Confronting Proliferating Jihadists in the Maghreb

Article Summary
Jihadists and Salafists in Tunisia are a rising threat that need to be dealt with before it is too late, writes Mounir Ben Mahmoud. There have been four armed clashes between jihadists and the army over the last year, including one last week. All four attacks have been attributed to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.  

The armed incidents that recently took place in the deep south of the country might have gone unnoticed had they not been part of a series of episodes of arms infiltration from Libya. Above all else, the clashes could have been overlooked had they not been related to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) declarations regarding its desire to establish an advanced base on the Tunisian-Algerian-Libyan border triangle. Multiple factors highlight the need for vigilance and foresight.

For the fourth time since May 19, 2011, armed clashes took place in Tunisia. Given that AQIM has been involved in each of these incidents, there is reason enough to take the matter seriously. Let us start with the facts:

On May 19, 2011, seven cars carrying gunmen crossed from the Algerian side of the border into the Bir Znigra region and attacked national army forces. The Ministry of Defense reported that the destroyed remains of cars as well as a body were left at the scene, without giving further information about the body's identity.

In September 2011, the incidents at Rouhia martyred two soldiers from the Tunisian army, Colonel Tahar Ayari and Corporal Walid Hajji. The perpetrators of these incidents have just been convicted by the military court of Tunis in what was Tunisia’s first trial against the AQIM network.

The Bir Ali Ben Khelifa incidents were the third visible episode in  this series. Several individuals with connections to this group were arrested but their identities have yet to be officially disclosed. The Ministry of the Interior has only repeatedly affirmed that those who were arrested were conspiring with the jihadist movement.

In the latest developments in this series of events, which took place on Wednesday, June 20, a Tunisian military aircraft destroyed three vehicles in the Sahara, in the El-Stah Hsan region (100 km north of the Borj El-Kadhra village). On the ground, Tunisian troops discovered Motorola communications equipment, weapons and instructional books on the fundamentals of Islam  written in French. This reflects the international dimension of this group, and points to the same AQIM network.

However, it should be noted that Tunisian authorities are aware of the recurrent dangers linked to the presence of AQIM cells in the country’s far off southern regions bordering Libya and Algeria. Proof of this is the request made by the Minister of Defense, Abdelkrim Zbidi, to the US. Zbidi informed US ambassador Gordon Gray on Tuesday, June 19, 2012, of "the logistical needs of the Tunisian army."

The army needs logistical support "to strengthen its operational capabilities as well as its ability to fulfill its original mission in order to ensure stability in border areas," Mr. Zbidi said.

Additionally, the information on the incursion from the Algerian border in September 2011 was provided to the Tunisian authorities by foreign intelligence services. No indication has yet been given on which sources led to the discovery of the latest training camp in the deep south.

In addition, the need to strengthen border security is particularly important due to the fact that Tunisia is becoming a point of attraction for all jihadists who know that local authorities are relatively tolerant toward the activities of these groups. The current regime argues that it cannot condemn people for their ideas. However, the issue has not been simply over the jihadist’s beliefs. The Jihadists have been behind all of the armed  clashes that have taken place after the revolution (Rouhia, Bir Ali, etc.), and were responsible for the majority of the violent incidents as well.

It is also useful to remind the ruling officials that this logic of using "freedom of thought" [to tolerate these Jihadists] is usually accompanied, under major democracies, by "meticulous surveillance." The activities of these "risky groups" would be monitored in order to avoid "potential blunders."

Great democracies find that these groups, be they far leftists, far rightists, ultra-revolutionaries, fascists or jihadists, "are a potential hazard to democracy" and need to be carefully watched to negate their disturbances.

Furthermore, conciliatory positions toward Salafists do not serve the interest of Tunisia, and much less the image of an "open and tolerant country" that we want to convey to the rest of the world. In this regard, it is sufficient to refer to a Financial Times article that was published on June 19, 2012 . In reference to Ennahda leaders, it stated, "By seeming to appease the Salafists, they run the risk of appearing weak or opportunistic."

The same article added, "The government would better serve its own interests — as well as those of the country — by cracking down on any Salafist who breaks the law, opening investigations into Salafist finances... This may be the Tunisian post-revolutionary political class’s moment to assert its authority."

Therefore, actions must be taken before this scourge plagues the country. Even if some members of these small groups are Tunisian, their actions constitute a danger to the country. Thus, it is imperative to perceive them as enemies and drastic measures must be taken against them.

The future of Tunisia and its children is at stake.

Found in: tunisian-algerian border, salafists, jihadists in tunisia, jihadists, ennahda, bir ali ben khelifa, al-qaeda, aqim

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