By Monia Ghanmi
Tunisian forces dismantled a terrorist cell linked to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that was “planning to establish an Islamic emirate in Tunisia”, according to Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh.
“Tunisian security arrested 12 members of this armed group, while eight others fled to Libya and one to Algeria,” Laarayedh said on February 13th.
Most of the detainees were under thirty years old with a secondary education, and most were previously tried under the 2003 anti-terrorism law, he added. Some were released on January 14th as part of a presidential pardon that included 10,000 prisoners.
The interior minister confirmed that a number of cell members had trained to take up arms in Libya and taken part in overthrowing Moamer Kadhafi’s regime.
“They have relations with groups close to al-Qaeda members in Libya if not members of al-Qaeda itself,” Laarayedh added.
Security servicemen seized “34 Kalashnikov-type weapons, 2,275 Kalashnikov rounds, a pistol silencer, 219 pistol rounds, 62,200 US dollars, 1,250 Libyan dinars and 3,060 Tunisian dinars”, according to the minister.
“Even though we cannot rule out the possibility that arms were to be transferred to another country, after our interrogations we have learned that the suspects were stockpiling arms to be used when the time was ripe to impose an Islamic emirate on Tunisia,” the interior minister said.
In light of the hefty number of seized weapons, Tunisia launched a campaign to collect illegal arms and announced that all those carrying a weapon without a license would be exempted from the judicial consequences if they handed them over within two weeks.
The interior and justice ministers on February 4th warned in a joint statement that everyone who keeps a firearm illegally would be prosecuted and penalised under the law.
In view of the mounting security challenges, Tunisian Defence Minister Abdelkarim Zbidi requested US support to protect borders. This came at the 26th session of the Tunisian-US Joint Military Committee, held on Wednesday (February 15th).
Zbidi called on the US side to strengthen military co-operation in the areas of configuration, training and exchange of experiences as well as logistical support to help the Tunisian army bolster its operational capacities and ensure stability in border areas.
Tunisia’s military co-operation, however, is not confined to the US, said defence ministry representative Mokhtar ben Nasser. The country is working with Italy and Spain, and there is daily security co-ordination with Algeria and Libya, he added.
Analysts warn of the rise of jihadist groups and the danger they pose to Tunisia’s stability.
Laarayedh’s remarks that armed groups are able to carry weapons between Tunisia and Libya suggest that the border crossings are controlled by Libyan jihadist groups linked to al-Qaeda, Tunisian security analyst Hachmi Mira told Algerian daily El Khabar.
For his part, Centre for Islamic Studies and Democracy chief Radhouane Masmoudi warned that jihadist Salafist groups only believe in using violence to implement their schemes and establish a Salafist emirate in Tunisia.
Jihadist Salafism in Tunisia has come to exploit the existing margin of freedoms to carry out its plans, he told Assabah. He pointed to the existence of some external actors behind the marked growth of this phenomenon, aimed at thwarting democratic transition in Tunisia.