Boubaker el Hakim, who fought in Iraq and is accused of being involved in two high-profile assassinations.
Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said on Friday (July 26) that the same semi-automatic 9 mm caliber firearm was used in the assassinations of two prominent opposition politicians. According to Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP), Ben Jeddou said “ballistic analyses” showed that Mohamed Brahmi, who was shot dead on July 25, and Chokri Belaid, assassinated on Feb. 6, were killed with the same gun.
Ben Jeddou also fingered a well-known jihadist, Boubaker el Hakim, as a key suspect in the slayings. “The first elements of the investigation show the implication of Boubaker el Hakim, a Salafist extremist,” ben Jeddou claimed. El Hakim is “among the most dangerous terrorists, who is being hunted internationally.”
El Hakim’s alleged role in Belaid’s assassination was found out during the interrogations of Saber Mechergui, Ben Jeddou said. Mechergui was arrested in late May after it was discovered that he owned a facility where a large cache of arms was found, according to Tunisia Live.
The interior minister was asked about the possibility of a political party being responsible for the assassinations, according to Agence France Presse. The question likely arose in response to allegations that the ruling Ennahda party was responsible. Both Brahmi and Belaid were critics of Ennahda.
“The investigation has not shown this — We have no elements at our disposal proving the implication of a political party,” Ben Jeddou replied.
“The suspects are radical extremists, and some of them belong to Ansar al Sharia,” Ben Jeddou added.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia is headed by Seifallah ben Hassine, who co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) “in coordination with” al Qaeda in 2000, according to the United Nations. Ansar al Sharia was responsible for the Sept. 14, 2012 ransacking of the US Embassy in Tunis.
Tunisian government links main suspect, Ansar al Sharia to terror group
During a press conference on May 31, Tunisian officials alleged that both Boubaker el Hakim and Seifallah ben Hassine had ties to terrorists operating in Mount Chaambi, near the border with Algeria.
Interior Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui said that an investigating judge had “ordered the publication of the names and photos of the identified terrorists holed up in Mount Chaambi.”
According to (TAP), Aroui also presented photos of the “persons suspected of having helped the terrorists,” including ben Hassine and el Hakim, who is “a very dangerous element involved in arms trafficking.”
Aroui elaborated, according to TAP, saying intercepted phone conversations showed that “elements” of Ansar al Sharia had “directly or indirectly” assisted the Mount Chaambi terrorists.
“Some active elements of what is called Ansar Al Sharia belong to the terrorist group in Mount Chaambi,” AFP quoted Aroui as saying.
On Dec. 21, 2012, then Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh, who is now Prime Minister, announced that authorities had arrested 16 members of a terrorist cell affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). According to TAP, Laarayedh “stressed that all the apprehended or pursued elements were active within” Ansar al Sharia Tunisia. Tunisia Live reported that members of the cell “were known for their active participation in events organized by Ansar al Sharia,” including protests.
Laarayedh said at the time he could not prove that there was an “organizational relationship” between the cell and Ansar al Sharia, however.
The jihad in Iraq
In 2003, Boubaker el Hakim was interviewed by a French radio station as he prepared to fight American forces in Iraq. “I’m ready to set off dynamite and boom! Boom! We kill all the Americans!” el Hakim shouted. “All my brothers over there, come defend Islam!”
The Associated Press reported that el Hakim’s interview was “conducted in Iraq as US troops were preparing to invade” from inside “an Iraqi training camp.”
The AP also reported that, during his 2003 interview, el Hakim “specifically mentioned” a French jihadist named Farid Benyettou, who led the “19th arrondissement network.” El Hakim referred to Benyettou by his kunya, Abu Abdallah. Benyettou had no religious credentials, but was instead a “former janitor and self-taught preacher” who justified “suicide bombings in private sermons given in his family apartment,” according to the New York Times.
French authorities shut down Benyettou’s operation, but not before a dozen or so youth were sent off to fight in Iraq. Prosecutors charged Benyettou with recruiting the jihadists to fight for Abu Musab al Zarqawi. And indeed some of them, including el Hakim’s younger brother, Redouane, fought in Fallujah. Redouane el Hakim died in July 2004, after entering Iraq through Syria.
Benyettou was ultimately convicted and sentenced to six years in prison. Boubaker el Hakim, according to the Times, “had fought in Iraq and was accused of running a way station in Syria for French youths headed for Iraq.” El Hakim, who was detained in Syria and then deported to France, was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2008.
At some point, el Hakim was deported to Tunisia and freed. If the latest allegations are borne out, then el Hakim remained committed to the cause long after the network that originally recruited him was disbanded.
The assassinations of Brahmi and Belaid have rocked Tunisian society, sparking mass protests.