Tunisia’s Elusive Jihadist Network

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 11 Issue: 12

Ansar al-Sharia

Over the last month, Tunisia has seen an escalation of the violence and tensions between security forces and the Islamist movements that emerged after the fall of President Zine al-Abdin bin Ali in January, 2011. Attention focused primarily on the violent May 19 clashes in Tunis that followed the government’s decision to ban the annual rally of the Salafist Ansar al-Shari’a movement. The extremism of Tunisia’s Salafist groups, the best known of which is Ansar al-Shari’a, have tended to divide Tunisian society, though Ansar al-Shari’a has declared Tunisia a land of da’wa (proselytization) rather than a land of jihad. While Ansar al-Shari’a can be defined as a radical Islamist movement, it is not necessarily focused on jihad. There is, however, evidence that more radical groups in Tunisia are dedicated to jihad. 

Fears of Tunisian infiltration by North African jihadists and a proliferation of jihadist activities were first realized in May 2011, when a Tunisian army colonel and two militants were killed in an exchange of gunfire in the town of Rouhia in the Siliana governorate. The two gunmen held Libyan passports and were believed to have been involved in a series of earlier clashes between security forces and a militant group known as the Brigade of Assad ibn al-Furat in Soliman between December 2006 and January 2007 (Tunisie Numerique, May 18, 2011). The incident was followed in February, 2012 with the killing of two suspected jihadists near Bir Ali bin Khalifa by security forces. One of the two militants was believed to have participated in the jihad in Iraq (Tunisie Numerique, February 3, 2012). A year later, large quantities of arms, including Kalashnikov assault rifles and grenade launchers, were discovered in the cities of Medenine and Mnihla. According to Tunisian authorities, these arms were tied to jihadist activities, though one local politician suggested the weapons belonged to an arms smuggling network rather than a jihadist group (Tunisia Live, January 18). 

In reality, the jihadist phenomenon in Tunisia continues to present contradictions and elements of uncertainty. May witnessed a major escalation in the confrontation between the Tunisian armed forces and groups allegedly tied to the jihadist network, with the Tunisian press and government giving prominence to some incidents that occurred in the ??Jabal Chaambi region on the border with Algeria. According to sources from the Ministry of the Interior, the area may have become the refuge of Uqba ibn Nafaa, an armed group associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). On December 21, 2012, 16 people accused of being part of this Tunisia-Algeria jihadist network were arrested. According to then-Minister of the Interior Ali Laarayedh, members of Uqba ibn Nafaa were trained by three Algerians reported to be in contact with AQIM leader Abd al-Malik Droukdel (Mag14.com [Tunis], December 21, 2012). Uqba ibn Nafaa is believed to be led by two Tunisians and an Algerian whose names have not been disclosed by authorities. 

The number of attacks in the last month suggest that the militants alleged to be in the ??Jabal Chaambi area are well organized and have received logistical support and supplies from abroad, possibly from Algeria and Mali. According to ministerial sources, this jihadist group is composed of about 50 members, but its existence has yet to be proven by direct encounters (Kapitalis.com [Tunis], May 25). The group places anti-personnel and anti-tank landmines in the area surrounding their alleged bases, with the following incidents having been recorded in the Jabal Chaambi region in the past two months: 

·         Between April 29 and April 30, three mines exploded, injuring a dozen soldiers from the Tunisian Army and the National Guard.

·         On April 30, a Tunisian military operation discovered a cache of grenades and explosives, as well as instructions for the assembly of homemade explosives, maps of the area and mobile phones.

·         On May 6, a fourth mine caused serious injuries to two soldiers, one of whom was blinded, while the other required the amputation of both legs.

·         On May 20, a fifth mine went off without causing casualties.

·         On June 6, two soldiers were killed by an anti-personnel mine.  

It is important to note that while the use of mines can be confirmed, there has yet to be a confirmed exchange of fire between the army and jihadist militants. An exchange of fire in the region on June 1 appeared to confirm the presence of jihadists, but on closer inspection it turned out that the alleged terrorist was actually Chief Warrant Officer Mokhtar Mbraki, who was confused for a terrorist and killed by fire from his military colleagues (Tunisia Live, June 3; Mosaïque FM [Tunis], June 3). Thus, the mine explosions remain the only confirmed evidence of a jihadist presence, but it is not clear exactly who placed the land-mines in the absence of direct clashes with Tunisian security forces. Given the lack of evidence, some local sources are suspicious about the existence of a Tunisian jihadist network despite the Ministry of the Interior’s announcement of new counter-terrorism operations. [1] 

The Ministry of the Interior announced the arrest of 37 men between Kef and Kasserine on May 7, who were formally accused of having links with Uqba ibn Nafaa and militants close to AQIM. The Minister of the Interior held a press conference on May 31 in which he stated that the number of arrested suspects associated with the Tunisian jihadist network was 44 so far and announced a further list of 31 criminals wanted in relation to the mine-laying at Jabal Chaambi, six of whom were identified as Algerian nationals (African Manager [Tunis], May 31; Kapitalis.com [Tunis], May 31). The list includes Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (a.k.a. Sayfallah bin Hussein), head of the Salafist Ansar al-Shari‘a movement and the suspected organizer of the September 14, 2012 assault on the American Embassy in Tunis (for Abu Iyad, see Militant Leadership Monitor, April 2013). This is the first time that the Tunisian government has directly connected Ansar al-Shari’a to the transnational jihadist network alleged to be operating on the border with Algeria. At the same time, the Ministry of the Interior – whose statements have at times conflicted with those of the Ministry of Defence – has failed to show transparency, as demonstrated by a failure to present sufficient evidence to confirm the ties between Ansar al-Shari‘a and the militant jihadists at Jebel Chaambi. Furthermore, some sources accuse the Ministry of the Interior of providing false evidence; for example, two wanted suspects, Noureddine Ben Haj Tahar Ben Belgacem and Makram Ben Ali Ben Larbi Mouelhi, were shown to have the same ID card number (News of Tunisia, June 4). 

The Ministry of the Interior produced a report in May that estimated the number of Tunisian jihadists abroad at 1094, 566 of whom are currently in Syria, while others may be found in training camps in Libya, Algeria, Mali and Yemen (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 22). In order to face the supposed threat from the presence of Uqba ibn Nafaa, the Tunisian government announced the launch of a series of counter-terrorist operations with Algeria and Libya. Algeria has deployed approximately 6,000 soldiers to the Tunisian border in an attempt to further secure the mountainous border between the two countries. 

While the presence of an active jihadist network in Tunisia has yet to be decisively proven, it is likely that AQIM is trying to expand its activities into Tunisia. It can also be taken for granted that there are Tunisian militants in some arenas of the international jihad, such as Syria and Mali. Two issues, however, remain to be proved: whether or not we can speak of a real jihadist network dedicated to the overthrow the Tunisian government, and whether there are effective ties between various Salafist movements and the jihadists alleged to be operating in Tunisia. 


1. These elements are based on talks that the author had with Fabio Merone, a Tunis-based Italian researcher of Salafist movements in Tunisia. 

Stefano Maria Torelli is a Research Fellow at the Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI) and a member of the Italian Center for the Study of Political Islam (CISIP).