Joint operation deals blow to al-Qaeda affiliate on Tunisia, Algeria border

Since President Beji Caid Essebsi took office in 2015, Tunisia has taken a firmer stance against jihadists and extremism
Sunday 04/02/2018
A Tunisian Army unit of rapid intervention patrols the area of a trench dug along the Libyan border near the Ras Jedir crossing point. (AFP)
Security boost. A Tunisian Army unit of rapid intervention patrols the area of a trench near the Libyan border. (AFP)

TUNIS - Algerian and Tunisian special forces dealt a blow to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), killing at least 12 of its commanders in what security officials said was a targeted mission on the group’s leadership.

The news came as Tunisia and Algeria strengthened their joint counterterrorism operations to secure the Maghreb from the Islamic State (ISIS) and al-Qaeda.

Since President Beji Caid Essebsi took office in 2015, Tunisia has taken a firmer stance against jihadists and extremism. From 2011-14, Tunisia was led by a coalition government dominated by the Islamist Ennahda party.

The country’s most recent clampdown on jihadism was fuelled by concerns that extremists had hijacked protests over economic and social issues in the country.

“About 40 takfirists (Islamist extremists) were detained for their role in looting, arson and theft during the latest protests in January,” Interior Minister Lotfi Brahem said.

“They confessed during interrogations to have received orders from Daesh and al-Qaeda to stir up protests and exploit the chaos in the streets to facilitate terrorists to reach mountainous areas,” he said. “Daesh” is an Arabic acronym for ISIS.

A Tunisian special operations unit ambushed and killed two commanders of Okba Ibn Nafaa, AQIM’s Tunisia branch, January 20 in the mountains outside Sbeitla, near the Algerian border. Tunisian authorities identified the men as Bilel Kobbi and Bechir Ben Neji.

“Kobbi is one of the AQIM leaders who joined extremist groups early in the 1990s in the Algerian mountains when he was 15 and moved to Tunisia in 2014,” said Interior Ministry spokesman Khalifa Chibani.

“We are achieving great progress in the fight against extremist groups. The terrorist arrested recently will give us information to advance further in the struggle against terrorism,” Chibani added.

Brahem told parliament on January 29 that security forces carried out 122,000 raids on safe houses and other locations suspected of links to jihadists in 2017, detaining 1,456 suspects.

On January 26, Algerian special forces killed eight AQIM commanders in the rugged mountainous area of Chechar in the eastern region of Khenchela. The men were said to have been en route to meet other jihadist leaders, including AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel, an Algerian who has led the group since 2004.

“The eight terrorists answered the order of Adelmalek Droukdel. Their slaying came five days after the killing of Kobbi by Tunisian security forces near the border with Algeria,” reported Algeria’s TSA website, quoting Algerian security sources.

“Kobbi was tasked by Droukdel to organise the meeting of the terror chiefs to discuss a strategy to rebuild AQIM, which is weakened by anti-terrorist operations by the Algerian National Popular Army and the defections of its members to Daesh,” it added.

TSA and the Algerian daily L’Expression, which is close to the Algerian presidency, reported that Droukdel moved to an area of Tunisia near the Algerian border in 2016.

“It is 100% sure that Droukdel moved to Tunisia in 2016,” wrote L’Expression, quoting Algerian intelligence services. It said Algerian authorities passed the information to their Tunisian counterparts.

TSA quoted security sources in Algeria as saying the “operation that led to the killing of the eight AQIM commanders in Algeria” was the “result of important joint investigation work by Algerian and Tunisian security services.”

Droukdel was to attend the meeting along with other commanders of jihadist factions Katibet al-Tawhid and Katibet al-Jihad. These factions are not part of AQIM, but also are rivals of ISIS, added TSA.

The Algerian Defence Ministry said two other AQIM commanders were killed by special forces in the eastern Jijel region on January 30. One of the slain operatives was identified as Adel Seghiri, who has headed AQIM’s communication office since 2012.

Security experts said AQIM’s rivalry with ISIS goes back to AQIM’s founding in the 1990s, when the Armed Islamic Group of Algeria was known for brutal tactics, including beheadings and civilian massacres.

Commanders who opposed such brutality created the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, which targeted security forces and government officials. They pledged their support to al-Qaeda in 2013.

Terrorism experts argue that AQIM and ISIS have different strategies for Tunisia, with AQIM eyeing the country as a “rear base.”

“Tunisia is considered by AQIM as a backplate from where it could launch operations in Libya and the Sahel, which means that it does not want to be on the radar of the authorities by carrying out inopportune operations,” said Alain Rodier, a former senior French intelligence officer who manages the French Centre for Intelligence Research.

“On the contrary, Daesh sees Tunisia as a land of jihad because human resources for that are plenty and the government is weak,” he added.