The logo of the Uqba bin Nafi battalion, which clearly shows its affiliation with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The Uqba bin Nafi battalion, an al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) group that operates in Tunisia, has claimed credit for killing two Tunisian soldiers and wounding four others in the Kasserine region.
The jihadist group said on its official Twitter feed that its forces attacked the Tunisian army in the Mount Chaambi area of Kasserine, resulting in “large injuries in the apostate army.” Tunisian authorities have said that the soldiers were killed “after an exchange of gunfire with terrorists.” Additionally, a local herder was kidnapped by the al Qaeda battalion.
In additional tweets, the group said that it was starting a “new stage in the conflict with Tunisia and their supporters who reported the mujahideen.” It also claimed to have “finished off” several Tunisian spies in recent days, including the local herder.
The attack comes almost two months after the Uqba bin Nafi battalion killed a customs agent in the Bouchebke area of Tunisia. In the initial claim of responsibility released for the Aug. 24 attack, the jihadist group said that it ambushed a number of customs agents, “killing a group of them.” It also said that it took three weapons, identified as Steyr AUG’s in photos released from the attack. In addition, the group killed four security officers near the Algerian border earlier this year. Its most deadly attack on the Tunisian military happened in the Mount Chaambi region last July, an incident that left 15 soldiers dead and 20 others wounded.
While it has been erroneously reported in the past that the Uqba bin Nafi battalion defected to the Islamic State, the jihadist group has released copious material making its allegiance to al Qaeda very clear. In a February video claiming an attack on Tunisian forces, the battalion openly advertises its AQIM link. AQIM also released a statement congratulating the “knights” for “taking revenge for the vulnerable in Tunisia.” In a video released earlier this year, a group of fighters in the battalion specifically state that the organization is part of AQIM. In the same video, pictures of Ayman al Zawahiri, the overall leader of al Qaeda, and Abdulmalek Droukdel, the leader of AQIM who is a staunch opponent of the Islamic State, can be seen.
Uqba bin Nafi also has ties to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (AST), which is closely-tied to AQIM. AST has been listed as a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the US State Department. [For more on Ansar al Sharia, AQIM, and the Uqba bin Nafi Battalion, see LWJ reports: Tunisian government arrests al Qaeda cell tied to Ansar al Sharia, Tunisian government alleges longtime jihadist involved in assassinations, Ansar al Sharia responds to Tunisian government, AQIM battalion takes credit for killing 4 Tunisian security officers and Tunisian government: Ansar al Sharia is a terrorist organization.]
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very cool. The Curse of The Nobel Prize. Then again it would appear that the much vaunted Arab Spring has degenerated into The Curse of The Mummy along with its Winter Of Discontent
The security challenges we are facing in Tunisia are the result of 5 events:
1. Tunisia had an efficient security apparatus under Ben Ali. However, starting from the end of the 90s, Tunisians started seeing the Ministry of Interior as
a) a tool of oppression of the regime, as non violent opposition was being repressed/harassed by what was called the ‘political police’,
b) and corrupt, as several cronies of Ben Ali’s extended family started using their contacts in the Ministry of Interior to either intimidate rival businessmen or support smuggling activities.
In the aftermath of the revolution, logically, several changes were led in the Ministry of Interior in order to ‘neutralize’ it. This however led to its loss of efficiency. To this day, experienced Tunisian counter-terrorism experts are staying at home as they have been treated with suspicion by the islamists in power in the ‘troika’ years. After the secular party Nida won the last elections, a coalition government including the islamists was set up. Part of the deal was to avoid political appointments in sensitive positions at the Ministry of Interior. This means that the department remains weakened from a competency/experience perspective.
2. In the days of and following the revolution, prisons were opened and convicts set free. Some were political prisoners while others were indeed dangerous terrorists already involved in terrorism activities in Tunisia or overseas (Afghanistan, Europe, Irak…). Some decided to join political movements, others joined charity/religious organisations focusing on proselytism/enrollment to salafi ideology, and others still dissolved in society. In parallel, weakened controls at the borders meant that high threat individuals (some notably involved in terrorist activities in Europe) were also allowed to travel to Tunisia without being monitored. Ghannouchi himself traveled back in January 2011 to Tunisia from London on a British Airways flight before the amnesty of political prisoners was published by the interim government…
3. In the first elections, the islamists of Nahdha came out as the dominant political force in the country. However, the movement itself was a mosaic of islamist sensitivities, some more tolerant, others hardliners. The leadership of the movement tried to contain all sensitivities in check within the party, and outside the party amongst islamist ranks. One such hardline movement that Nahdha struggled to keep on a leash was Ansar Al-Chariaa (AST). MEMRI reported that Nahdha and AST agreed that AST would not consider Tunisia as land of Jihad (so no terrorist attacks) but in exchange would be free to lead its charity/proselytism/enrollment activities. This tacit agreement meant that AST were able to develop grassroot support and when reports of its first training camps reached the media, the Nahdha Minister of Interior dismissed these as ‘just youth jogging in the mountains’… By the time Nahdha understood that it could not control AST (attack on the US Embassy in Tunis, assassination of Belaid, etc.) and declared it a terrorist organization, AST had already developed its logistics in the country.
4. AST, Okba Ibn Nafaa brigade and other terrorist groups need funding. Two sources of revenue are identified: smuggling and charity donations from the gulf states.
a) there is a strong connection between smugglers and terrorist cells in the border areas. However, it is practically impossible for Tunisian authorities to stop smuggling because of 3 key challenges:
– the lack of means: the borders with Algeria and Libya are porous and difficult to control on either side.
– the social cost: as Tunisia’s economy has been battered by strikes and terrorist attacks, smuggling is the livelihood of a lot of Tunisians.
– endemic corruption: smugglers are sophisticated and know which policemen/customs officials accept bribes, monitor their shifts, use scouting vehickes ahead if convoys, drive their trucks according to pre-drafted schedules etc.
b) donations from gulf states: under Ben Ali, money for charities in Tunisia was closely monitored, as were NGOs. One western charity for example was banned from working in Tunisia after it emerged that their volunteers while helping to build schools in rural areas were advocating against contraception with the women of the villages… After the revolution, the flood gates were opened and associations were set up with minimal (or no) screening. The Central Bank relaxed controls of money transfers from overseas to associations in Tunisia. It has since emerged that some of these funds were used for the enrolment of Tunisian jihadists who were sent to fight in Syria, and there have been reports of funding going to associations with ties to AST.
5. Tunisia was considered as a safe country, with low crime rates, and topped world rankings with the lowest rate of gun/capita. This changed dramatically with the Libyan civil war. Qatar/Turkey/Nato dropped huge quantities of weapons in rebel held areas of Libya and as various militias took control of Kadhafi’s stock piles of weapons and ammo, smugglers were not in short supply… This allowed AST and Okba Ibn Nafaa to gain access to weapons easily.
AST and Okba Ibn Nafaa are not popular movements in Tunisia, although they will get the occasional anti-establishment teenage rant of support on social media. However, their crippling impact on the economy is undeniable and this is why, beyond bombing hillsides, the threat needs to be addressed at various levels:
– logistical support