Tunisia vows to stamp out jihadists after deadly ambush

The Tunisian branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Uqba ibn Nafaa battalion, claimed responsibility for the attack.
Wednesday 11/07/2018
Police officers walk in front of the coffin of Anis El Werghi, a Tunisian security forces member, who was killed in an ambush in the northwest of the country, during his funeral in Tunis, Tunisia July 9, 2018. (Reuters)
Police officers walk in front of the coffin of Anis El Werghi, a Tunisian security forces member, who was killed in an ambush in the northwest of the country, during his funeral in Tunis, Tunisia July 9, 2018. (Reuters)

TUNIS - Tunisia resolved to wipe out terrorist hideouts after suffering its worst attack on government forces in nearly two years.

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

On July 8, six members of Tunisia’s National Guard were ambushed and killed in the north-west province of Jendouba, near the Algerian border.

The attack, claimed by an al-Qaeda affiliate, involved gunmen ambushing a regular patrol unit outside the village of Ain Soltane, the Tunisian Press Agency (TAP) reported.

“The terrorist attackers threw a grenade at the first security car and there were confrontations with firearms,” said the report.

It was the bloodiest attack since March 2016, when about 100 Islamic State (ISIS) fighters stormed and attempted to seize the Tunisian border town of Ben Guerdane, killing 13 security forces and 7 civilians before being repelled.

The Tunisian branch of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), the Uqba ibn Nafaa battalion, claimed responsibility for the recent ambush, giving a higher death toll and claiming to have seized weapons from the bodies of the killed National Guard members.

The group warned that its “war” in Tunisia would continue until it established its own brand of fundamentalist Islamic state there 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.

Responding to the attack, Jribi said Tunisia would seek out jihadists in their rugged hideouts, but warned that “the fight against terrorism is a long-term battle.”

“This phenomenon has no future in Tunisia,” he said.

Tunisia’s army and security forces have concentrated their efforts on protecting the border with Libya, dismantling jihadist cells in cities and breaking up propaganda networks on the internet and social media.

That policy was praised by Tunisia’s partners in the Maghreb and Europe as successful, encouraging tourists from Europe and Algeria to return to the country.

Following the latest attack, Tunisia has signalled it will look to expand its fight against terror, clamping down on terrorists’ hideouts in the far-out Chaambi mountains and nearby rugged areas in Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid, Kef and Jendouba.

While the latest attack on Tunisian security services broke a long period of relative stability, al-Qaeda in the Maghreb has long had a presence in Tunisia, perpetrating its first attack in May 2011. That attack, in the central town of Rouhia, killed two members of the security forces as suspected jihadists tried to transport weapons through Tunisia to Algeria and Mali from Libya.

The following year, fighting broke out between militants and security forces in the eastern town of Bir Ali Ben Khalifa after authorities tried to stop arms smugglers.Two suspected jihadists were killed, 34 automatic rifles and some $55,000 were seized and 12 al-Qaeda members were arrested, Tunisia’s Interior Ministry said.

Later that year, the jihadist group announced it had formed a Tunisia branch, the Uqba ibn Nafi Brigade, which staged attacks on security forces and civilians. At least three shepherds have since been killed by the group in areas close to its mountainous hideouts.

Al-Qaeda said its latest attack was “revenge” for the Tunisian government launching attacks that killed its leaders and gunmen.

Tunisia received strong backing from the European Union and regional partners following the ambush.

The European Union pledged Tunisia its “full support” in the fight against terror, while neighbouring Algeria voiced their “strong condemnation” of the terrorist attack.