After strategy shift, Tunisian forces pre-empt Ramadan jihadists' attacks

The operation in Sid Ali Ben Aoun showed Tunisia's rapid progress in fighting terrorism to bolster the country's image as a safe destination.
Sunday 19/05/2019
Key progress. A member of the Tunisian special forces stands guard in the southern Tunisian resort island of Djerba. (AFP)
Key progress. A member of the Tunisian special forces stands guard in the southern Tunisian resort island of Djerba. (AFP)

TUNIS - Islamic State militants in Tunisia posted pictures of themselves on social media in March as they prepared couscous and mixed ingredients for explosives. They also posed with assault rifles against clear details of the landscape.

Four days later, a Tunisian anti-terrorism force killed three Islamic State (ISIS) members at their hideout in the rugged mountain area of Jebel Salloum, near the border with Algeria.

Tunisian National Guard spokesman Houssem Jbabli said in a statement that “the three dangerous terrorists” killed in the operation were top commanders of Jund al Khilafah, the ISIS branch in Tunisia.

The statement said the men had been involved in a dozen attacks “that caused several deaths among security forces and civilians.” Some of those victims “had their throats slit or heads severed," the statement added.

Tunisian security authorities announced May 1 that an anti-terror force captured "dangerous terrorist" Raed Touati, who provided "information of very great significance."

Three days later, National Guard soldiers killed three Jund al Khilafah members near the home of one of the men at Sidi Ali Ben Aoun in central Tunisia. Authorities identified one of those killed as Montassar Ghozlani, said to have been part of a 12-member terrorist squad that staged two attacks in December but escaped.

The twin attacks were carried out in a manner that indicated that a support network provided the attackers with timely information on targets and details on military and police operations.

The Jund al Khilafah attackers reportedly travelled from their hideout in Mount Mghilla, stormed a house and hijacked a four-wheel-drive vehicle, which they used in the robbery of a bank in Sbiba.

They killed Khaled Ghozlani, the brother of Said Ghozlani, an army officer killed by Islamic militants almost a year ago. Khaled and Said were cousins of Montassar Ghozlani.

The double attack triggered stinging criticism of the government and the Tunisian Interior Ministry announced in January a revised strategy to fight jihadists in the mountainous regions. Interior Minister Hichem Fourati said "senior security officials of renowned professionalism were selected to lead this special force."

"This force combines members of elite police squads and national guard teams. It will enjoy the freedom to take initiatives without asking for authorisation before taking action," he added.

Experts said the change in anti-terror strategy allowed special force members to act quickly on timely intelligence.

Authorities identified the two other terrorists killed May 4 as Mohamed Basdouri and his cousin Hatem Basdouri, who had joined jihadist bases in the mountains in 2013. Authorities said the Basdouris ambushed a National Guard patrol in 2013, killing six guards and wounding six others.

The Basdouris were said to be part of 41-member jihadist group that killed 15 Tunisian soldiers in July 2014 at Henchir Tella in Kasserine. They were also blamed for other attacks, including the killing of six military personnel in 2016.

The government said the capture of Touati and the killing of the three jihadists helped security authorities foil "planned attacks by terrorists" during Ramadan, considered by jihadists as auspicious for terrorist raids.

Since 2015, Tunisian government forces have killed dozens of militants, dismantled numerous jihadist cells and arrested some 1,500 terror suspects. Tunisia's anti-terror forces thwarted two attempts to create an Islamic State "emirate" in Tunisia.

In January, an elite government force killed Ezzeddine Aloui, 27, said to be the leader of the local ISIS affiliate. Aloui was described by authorities as the mastermind of "a terrorist plot to carry out... operations against security officials, take control of Sidi Bouzid and create an Islamic emirate there."

The alleged plot was the second attempt to establish a jihadists' foothold outside their bases in mountainous areas near the Algerian border. In March 2016, approximately 100 ISIS members infiltrated Tunisia's eastern border town of Ben Guerdane with the aim of establishing an ISIS emirate. Soldiers, police and National Guard members, supported by Ben Guerdane residents, thwarted the attempt.

The recent operation in Sid Ali Ben Aoun showed Tunisia's rapid progress in fighting terrorism to bolster the country's image as a safe destination as the country prepared to receive a record 9 million tourists this year.

Tunisia's cities have been free of terror attacks since 2015 while al-Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated fighters have kept to the country's periphery, staging rare attacks near their bases in the mountains.

The success against jihadists gave a rare respite to the government assailed by the Tunisian General Labour Union and consumer advocacy groups for failing to tame price rises during Ramadan.