Jihadists coordinate on Tunisian-Algerian border

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Tunisia and Algeria are coordinating to confront the terror threat emanating along their border, as jihadists gain strength from the Libyan crisis.

ALGIERS, Algeria — Khaled Chaib, also known as Lokman Abu Sakhr, is an Algerian militant fighting Tunisian soldiers in Mount Chambi, located in the Constantine province of eastern Algeria. Algerian security sources who are following the fight against terrorism on the Algerian-Tunisian border told Al-Monitor that armed groups in the two countries seek to coordinate their operations in the area of ​​Mount Chambi. This coordination aims to undermine the efforts of both countries to blockade them before they can receive new fighters and military equipment from Libya.

The source, who preferred to remain anonymous given the sensitivity of the subject, said that fighters from various organizations, including Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, are moving across the Tunisian-Libyan border areas to bring arms in and recruit young men to fight in Mount Chambi.

Algerian Khaled Chaib is one of the most prominent fighters in the armed groups in the region. On Aug. 2, the Tunisian Ministry of Interior stated that Chaib was leading the coordination between the armed groups north of Tunis. The ministry also announced it had dismantled five terrorist groups in the suburbs of the Tunisian capital earlier this month, adding that it had arrested Hisham Brabeh, a member of the terror groups who was coordinating with Chaib, while he was attempting to flee toward Libya. According to the ministry, the five groups were planning to carry out a number of assassinations targeting politicians, security officials and journalists.

Chaib joined the ranks of the armed groups in the mid-1990s and became the leader of one such group in the highlands of the border state of Tebessa, which stretches from the mountains of Bodjan in Khenchela to El-Ma El-Biod and Um Leqmaqem near Bir el-Ater in southern Tebessa. He then joined ِAQIM when it was established in 2007.

He has been sentenced to death in absentia at least three times by the Algerian judiciary, according to Algerian security agencies, and is one of the Tunisian authorities' most wanted terrorists. He is accused of numerous terror attacks in the western regions of the country on the border with Algeria.

The Tunisian Ministry of Defense announced that armed groups carried out an operation on July 16 in Mount Chambi. As a result, 14 soldiers were killed in two simultaneous attacks targeting a military patrol in Hanchir Ettala in Mount Chambi.

The ministry stated that the attack was carried out by two terrorist groups who showered soldiers with rocket-propelled grenades and a hail of bullets from several directions. This ambush was the highest death toll so far in this new war fought by the modestly equipped and staffed Tunisian army against the armed groups.

Since then, several armed operations targeting Tunisian soldiers in the western regions of the country, near the border with Algeria, followed. Chaib was involved in an operation that aimed to draw attention and confuse the enemy. According to Algerian security sources, Chaib planned to assassinate Tunisian Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddo at his home in the state of Kasserine in mid-June, an attack claimed by AQIM.

The armed groups in the border areas between Algeria and Tunisia conduct guerrilla operations aimed at spreading panic in the ranks of the Tunisian armed forces and at facilitating cooperation between the active terrorist groups in Libya, Tunisia and Algeria. The Tunisian situation is currently the most suitable to those groups, allowing them to unite efforts, given the country's faltering process of democratization. This was confirmed by interim President Moncef Marzouki, who, during the US-African summit hosted in Washington on Aug 4-6, said, “Tunisia, the country of the first revolution of the Arab Spring, is determined to move forward in establishing a democratic system and is keen to fight terrorism and face armed groups.”

During his visit to the United States, Marzouki called on President Barack Obama’s administration to provide Tunisia with military equipment to strengthen the Tunisian army’s capabilities to counter terrorism. Marzouki announced a deal to supply Tunisia with 12 Black Hawk helicopters, but stated, “This deal will be costly and Tunisia will have to wait two or three years for the helicopters to be delivered.”

Marzouki requested, during his speech at the Atlantic Council session held on the margin of the US administration summit, that the United States send the Tunisian army night-vision goggles and communications equipment. Marzouki talked about fighting terrorists who have been trained in Mali for 20 years by fighting against the Algerian army.

Tunisia is also working to counter the increased activity of armed groups against its forces by exploiting the Algerian army’s available expertise and experience at fighting these groups, some of which are led by Algerians who fought in the early 1990s — such as Chaib. Military cooperation between the two neighbor countries has been achieved to some extent, especially in the wake of the meeting between the prime ministers of the two countries held in the border-city of Tebessa last month.

During the meeting, Tunisia and Algeria agreed “to maintain security and military coordination to resist and eradicate the terrorism phenomenon by all available means,” according to an official announcement by the presidency of the Tunisian government. Both Algeria and Tunisia believe that terrorism has become a threat to security in the two countries, especially in the border regions.

A security agreement was concluded between the two countries, as the need to implement this agreement was put forth during the meeting in Tebessa. This paved the way for the participation of Algerian military troops in tracking down insurgents in the border areas.

The spokesman for the Tunisian Ministry of Interior stated on Aug. 2 that coordination with Algerian authorities was “ongoing and good” and the exchange of intelligence between the two countries was almost instantaneous. Algerian forces mobilized to secure the country's eastern border, preventing the infiltration of armed elements into Algeria and tightening their control over militant movements on the border.

Moreover, according to Algerian security sources, the security forces obtained an important data card, which included information on active armed members both inside and outside Algeria, their scope of action, the location of their members and their support networks.

Algerian vigilance on the border gave the Tunisian forces detailed security-related information obtained from thermal cameras that have a range of up to 20 kilometers (12 miles). However, the broad security exchanges did not prevent the death of dozens of Tunisian soldiers who were killed at the hands of armed Islamic groups, while awaiting the end of the fighting between Libyan rebel militias to receive more support.

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Found in: tunisia, terrorism, security and intelligence, security cooperation, border security, ansar al-sharia, algeria, al-qaeda in the islamic maghreb (aqim)

Omar Shabbi is an Algerian journalist based in Algiers. He has been covering Algerian political and security issues for 25 years.

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