Tunisian security forces stymie jihadists’ effort to forge new ‘emirate’

Since 2015, Tunisian government forces have killed dozens of jihadists, dismantled numerous jihadist cells and arrested some 1,500 terror suspects.
Saturday 05/01/2019
Standing guard. A member of the Tunisian special forces takes part in anti-terrorism operation. (AFP)
Standing guard. A member of the Tunisian special forces takes part in anti-terrorism operation. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s anti-terror forces killed the leader of an Islamic State (ISIS) offshoot and his associate, thwarting the group’s attempt to create an “emirate” in the central region of Sidi Bouzid.

Sofiene Selliti, a spokesman for Tunisia’s anti-terror force, identified Ezzedine Aloui, 27, as the leader of ISIS splinter group Unity and Jihad Brigade. Aloui was the “mastermind” of “a terrorist plot to carry out… operations against security officials, take control of Sidi Bouzid and create an Islamic emirate there,” Selliti said in a statement.

Aloui and Ghali Omri, 31, killed themselves by setting off explosives after a gun battle with the anti-terrorism brigade, which stormed their hideout in Jelma, 250km south of Tunis, Selliti said.

The terrorists' alleged plot in Sidi Bouzid was the second attempt to establish a jihadist foothold outside their bases in mountainous areas near the Algerian border.

In March 2016, approximately 100 ISIS members infiltrated Tunisia’s border town of Ben Guerdane, where they attacked security facilities with the aim of establishing an ISIS emirate. Soldiers, police and national guard members, supported by the town’s inhabitants, thwarted the attempt.

On March 7, Tunisia celebrates the town’s resilience in the face of terror and commemorates the 18 security service members and civilians killed in the attack.

The recent operation in Jelma underscored Tunisia’s progress in the fight against terror.

Security forces dismantled a terror cell in December in the Sidi Bouzid area and began a search for Aloui and Omri. In 2014, the two men joined ISIS affiliate Jund al-Khilafah, which is active in the Mghilla mountains, stretching over Kasserine and Sidi Bouzid provinces.

Aloui broke off with Jund al-Khilafah and recruited members for his splinter group Unity and Jihad.

Most of the recruits were arrested December 5 when security forces discovered a safe house where improvised explosive devices and other makeshift bombs were being constructed. Authorities also found an assault rifle that Aloui had stolen as part of an ambush on an army patrol on the Mghilla mountains in 2015 during which three soldiers were killed.

Since 2015, Tunisian government forces have killed dozens of jihadists, dismantled numerous jihadist cells and arrested some 1,500 terror suspects.

The emergence of a new jihadist offshoot, however, raises questions as to whether there is a jihadist shift towards al-Qaeda following ISIS’s setbacks in Syria and Iraq.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has an affiliate in Mali also named Unity and Jihad.

Until 2013, AQIM was the dominant jihadist force in North Africa, staging several high-profile deadly attacks. It fractured after the rise of ISIS and many of its members moved to the more extreme group as it seized territory in Iraq, Syria and Libya.

ISIS was especially attractive to disaffected young people throughout the region, particularly in Tunisia, where authorities were slow to respond to the jihadist threat. Today, with extensive training and security assistance from Western partners, Tunisia’s security forces have largely ended the jihadist threat.

However, al-Qaeda- and ISIS-affiliated jihadists are active in the country’s periphery, staging attacks near their bases in the mountains.

On December 14, a 12-member militant squad robbed a bank in the south-western Tunisian town of Sbiba and killed the brother of an army officer they accused of being a “spy.”

The double attack carried out by Jund al-Khilafah indicated the group had a network of support providing it with timely intelligence on military and police operations.