Source: AEI's Critical Threats Project

June 28, 2016

AQIM and ISIS in Tunisia: Competing Campaigns

The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) is actively challenging the Tunisian state. It began by attacking the Tunisian tourism industry, conducting spectacular attacks against the Bardo Museum and a Sousse beach resort in 2015.[1] ISIS is now seeking to lead an insurgency against the Tunisian government. Members of the Tunisian affiliate of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Uqba Ibn Nafa’a Brigade, have defected to ISIS. AQIM used its Tunisian safe haven for training and support, and shows no indications of launching an offensive battle for Tunisia. ISIS will increasingly co-opt AQIM militants, and lead a Salafi-jihadi insurgency in Tunisia.

Source: AEI's Critical Threats Project

The Ben Guerdane attack in March 2016 was the inflection point of the ISIS campaign in Tunisia. ISIS militants attacked Tunisian security forces from a safe haven in Libya, probably with the intention of declaring a new wilayat (province) in Tunisia.[2] The attack was the first coordinated ground assault against Tunisian forces. Security forces thwarted similar pro-ISIS attacks in La Marsa and El Mnihla in May 2016.[3]  ISIS is expanding its ground presence within Tunisia to support its nascent insurgency. Pro-ISIS cells now operate in at least 17 of Tunisia’s 24 governorates, though the group is most active in Jendouba, Medenine, Sfax, Sidi Bouzid, Sousse, and Tunis. ISIS will declare a new wilayat when it judges that it has sufficient ground support and exert control over Tunisian population centers.

AQIM is not competing with ISIS to break the Tunisian state. The country is a support zone for AQIM, which prioritizes resources against Algeria and the Western presence in the Sahel.[4]  AQIM has conducted defensive operations to retain its base in Kasserine and Kef governorates by attacking Tunisian security forces patrolling the region. AQIM-linked Uqba Ibn Nafa’a militants ambushed Tunisian soldiers in Bouchebka in late March 2016, for example.[5] The group is weak, however. Tunisian counter-terrorism operations eliminated most of Uqba Ibn Nafa’a leadership in 2015. ISIS also infiltrated some of AQIM’s support cells along the Algerian-Tunisian border, redirecting supplies to pro-ISIS militants and further weakening AQIM’s Tunisian affiliate.[6] ISIS may be co-opting Uqba Ibn Nafa’a militants by financing them where AQIM will not.[7]

#ISIS is developing the ability to conduct a low-level insurgency in #TunisiaISIS is developing the ability to conduct a low-level insurgency in Tunisia. Its presence in neighboring Algeria and Libya, and now on the ground in Tunisia, strengthens the group.[8] ISIS poses the greatest near-term threat to Tunisia, though AQIM has the potential to threaten the state, too. ISIS will next seek broad popular support to pursue a steady and destabilizing campaign within, and against, the state.

[1] “IS claims Bardo Museum raid in Tunisian capital, threatens more attacks,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 19, 2015, available by subscription through; “IS claims attack on Tunisian beach in Sousse, killing citizens of ‘crusader coalition,’” SITE Intelligence Group, June 26, 2015; Tom Porter, “Tunisia attack: UK links to Seifeddine Rezgui terror group Ansar al Sharia emerge,” International Business Times,; Colotta Gall and Steve Erlanger, “Gunman at Tunisian Beach Hotel Trained with Museum Attackers,” The New York Times, June 30, 2015,; “Tunisia arrests museum attack cell leader,” Anadolu Agency, March 23, 2015,; and Jared Ferris, “Desknote: ISIS signals Tunisian presence with Bardo Museum attack,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 20, 2015,
[2] Tarek Amara, “Militants attack Tunisian forces near Libyan border, 50 killed,” Reuters, March 7, 2016,; Raouf Ben Hedi and Mohamed Garoui, “IS fails to establish emirate in Tunisia,” Al Monitor, March 17, 2016,; “The Islamic State’s Tunisia strategy,” Soufan Group, March 8, 2016,; and Emily Estelle “Desknote: ISIS’s Tunisian attack cell in Libya,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, March 8, 2016,
[4] Emily Estelle and Brenna Snyder, “AQIM and ISIS in Algeria: Competing Campaigns,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, June 2, 2016,  
[5] “AQIM reports attack by Tunisian branch on national guard patrol in Bouchebka,” SITE Intelligence Group, March 30, 2016.
[6] “Stationed in Mali, active in Kasserine and killed at Jebel Mghila: all of the details on Fati al Haji, one of the most dangerous leaders of Uqba Ibn Nafa’a,” Assabah News, November 18, 2015,; “N. Gharsalli: We have decimated 90 percent of Katiba Uqba Ibn Nafa’a capabilities,” MosaiqueFM, July 12, 2015,; “Detection of a logistical support cell for terrorist groups stationed in the mountains,” al Chourouk, April 14, 2016,; and “Three terrorists eliminated in El Oued and seizure of a significant amount of heavy weapons,” Menastream, March 11, 2016,; and “Algerian troops kill six Islamist militants near Tunisia border,” Reuters, March 21, 2016,
[8] Emily Estelle, “ISIS’s Courses of Action – Out of Sirte,” AEI’s Critical Threats Project, April 29, 2016,
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