Tunisia: A New Home for Jihadi Salafis?
By: Nizar Maqni
Published Saturday, March 3, 2012
With Salafis flexing their muscles on the streets, some fear that access to Libyan weapons is encouraging al-Qaeda supporters to build up their presence in Tunisia.
Tunis – 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.
It also underlined what many see as the growing threat posed to Tunisia by al-Qaeda and associated groups. Earlier, security forces, reportedly alerted by locals, foiled an attempt by gunmen affiliated to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) to infiltrate into Tunisia through the northwestern border with Algeria. The group in Bir Ali Ben-Khalifa entered Tunisia from Libya.
The two incidents are seen as confirming suspicions that AQIM is planning to establish sleeper cells in Tunisia, plus stores of weapons and ammunition, in preparation for an eventual armed insurgency. It is believed to be doing the same in Algeria and the Sahel countries.
This also involves recruiting and training groups of local young men attracted to jihadi Salafi thought, as part of a strategy whose ultimate goal is to establish a “Salafi emirate,” according to a recent investigation by the Tunisian interior ministry.
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.
Threat or “Scarecrow?”
The authorities are clearly unsure how to respond.
The militants detained in connection with the Bir Ali attacks all had “terrorist” records under the previous regime. Some had served prison sentences and been freed. But most were released under the general amnesty issued after the revolution. This was intended to turn a new leaf, and address the injustice inflicted on many prisoners through unfair trials and fabricated charges.
But the amnesty extended to unrepentant extremists who had not abandoned the idea of violence. As soon as they were released, most headed to Libya to join the fight against Gaddafi. They thus returned to Tunisia both trained and armed.
Tunisian Interior Minister Ali Al Arayadh said large amounts of arms and ammunition were seized during the Bir Ali operation, along with US$60,000 in cash. This was seen as evidence that AQIM is intent on establishing an extensive network in Tunisia, including in mountainous and desert areas in the south.
A high-ranking security official told Al-Akhbar that the 15-strong cell apprehended in connection with the fighting in Bir Ali was only the tip of an iceberg. “The clashes...showed that the jihadist groups are well-trained in urban warfare tactics, [including] clashing with and directly engaging the security forces,” the official said.
He said arms were being brought into Tunisia not only by smugglers using desert tracks, but by travellers entering through the regular border crossings from Libya, which have been impossible to police properly due to the heavy volume of traffic.
Arayadh has sought to play down the perils of this phenomenon, stressing that the government is taking it seriously, but that fears should not be raised unnecessarily.
This has not prevented opponents of the dominant Islamist Ennahda party from accusing it of using the jihadi threat as a “security scarecrow” – as the Ben Ali regime did – to silence critics and extend the emergency law. President Moncef Marzouki said at the end of last week that the emergency law would not be lifted until the Salafi danger is eliminated.
With Marzouki sounding the alarm, it was striking that the Ennahda interior minister described the captured group merely as “extremist elements connected to Libyan groups that are part of the al-Qaeda organization.” He seemed to be taking care to avoid incurring Salafi anger. He went on: “There are moderate Islamists and extremists. The extremists are very few and are not united. There are also some who are extremist but do not impose their ideas on others through violence.”
Despite Arayadh’s assurances, there have been a number of indications that the prospect of ample weapons supplies from Libya has given groups associated with “international jihad” hopes of a renaissance. They have been forging ties with like-minded outfits in the Maghreb, Sahel, and West Africa, such as AQIM and Nigeria’s Boko Haram. These regional alliances will increase and enhance the smuggling networks available to Tunisian jihadi groups, like those in the Sahara desert which al-Qaeda has been making use of for years.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.