Tunisia eyes strategy shift to fight jihadists after Kasserine attack

A 12-member terrorist squad staged two brazen attacks on December 14 and managed to escape capture.
Monday 17/12/2018
A Tunisian police officers works at the attack scene after a suspected Islamic extremist stabbed two police officers near the Parliament headquarters in Tunis Wednesday, Nov.1, 2017
A Tunisian police officers works at the attack scene after a suspected Islamic extremist stabbed two police officers near the Parliament headquarters in Tunis Wednesday, Nov.1, 2017

TUNIS - Tunisia announced “exceptional measures” to shore up its 5-year-old battle against jihadists in the western mountains, in the Kasserine region, on the Tunisian-Algerian border, after a 12-member terrorist squad staged two brazen attacks on December 14 and managed to escape capture.

The double attack was executed by the Islamic State affiliate Jund al Khilafa (Caliphate’s Soldiers) in a manner that indicated that it had a network of support, providing timely intelligence on targets and crucial details on the operations of the military and police.

The Jund al Khilafa attackers travelled from  their hideout in Mount Mghilla overlooking the Kasserine region, some 190 km (120 miles) south-west of Tunis, to storm a home and hijack a four-wheel drive vehicle that they used in robbing 320,000 dinars ($106,443) from a local bank in nearby Sbiba.

In the same operation, they killed Khaled Ghozlani, the brother of Said Ghozlani, an army officer killed by Islamic militants in an attack almost a year ago.

The terrorists’ victim, a 42-year-old farmer who moonlighted as a building worker in Tunis and other cities to support his seven children and spouse, was killed in hail of gunfire, said anti-terrorism special court spokesman Sofiene Sliti in a statement.

Khaled Ghozlani’s wife told local media his killers shouted at him “spy enemy of God” as he grabbed a hunting rifle to fire at the attackers.

“They murdered my husband less than one hour after he returned home from work in Tunis,”” she said. “The killers honked their car the way police do to lure my husband out of our home.”

In the aftermath of the attacks, Prime Minister Youssef Chahed huddled with top military and police leaders to review ways of stepping up the fight against the mountain-based jihadists. Security experts fear terrorists could take advantage of worsening living conditions that could prompt protests in order to infiltrate cities and carry out cats of terrorism and draw fresh recruits from urban areas into the mountains.

The parliament’s Security and Defense committee said it launched its own investigation of the attacks on December 17 after it summoned several ministers for a hearing.

The Kasserine region, where Mount Mghilla and Mount Sammama are situated, is one of Tunisia’s most disadvantaged areas, with poverty and smuggling activities rampant.

Family members and other villagers who attended the burial of Khaled Ghozlani in the Khrayfia hamlet vented anger at the central government which they accused of neglecting their area as there are no decent roads to allow the rapid deployment of security forces to combat attackers.

Tunisia’s strategy has been so far a mix of containment and offensive methods against jihadist strongholds in the north-western and central mountainous and rugged areas.

Chahed and Interior Minister Hichem Fourati said the family members of the latest victims of jihadists will be taken care of by the state and given the type of support extended to “other families of the martyrs.”

But Chahed reminded his fellow Tunisians that “the war against terrorism is a long war in although Tunisia has already made big strides.”

He suggested that jhadists might have taken advantage of security shortcomings to stage such bold attacks in daylight in an area where the country has one of its military barracks.

“It is necessary to update our security plans and show permanent vigilance against terrorism,” said Chahed.

“It is unacceptable to see how easily the bank was robbed. Does such a bank have any security measure? Why was there such an amount of money idling in the bank despite the rule of keeping cash at the lowest necessary level? How did the terrorists learn about the hefty booty?" asked political writer Sofiene Ben Hamida.

"For 40 minutes Sbiba was given over to the terrorists. There was no military. There was no police. Not a bullet was fired even to pretend there was a response to the attack. Nothing at all,” he added.

The Interior Ministry said it would investigate the circumstances of the attack to verify if there was any flaw in the security strategy.

Interior Minister Fourati promised to “implement a special security system for the Kasserine province. To match the exceptional events the region is experiencing, we will activate exceptional security measures.”