Originally commissioned March 2016
An apparent retreat by Daesh militants from Sabratha in Libya to Tunisia and renewed attacks near the Tunisian-Libyan border show Daesh’s focus and plans for Tunisia may increase, while the heavy Tunisian presence in Daesh in Libya anchors this threat.
- Tunisian Daesh militants retreating to and carrying out attacks in Tunisia suggest they consider areas within the country to provide them relative security.
- This and the heavy Tunisian presence in Daesh in Libya suggest that Daesh’s focus and plans for Tunisia will increase.
The recent attacks in Tunisia’s Ben Guerdane, bordering Libya, following the Daesh retreat from Sabratha in western Libya, raise concerns that the group’s focus on Tunisia is increasing. Tunisians constitute a significant proportion of Daesh’s presence in Libya, possibly as much as half its fighting force. Shortly after the military action against Daesh positions in Sabratha and Daesh’s subsequent withdrawal, suspected Daesh militants were apprehended seeking to enter Tunisia. Those killed in a recent US air strike on Sabratha were all Tunisian, and the Pentagon claimed the strike was to prevent an attack within Tunisia. One of the reported victims of the attack, Noureddine Chouchane, is believed to have long worked to recruit Tunisians to Daesh. Photos have emerged of the dead body of the Tunisian Daesh militant, Miftah Manita, believed to have organized the March 7 attacks on Ben Guerdane, killed in subsequent Tunisian army raids. Warnings reportedly emerged only two days before the attack that Manita had strong links with Moez Fezzani, a Daesh commander in Sabratha.
If a Daesh cell of mainly Tunisian fighters, based in Sabratha, preparing to carry out attacks in Tunisia, was disrupted and decided to flee to Tunisia, then we may expect to see Daesh change or accelerate strategy in the country. Indeed, Monday’s attacks in Ben Guerdane, the largest seen in Tunisia in decades, could mark the start. Until Monday, large Daesh attacks in Tunisia took symbolic targets, tourist infrastructure or the president’s guard, and were carried out by individuals, in order to bolster the group’s perceived presence in the country. Now, the group appears to be turning towards organized assaults with tactical value. Fezzani, who may have ordered Manita to carry out the March 7 attacks, also oversaw the training of the Bardo and Sousse attackers in Libya. This suggests the various attacks may be guided by a common strategy.
The Tunisian Prime Minister claimed Daesh was seeking, with the assault, to establish a ‘Wilyat’ or province in Tunisia. Some civilian accounts hold that the fighters announced their attack from loudspeakers, with the aim of inciting a wider insurrection. Such an attack had been long expected. Ben Guerdane has a long history of sympathy for violent groups, providing the largest number of Daesh fighters of any town in Tunisia, for example. Moreover, if the militants fleeing Sabratha indeed chose Tunisia over the Daesh stronghold in Sirte to the east, this suggests they expected to find support there. Daesh likely seeks to replicate its model in Tunisia. However, the likelihood of Daesh, at its current strength, being able to take and hold Ben Guerdane, or any town in Tunisia, is low. Tunisian armed forces are well prepared and supported by Western countries. This recent attack is likely a demonstration of purpose, to draw more support for a bolder phase in Daesh’s campaign to undermine security in Tunisia, with the ambition of one day holding territory. Alternatively, having to retreat from Sabratha unexpectedly, Daesh leadership in the area may have sped up a plan already in place. However, whatever the motivation for the timing, the significance for Daesh’s future plans in Tunisia remains the same.