer who was arrested on August 4 (Tunis Afrique Presse, August 5). If the alleged involvement of elements linked to the former regime remains a hypothesis without confirmation, the Tunisian government has shown a willingness to pursue another line of investigation, that of the Tunisian Salafists. In particular, Minister of the Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou has on more than one occasion accused Ansar al-Shari‘a of responsibility for the actions in Jebel Chaambi and placed the organization on the national list of terrorist groups on August 27 (Tunisia Live, August 27). However, the charges against Ansar al-Shari‘a seem to serve Ennahda’s political purposes rather than being supported by actual evidence. The government has issued an international arrest warrant for Ansar al-Shari’a leader Abu Iyad, who is believed to be hiding in the Jebel Chaambi region (, August 21; al-Chourouk [Algiers], August 26). 

On the other hand, the government revealed last December the existence of a Tunisian jihadist cell tied to AQIM called the Uqba ibn Nafa’a Brigade ( December 21, 2012). On August 28, Ben Joddou added new information about the supposed ties between the Uqba ibn Nafaa brigade, al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Shari‘a and revealed that a plot was discovered aimed at killing Tunisian politicians and anti-Islamist figures (al-Hayat, August 29). At the same time, the Interior Minister admitted that not all alleged jihadists among the Salafis belong to Ansar al-Shari‘a (Al-Monitor, August 29). Rather, as some sources report, new forms of Salafism are emerging, made up of a new generation that is more radical and sometimes linked with local criminal activities, such as drug and arms smuggling. [3] 

Finally, although the army and the government are trying to respond—both at a military and a political level—to the jihadist threat, there is still too much confusion about who the enemy is, but the possibility that there are Algerian and other foreign jihadists present at Jebel Chaambi seems most likely (Tunis Times, August 31).

The phenomenon of jihad within Tunisia is relatively new and has exposed the weakness of the Tunisian security apparatus in the field of counterterrorism. At the same time, it is an opportunity for Tunisia to cooperate with the other regional actors involved to face the regional jihadist threat jointly. However, the particular political situation in Tunisia complicates this scenario. The Ennahda-led government is going through a critical phase and in the last two years it has been harshly criticized for its supposed empathy toward the Salafi movements, which in the opinion of the secularist opposition are responsible for the current climate of domestic violence. Therefore, the need for Ennahda to defend itself from these accusations overlaps with the political necessity to show its ability and resolution in facing the terrorist threat.

Although no evidence exists of direct ties between the armed jihadist cells and Ansar al-Shari‘a, the Tunisian government publicly considers the latter responsible for the terrorist activities in the Jebel Chaambi region. However, even if Ansar al-Shari’a has resorted to some degree of violence, this was always in urban areas rather than in peripheral rural regions. It is possible that new isolated cells are emerging from Ansar al-Shari’a and turning to armed jihad against Tunisian state. However, as the Algerian government has warned, the elements present at Jebel Chaambi could be foreign jihadists linked to regional groups such as AQIM. 

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. According to a recent study conducted, Tunisia in the second country of origin of all the foreign jihadists present in Syria and fighting against the Assad regime. See A. Y. Zelin, E. F. Kohlmann and L. Al-Khouri, “Convoy of Martyrs in the Levant. A Joint Study Charting the Evolving Role of Sunni Foreign Fighters in the Armed Uprising Against the Assad Regime in Syria,” June 2013, available here:

2. See Q. Hanlon, “The Prospects for Security Sector reform in Tunisia: A Year after the Revolution,” Strategic Studies institute, U.S. Army War College, September 2012.

3. These elements are based on interviews the author conducted in Tunisia, June 2013.