Al-Qaeda ambush shows Tunisia’s ‘vulnerabilities’

The Tunisian branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb claimed responsibility for the ambush, giving a higher death toll.
Sunday 15/07/2018
Police officers accompany a vehicle carrying the coffin of a Tunisian security forces member who was killed in an ambush in north-western Tunisia, on July 9. (Reuters)
Severe blow. Police officers accompany a vehicle carrying the coffin of a Tunisian security forces member who was killed in an ambush in north-western Tunisia, on July 9. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisia vowed to stamp out terrorist hideouts after the worst attack on government forces in nearly two years. However, analysts said Tunisian officials have yet to cure the country’s weaknesses amid a democratic transition crisis that is diverting the attention of the government.

“The attack showed that Tunisia has yet to rid the state of its vulnerabilities. It is a repeat of the same situations since 2013, then in 2015 and now,” said Jalel Harchaoui, a security expert at the French Institute of Geopolitics, referring to the assassination of two opposition leaders and attacks in a museum and a tourist resort.

“The attack highlights al-Qaeda’s change over the past 18 years. It calibrates its message to the political circumstances to reflect the frustrations of the local population,” Harchaoui said.

Moncef Ouannes, director-general of the state-run think-tank Centre for Economic and Social Studies and Research, said the attack displayed divisions among the country’s elites.

“It is sad to see that there is a gap between the elites’ mindset and the need for right conditions to pursue a successful strategy to fight terror,” he said. “The attack suggests that there is an assessment of the situation by the terrorists or by those behind them to exploit such divisions.”

“Name me a country where a state in a war with terrorism, which remains without a minister of interior for more than one month. This shows the low we are in because of weakness and political nonsense of the elites here,” he said.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed fired Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem on June 6 after a boat carrying some 180 migrants sank off Tunisia’s coast. An estimated 100 people drowned.

Brahem’s supporters alleged his sacking was a settlement of political scores between ruling political factions.

Six members of Tunisia’s National Guard were killed July 8 in the north-west province of Jendouba, near the Algerian border. In the attack, claimed by an al-Qaeda affiliate, gunmen ambushed a regular patrol unit outside the village of Ain Soltane, the Tunisian Press Agency reported.

It was the bloodiest attack since March 2016 when approximately 100 Islamic State fighters attempted to seize the Tunisian town of Ben Guerdane, on the Tunisian-Libyan border, killing 13 security forces and seven civilians before being repelled.

The Tunisian branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, the Uqba ibn Nafi battalion, claimed responsibility for the July 8 ambush, giving a higher death toll and claiming to have seized weapons from slain National Guard members.

The group warned that its “war” in Tunisia would continue until it established a fundamentalist Islamic state and restored “the rights and natural resources to our people of Kairouan.”

Kairouan, the spiritual capital of Tunisia, is used by radical Islamists to refer to the early era of Islamic rule in the North African country.

The attack pushed the infighting among rival factions within the ruling parties and opposition groups outside the government to a new level. Some politicians suggested that “inside sources” tipped the jihadists to the patrol; others blamed the government for failing to properly equip and train the force.

“Ain Soltane attack unveiled the weakness of the whole elites. We are all responsible for this failure as politicians, intellectuals and journalists,” said Zied Krichen, an expert on Islamism in Tunisia. “It showed that we lacked a collective national project to bring us together with each faction and professional group giving priority to their own interests.”

Political writer Synda Tajine said “attacking a patrol transporting weapons in a high-security area cannot be a stroke of luck for the terrorists.

“There is a failure somewhere in the system or a betrayal. This is a fact. We must be naive to accept the idea that the terrorists were there by chance and no information had reached them about the presence of the patrol at this time and place.”

Harchaoui, however, said al-Qaeda was “always there” looking for military opportunities.

“It is more important to understand the shift in strategy of al-Qaeda in the recent years. Besides its military operations, it seeks to be seen as the defender of the Islamic causes and its messages suggest that the jihadist group is listening to the sufferings of the population,” he said.

“For al-Qaeda, the government is ephemeral and the group has the time and the patience to carry out its strategy to replace the state by a fundamentalist rule.”

Comparing Tunisia’s strategy to Algeria’s, he said: “Algeria has shown it is able to quickly remedy its vulnerabilities after a big attack by adding more resources and more forces against the jihadists.

“Tunisia is still focusing more on addressing a number of financial and social problems such as the budget deficit and weakening currency. There is no big push for spending more on the fight against jihadists.”

“Another difference with Algeria is that [Algerian President Abdelaziz] Bouteflika had stayed about 20 years in power while Tunisia has changed several governments in six years. It is sad to say that democracy does not make it easy to fight terrorism,” he added.

“We will avenge our martyrs and we will relentlessly hunt down the terrorists into their hideouts,” said interim Interior Minister Ghazi Jribi, adding that “the Tunisian people will win the battle against terrorism.”

Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi vowed to unveil the “whole truth” about the attack.