March 08, 2016
Desknote: ISIS's Tunisian attack cell in Libya
The Islamic State of Iraq and al Sham (ISIS) is maintaining a cell near Sabratha, Libya to conduct attacks into Tunisia. Militants probably from this cell crossed the Tunisian-Libyan border and assaulted security forces in Ben Guerdane, Tunisia on March 7. This attack would be the first significant ground operation undertaken by ISIS in Tunisia if the affiliation of the fighters is confirmed. The ISIS cell in Sabratha will continue to attack Tunisia, threatening the last, fragile success story of the Arab Spring.
Libya is a support zone for ISIS operations in Tunisia. Prominent Tunisian militants relocated from Tunisia to Sabratha in 2015 and remain focused on their homeland. Preliminary reports from Ben Guerdane indicate that the attackers were Tunisian militants who went to Libya to join ISIS. Some of them took refuge in a house owned by a senior ISIS militant named Adel Ghandri, who was likely present in northwestern Libya at the time of a February 19 U.S. airstrike on an ISIS camp near Sabratha. The ISIS militants who attacked the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015 and the gunman who attacked a tourist resort in Sousse in June 2015 had both trained at that camp.
The Tunisian-focused ISIS cell in Sabratha appears to maintain some degree of independence from the Sirte-based command and control structures. The Sabratha cell held on to several Western hostages rather than transferring them to ISIS’s stronghold in Sirte, which is noteworthy since Western hostages are significant sources of leverage and income for the group. The Sabratha cell has not joined the other ISIS Libyan wilayats that have been collaborating to support the group’s expansion, which is focused on central Libya’s oil crescent. The Libyan wilayats have not claimed credit for the Sabratha cell’s attacks, which they probably would have done had the ISIS command in Sirte ordered them. The Sabratha cell appears to be led by senior Tunisian militants, finally, including those individuals responsible for the Bardo Museum and Sousse attacks, among whom was Tunisian Noureddine Chouchane, reported killed by the February 19 U.S. airstrike near Sabratha. The cell also appears to run with limited involvement by Libyan ISIS militants and no known presence of the Iraqi and Saudi leadership that is helping direct ISIS operations in Sirte. The Sabratha cell looks more like the nucleus of a group meant to shift into Tunisia at the first opportunity than an ISIS cell in Libya that happens to be on the Tunisian border.
The attack on Ben Guerdane was coordinated and planned, evincing a significant guerrilla capability. A smaller group of militants crossed the Libyan border and fought Tunisian border forces on March 2, likely in preparation for the larger assault. Dozens of militants then launched simultaneous attacks supported by heavy weapons on military and police barracks, a national-guard station, and a police station on March 7. The militants also killed a local official from Tunisia’s ruling party, although it is not known if he was a pre-determined target of the operation.
The attack on Ben Guerdane is likely part of a coherent strategy for destabilizing and possibly expanding into Tunisia. The Sabratha cell needs to disrupt Tunisia’s border security to facilitate the flow of fighters from Tunisia, as well as to establish its ability to operate safely in the border region. The attack may be a response to Tunisian and British efforts to increase Tunisia’s border security. The cell may be preparing to launch a sustained offensive on the border with the possible objective of declaring a Tunisian wilayat. The border attacks may also be meant to distract from ISIS efforts to grow in central Tunisia, where recent reports indicate a rising ISIS presence and the possible defection of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM)-linked militants to the group.
The coordinated ISIS campaign in Tunisia poses a serious threat to Tunisia’s security. Increased ISIS activity in Tunisia is likely meant to push the country’s democratic project toward failure, and it may succeed. Popular protests in January 2016 included complaints about the government’s inability to protect the population from militancy, both along the Libyan border and in Tunisia’s northeastern mountains. The ISIS campaign may also provoke a security crackdown from the state; President Beji Caid Essebsi responded to the Ben Guerdane attack by emphasizing ISIS’s intent to “take control of the region” and cited Article 80 of the Tunisian Constitution, which allows the president to take “any measures” necessary in the event of a security crisis. Such a crackdown could feed resentment and fuel support for ISIS if it is poorly or brutally conducted. The ISIS campaign against Tunisia from Libyan bases demonstrates once again the challenges of trying to contain ISIS within uncontested safe-havens.
Jaclyn Stutz and Harleen Gambhir contributed research and insight to this piece.