The Tunisian version of the war on terror is not at all new. Tunisia had to face religiously extremist groups on many occasions since at least 1980 . However, as the “official” version of this campaign started in 2001, Tunisian security forces had to double up their efforts to face a foe that is similarily doubling up its activities in the region. Nevertheless, up until the revolution, Ben Ali’s iron grip managed to keep Tunisia an infertile soil for terrorist cells to grow.
With the fall of Ben Ali’s regime, security forces lost their control over the country long enough for fundamentalist groups to infiltrate society. Eventually, the situation between them and security forces reached a stand-off. Several clashes between the army and terrorists took place in mount Chaambi. These clashes reached their climax as a commando unit of 8 men was ambushed, killed, and mutilated on the 29th of August.
Popular outrage was not the only thing this crime provoked. The full firepower of the army and security forces was unleashed upon these terrorists and others in order to uproot them once and for all. Amid this tense situation, many terrorist groups have been discovered to be active in Tunisia and many elite units of the Tunisian army/security forces have been unveiled as well.
The following is a look at the different elements of the two camps and their characteristics.
1- Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade:
This group is perhaps the newest on the scene along with Jabhat Annosrah in Syria. As a recent discovery, little is known about them. The choice of the name indicates that they are concerned mainly with Tunisia. According to TRAC (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium) this “brigade” was formed sometime during the year 2012.
Terrorists in Chaambi, according to the ministry of internal affairs, belong to Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade. They are establishing a base/training camp at mount Chaambi. This organization’s ties with Al-Quaeda are still unclear since the latter denied its involvement in any of the heated events occuring in Tunisia. Some reports indicate, however, that this organization is a branch of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
The recent arrests (Sousse and Ouardia) have revealed that founding members of this group might be terrorists involved in clashes that occured in Sliman in 2006. These men were pardonned under the interim government of Mohammed Ghannouchi.
According to the ministry of internal affairs, the objective of this new terrorist group is to create chaos and instability and replace the current system with an Islamic state.
2- Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb
Formerly the GSPC (Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat;Salafist Group for Preaching and Jihad) this group was established in 1998 by Hassan Hattab. Hassan Hattab was an ex GIA (Groupe islamique armé; Armed Islamic Group) member, one of the most violent militias in the region. The GIA is responsible for much bloodshed during the Algerian Civil War (1991-2000). In 2006 the GSPC declared union with Al-Qaeda. The organization is currently lead by Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud.
The primary objective of this branch of Al-Qaeda is to overthrow the algerian system of government and replace it with an Islamic state. However, its geographic range of operations is not limited to Algeria. This militia is currently fighting the French in Mali, they have probably fought against Gaddafi, and are probably involved in what is happening in Tunisia.
3- Abu Bakr Al Hakim
The intensive investigations of the internal affairs ministry in the murders of Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi lead to the same name, Abu Bakr Al Hakim. He was born in 1983 to Tunisian parents living in north-east Paris. He had a normal teenagehood and exhibited no signs of religious extremism.
In 2003 he left to Baghdad and stayed at the famous Palestine hotel where he offered his services as a translator to many journalists. During this period he had contacts with seceral Sunni guerillas who sought to fight the American invasion.
After the war Abu Bakr left back to Syria where he was immediately arrested and sent back to France. He worked there for a brief period selling clothes, got married, and had one daughter named Aisha.
In 2004 he returned to Syria where he was arrested and deported back to France. This time, he was immediately put into protective custody by the French intelligence for suspicion that he might plan terrorist attacks against French targets.
In 2013 Al-Hakim was discovered to be the main element behind the assassination of Chokri Belaid (06-02-2013), a famous figure of the Tunisian left wing opposition. While the ministry of interior was preparing to disclose its findings to the public, Al-Hakim gunned down another figure of the opposition, Mohammed Brahmi, on the 25th of July.
In addition to these political assassinations, Abu Bakr Al-Hakim is wanted by several intelligence agencies for charges of arms smuggling and dealing with terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda. Recent reports indicate that Tunisian security forces nearly managed to catch Al-Hakim in Sousse as he was plotting another political assassination.
4- Arms Smuggling Gangs
Terrorist organizations usually rely on arms smugglers to provide them with the equipment they need. These groups are not always religious extremists as they are sometimes of different religions or ideologies. Al Qaeda, for example, received supplies from the CIA during its war with the USSR. As relations with America worsened, Al-Qaeda purchased arms from ex-soviet generals to fight the Americans.
Terrorist groups in Tunisia acquire arms from two primary suppliers. The first are Libyan smugglers. As order is slowly being reestablished in Libya, militias resort to selling their arms instead of surrendering them to the new government. Additionally, many of the old army’s weapons depots have been taken over by smugglers and have turned them into arms “supermarkets” for all the militias operating in the region. The weapon used to gun down both Belaid and Brahmi is most probably a 9mm Uzi smuggled from libya according to the internal affairs ministry.
The second way these militias receive weapons is through Algeria. Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb helps these militias by supplying them with the necessary equipment. AQIM has huge financial resources acquired mainly through taking hostages for a ransom.
This article is a prequel to Different Tunisian Special Forces Deployed to Counter Terror which is going to be published very soon.