Jihadist groups continue to exert their presence in Tunisia

(Photo courtesy of Tunisia Live*)

Last month, blogger and Jihadist expert Aaron Zelin, highlighted the growing Jihadi movement in Tunisia, which has organized an aid caravan to areas in Tunisia affected by unseasonably cold weather. This weekend, yet more actions by extremist groups are causing concern for the government and citizens alike.

On Friday, the U.S. Embassy in Tunisia was targeted for a protest by Salafist activists. According to Tunisia Live:

Approximately 200 Islamist demonstrators gathered in front of the American Embassy today, to denounce U.S. foreign policy as it pertains to the Muslim world. The demonstrators brandished black and white flags emblazoned with the shahada, the Islamic declaration of faith, raised posters bearing the picture of Osama Bin Laden, and set fire to the American flag.

Meanwhile, Al-Akhbar, a Lebanese newspaper, has a rather alarming report on Tunisia becoming a destination for more violent Jihadists.

On February 1, the Tunisian army clashed with members of an extremist jihadi group near the town of Bir Ali Ben-Khalifa in the south of the country, killing two and arresting one, after they wounded four members of the security forces.

The incident highlighted the activities of arms-smuggling networks operating out of Libya, where unknown quantities of weapons have proliferated since the downfall of Muammar Gaddafi’s regime. The area around the Nafusa Mountains near the Tunisian border has become “the biggest weapons arsenal in Africa,” one high-ranking Libyan security source told Al-Akhbar.

Conditions are seen as ripe for al-Qaeda mobilization in post-revolutionary Tunisia, where social peace risks being shattered by various forms of ideological coercion. This has been most obvious in the influence of Salafi groups. It has grown greatly in universities and working-class neighborhoods since the iron fist of the dictatorship, which had previously reined them in, was released by the revolution.

Young Salafi men have now assumed control of the Tunisian street. In recent months there has been a sharp escalation in various acts of provocation, violence, and harassment committed by Salafis.

*This article originally attributed the photo to another source. This photo comes courtesy of Tunisia Live.

Discovery of a Tunisian terrorist cell – more questions than answers

I was surprised to read this morning about the discovery of a terrorist cell in Sfax, Tunisia’s second city, about 4 hours south of Tunis. However, having read the reports and the statement by Laarayedh, the interior minister, the reports we have now raise more questions than they answer.

First of all, the group appears to be part of the same group that attacked the police in Bir Ali Ben Khalifa (near Sfax). When that story came out a couple weeks ago, there were a lot of people that downplayed its significance.

Here are a few questions the Tunisian press should be pressing the government on include: why do you think this cell was connected to Al Qaeda? How many dangerous criminals were released in the amnesties of 2011/2012? where did this group’s financing come from? does the army have the resources to protect the Tuniso-Libyan border?

Instead, all we seem to know is the following:

Most of the French language press reported that they were Salafist extremists (or Beardos “barbus”, as they’re known here). Some reports even questioned whether it wasn’t a holdover of RCDists from the former regime. This kind of report from Businessnews was common. It raises the important point that under the Ben Ali regime, it was common to group Islamists and terrorists together, however it concludes with the statement:

Les citoyens tunisiens semblent aujourd’hui déchirés entre leurs libertés indispensables, fraîchement acquises, et un besoin vital de sécurité. Mais le climat d’insécurité qui règne aujourd’hui est-il réel ou s’agit-il simplement d’une psychose qui, à force d’événements amplifiés et remis au goût du jour, tente de déstabiliser le pays…
In English (my translation, italics mine)
 Tunisian citizens appear to be torn between their indispensable freedoms, newly acquired, and the need for security. But is the security climate that reins today real or does is consist simply of a psychosis, which because of recent trumped up events, attempts to destabilize the country?
The government itself downplayed it as well. The Prime Minister, Hamadi Jebali, said that the events didn’t pose a significant threat.

Basically, it was whitewashed. Now, however, the Interior Ministry is singing a different tune.

Yesterday’s reports confirm that it’s the same group of people from Sfax. Only this time, they’re not called barbus, but terrorists, and according to some, part of Al Qaeda. According to the press reports, the group’s aim was to set up an Islamic Caliphate in Tunisia, though their targets were not yet known.

There are a few interesting things about the French language press reports this morning:

1) Some reports make the link with Al Qaeda (http://www.lapresse.tn/14022012/45192/des-avancees-sur-le-plan-securitaire.html), “They have ties to Alqaeda, but we don’t know the nature of these ties” “Ces derniers sont en liaison avec Al Qaïda et on ignore encore quelle est la nature de cette liaison.”

Others say that they may be linked – through Libyan ties with Al Qaeda (Le Temps, “The network maintains relations with other terrorist cells in Libya, some of whom are close to Al Qaeda” “Le réseau entretient des rapports avec d’autres cellules terroristes installées en Libye dont certaines sont proches de l’organisation terroriste Al Qaida.” Tunisia Live‘s is less nuanced, its headline reads dramatically that “Tunisian Authorities Break Up Alleged Al Qaeda Terror Cell.”

None of the press reports I’ve read make any distinction between Al Qaeda or AQIM.

2)  All of the reports this morning state that the members were trained in Libya, but that the suspects are Tunisian. The articles talk about their education levels, and more importantly, they appear to have been in jail under Ben Ali and released as part of one of the amnesties last year.

3) They were in possession of arms, bullets and money. It’s not clear whether they are talking about the suspects apprehended two weeks ago in the shoot out (where they also found stockpiles of contraband), or whether they have found more. The reports say that the contraband all came from Libya.

4) The Interior Ministry seems to have called for an arms amnesty. La Presse reports that Laarayedh called on any Tunisian possessing a firearm to turn it in within the next 15 days. They say that the IM will release a statement on this today. This would indicate that the worries over a growing arms trade in Tunisia have been confirmed by the government.

5) My general impression is that the press conference yesterday sounds odd and out of character for the government up to this point. Laarayedh, who’s a member of Ennahdha, sounded a lot more like one of the Ben Ali guys than I would have thought. The language is vague and non-specific and refers generally to extremists. Generally speaking, Ennahdha has tried to draw distinctions between religious fundamentalists and terrorists, but this time that didn’t seem to be the case.