Recruiting for Extremism – Rise of Islamic Extremism in Tunisia and Youth Recruitment for Syrian WarApril 11, 2013 in Tunisia
Fear of Extremism in Tunisia Rising
Tunisians fear a rise in Islamic militants will result in a threat to the moderate, democratic ideas that were intended in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. A weakened government, porous borders, and clashes between extremists and security forces, are causing tensions to increase in the nation.
As Malian and French-led forces battle to eliminate the Islamic extremist stronghold in Northern Mali, members of al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and its allies have been searching for new locations to build power bases. Among those nations at risk are Syria, Yemen, and Tunisia. Analysts believe that Islamic extremists are exploiting the weakened government and security infrastructures resulting from the revolution, and using the frustration at the government to widen their support base. Sources estimate over 3,000 extremists currently live in Tunisia.
Over the last several months, Tunisian security forces have discovered several large arms caches and arrested dozens of suspected militants. Many of the weapons are believed to have come from Libya, and are assumed to have played a large role in the 2012 takeover of Northern Mali by AQIM and their affiliates. Tunisians fear that arms are also being stockpiled inside the country for use against the government if it continues to resist Ansar al-Sharia’s demands for Islamist rule.
Recruiting Tunisian Youths for Extremist Action in Syria
Last month, Tunisia began judicial investigations into networks which recruit Tunisian youths to fight in Syria. The Tunisian Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Family reports that many teenagers disappear after networks target both male and female youths. The youths are then recruited through “intellectual and doctrinal mobilisation.” In most instances, families are unaware of their children’s departure from Tunisia until they receive a phone call informing them of the youth’s arrival in Syria.
The investigations follow demonstrations by Tunisian families who demanded that authorities put an end to the recruiting networks. For several months, media outlets have reported stories about Tunisians in Syria, indicating that thousands had gone to fight, and over 100 have reportedly been killed in the revolt against the Assad regime. Government opposition figures have accused the Ennahda-led government of knowing about the recruitment networks and hiding their identity. Ennahda leaders have denied these accusations.
Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said that the government is addressing the files of Tunisians known to be fighting in Syria, and also stated strict security measures have been implemented on the Libya/Tunisia border to prevent potential youth extremists from passing through Libya on their way Syria. Some youths are believed to travel to Libya or Turkey under the pretext of work or tourism, and then go on to Syria. However, stopping these youths is problematic; security forces could be stopping people who are legitimately travelling for work, school, or tourism, and authorities cannot legally prevent citizens from travelling. Most critically, Tunisian security forces are spread thinly, and unable to fully protect the porous border.
The greater fear is that returning extremists will return to pose a threat to Tunisia. Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki states, “They must be persuaded that the real jihad in their own country is combating poverty, unemployed and ignorance.”
Tunisian Extremists Return from Syria, await Domestic “Jihad”
The first arrest in connection to Tunisian extremists returning from Syria was issued last week against Abu Zayd Al Tounsi, a militant who fought in Syria for eight months and returned to Tunisia in March. Upon his return, Al Tounsi appeared on “Attasiaa Massaa,” a programme on the Tunisian television channel Attounsiya. Al Tounsi spoke about participating in the Syrian war and killing several people, and stated that he would also participate in “jihad” in Tunisia if such a fatwa were launched. Finally, he called on Tunisian youths to join the armed uprising in Syria. Al Tounsi was arrested on 4 April, and is expected to face trial in the next few weeks on charges of incitement to terrorism.
Al Tounsi’s statements caused nationwide controversy, and the lack of official government response or action increased public outrage. Al Tounsi’s announcement underscored fears stemming from an earlier revelation by the Interior Ministry that AQIM and its affiliates intended to set up a camp just inside Tunisian border with Libya to practice jihad and impose their form of Islamic law.
In 2012, political activist Abdelkarim Ben Boubaker estimated the Salafist plan to implement the ideas of al Qaeda: “The aim was to change the societal model by a coup against the gains of the modern state, leading to the establishment of an Islamic emirate.” Former Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali echoed this estimate, acknowledging that Salafist groups operate security patrols in some neighbourhoods, openly verbalising their desire to replace the state. The groups have a larger presence in neighbourhoods which suffer from poverty and marginalisation, using charity projects to gain public support. Ansar al-Sharia, for example, uses caravans to distribute goods to the needy in mountain villages and small towns. A recent study showed that in Tunisia, people between 19 and 30 years old represent about 80 per cent of the overall percentage of the Salafist movement, and in some regions up to 40% of the population are sympathetic to the movement.
U.S. and Tunisian authorities are increasingly worried. United States Army General Carter Ham, head of the U.S. Africa Command, declared, “It’s very clear to me that al Qaida intends to establish a presence in Tunisia.” Tunisian President Larayedh has spoken of “an inevitable confrontation.”
Banks financing projects and trade in Africa are being urged to get more involved in security management to avoid losses.
Speaking at law firm Thomas Cooper’s trade finance seminar in London, MS Risk international security advisor Liam Morrissey told bankers security risk management is not just an insurance or operations problem.
“There needs to be improved linkage between the investors and financiers of these projects and the insurance companies underwriting them, working better with the operators. When you put US$100mn into a project in Africa, you need to look at the security risks and how they will be managed; that’s not just an operational thing.”
He pointed out that borrowers don’t necessarily highlight security problems when asking for finance “for fear of scaring [banks] off”, and that therefore, banks should always query these issues.
During his presentation on the various risks impeding business in Africa, including corruption, kidnapping and terrorist attacks, Morrissey said these risks would continue to increase in the next few years, but would not deter investors from coming into the continent due to its undeniable potential.
“There’s a great potential for companies that go to Africa to generate wealth and if some of you are not involved in African project at the moment, the day is coming when you will be.
“The disenfranchise [from rebel groups] will continue to grow, which will mean more threats, more attacks, more involvement from foreign powers, but despite all that, commerce will also continue to grow. Burkina Faso for example has now shifted from a cotton-based economy to a gold-based economy. Mali is continuing to mine gold despite the trouble it is having. 8% of the world’s uranium is provided out of Niger, and the French nuclear industry is powered from this uranium,” he told the audience and GTR.
Africa has proven extractable stocks of energy resources of oil, natural gas, coal, uranium valued at US$13-14.5tn, and holds 70% of the world’s strategic minerals.
On top of corruption, blackmail and extortion, kidnapping, terrorist attacks and medical threats, Morrissey mentioned the risk of shrinkage, which according to him is often overlooked, pointing to a report that Shell is losing 60,000 barrels a day in Nigeria. “Some of it is lost through theft, some of it through inefficient pipelines, some of it through waste, but that’s a significant amount of loss,” he said.
Morrissey advised banks to get involved in the risk assessment process, know how much of the overall project cost is being spent on security, and liaise with insurance companies to ensure the adequate crisis management processes are in place.
~ Article courtesy of GTR.
The French Presidency has confirmed that death of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) commander Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, stating that he was killed in fighting in Mali. While this confirmation has ended weeks of speculation about whether one of the group’s leading commanders had been killed, it nevertheless increases fears for the lives and safety of the remaining fourteen French hostages who are being held in captivity in the Sahel region.
The death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid, a senior figure in AQIM, has been confirmed by France, which noted that DNA samples had made it possible to formally identify him. A statement released by the Elysee Presidential Palace indicated that “the President of the French Republic confirms with certainty the death of Abdelhamid Abou Zeid after an offensive by the French army in the Adrar des Ifoghas mountains in the north of Mali, at the end of February.” The statement went onto say that the death of “one of the main leaders of AQIM marks an important stage in the fight against terrorism in the Sahel region.”
Last month, officials in Chad had claimed that Chadian forces fighting alongside French troops in northern Mali had killed Abou Zeid on 22 February. Days later, reports surfaced that fellow militant Mokhtar Belmokhtar was also killed in fighting that occurred in the mountainous regions of northern Mali. The fate of Mokhtar Belmokhtar, who was reportedly killed on 2 March 2013, has yet to be confirmed. Although AQIM formally acknowledged the death of Abou Zeid, officials in France made little comment regarding his death, stating that while it is “probable” that the commander was killed in fighting, the death would not be confirmed by French officials until a body was produced and verification through DNA testing was completed. Speculation mounted that France’s reluctance in confirming the death of Abou Zeid was due to fears that the remaining French hostages may be used as human shields during bombing raid, or that they could be subjected to reprisal executions.
Abou Zeid, who is believed to be 47, was a pillar of AQIM. Considered to be one of the most radical AQIM leaders, he is responsible for the death of at least two European hostages as well as the leader of the extremist takeover of northern Mali in March 2012. In June 2009, his men kidnapped British tourist Edwin Dyer. According to a number of eye witness reports, Abou Zeid personally beheaded the British national.
While the death of Abou Zeid was confirmed by members of AQIM weeks ago, France’s official acknowledgement and confirmation may result in militant rebels in Mali carrying out retaliatory hit-and-run attacks in an attempt to place increased pressure on France to withdraw its military intervention. Likewise, the lives of the French hostages will likely be in jeopardy as they may be executed in retaliation for his death. Unconfirmed reports released earlier this week indicated that a French hostage had been executed in Mali on 10 March 2013. A man claiming to be a spokesman for AQIM stated that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” While there was no mention of his execution being directly linked to the death of Abou Zeid, it is highly likely that today’s confirmation by France may lead to further executions which will undoubtedly be blamed on his death.
One Malian solider has died while two others have been left injured in the first suicide bombing to target the city of Timbuktu on the eve of the one year anniversary of a coup that paved the way for the Islamist takeover of Mali and the eventual collapse of one of West Africa’s most stable democracies.
The bombing occurred near the airport in Timbuktu when an attacker set off an explosive belt inside a car that had been stopped at a checkpoint. According to a military source, “the jihadist who set off his belt was killed instantly and one of the soldiers injured in the explosion died in hospital.” Malian army spokesman Captain Samba Coulibaly stated that the suicide bombing took place at a road block that is manned by Malian soldiers, just before a French checkpoint. French military officials also confirmed that at least ten Islamist fighters were killed in clashes that occurred after the bombing while sources in the city have reported that sustained gunfire continued until 3AM (local time) on Thursday morning. French army spokesman Colonel Thierry Burkhard stated that French and Malian forces had repelled an attempt by militants to infiltrate Timbuktu’s airport on Thursday morning. He further indicated that there were no French casualties.
Timbuktu was liberated by French and Malian troops in late January 2013 after the city and its resident endured a nine-month rule by al-Qaeda-linked Islamists who had imposed a harsh form of Sharia law on the population. Since then, the town has seen relative clam, unlike the northern city of Gao which has been hit by a number of suicide bombings and guerrilla attacks since the Islamist rebels were driven out.
This most recent suicide bombing has further cast a doubt over France’s claims that the Islamist resistance in Mali is close to being crushed. The bombing also comes just one day after French President Francois Hollande stated that the military operation in Mali was in its last phase and that the country was just “days away” from regaining its territorial integrity. Although thousands of Malians have remained skeptical about French assurances that the northern region of the country was increasingly becoming safer, yesterday’s suicide bombing has proven that while French and Chadian troops are continuing their efforts on capturing Islamist rebels in the Ifoghas mountains, groups of Islamist rebels remain throughout the country and therefore are a continued threat to the country’s security and stability. The suicide bombing in Timbuktu also raises questions about France’s possible troop withdrawal which is set to take place at the end of April and whether or not African forces will be ready to cope with a threat that is increasingly turning towards hit and run attacks as a mechanism of maintaining its presence within Mali and as a way of destabilizing the security of the country.
Unconfirmed reports have indicated that a French hostage has been executed in Mali. A man claiming to be a spokesman for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has stated in a telephone call to Mauritania’s Agence Nouakchott d’Information (ANI) news agency that Philippe Verdon was “killed on 10 March 2013 in response to the French military intervention in the north of Mali.” Although the news agency could not confirm whether or not the spokesman is in fact a member of AQIM, ANI did confirm that they had received a phone call from a man who presented himself as Al-Qairawani and who claimed that the “spy” Verdon had been executed. He further stated that “the French President Hollande is responsible for the lives of the other French hostages.” In the past, al-Qaeda groups have often used ANI in order to broadcast their claims or statements, which often turn out to be true.
Mr. Verdon was seized on the night of 24 November 2011 along with Serge Lazarevic. According to their families, the two men had been on a business trip when they were kidnapped from their hotel in Hombori, in northeastern Mali. The families of the two men have however denied that they were secret service agents. Shortly after the kidnapping, AQIM claimed responsibility and in August 2012, a video depicting Mr. Verdon describing the “difficult living conditions” was released.
Early Wednesday morning, a French Foreign Office spokesman indicated that they were attempting to verify the reports of the killing. Currently, no further information has been provided however a spokesman for the French Foreign Office has confirmed that the family of Mr. Verdon has been notified. If these reports are confirmed to be true, it will be a worrying development for Paris as it will greatly increase the risk of those hostages who are being held in Africa. There are still some fourteen French nationals who are being held in West Africa, including at least six who are being held in the Sahel by AQIM and its affiliates. Over the past few weeks, a number of the hostages‘ families have expressed their growing fears for their loved ones in light of the ongoing French intervention in Mali.