SHAFAQNA – Uqba ibn Nafi was one of the most renowned military leaders of the beginning of the Islamic period. He stood at the head of the Islamic army when it North Africa in the seventh and eighth decades of the seventh century. Uqba was known for his courage, as well as for his skill at the sword, and was a symbol and model to his soldiers and officers in the way he “challenged” the attachment of heads to shoulders on the bodies of soldiers vanquished by his forces. This “bravery” granted him a place of honor on the list of Islamic heroes.
For the last two years, a group of Jihadists in the border areas between Tunisia and Libya are sporadically destroying Tunisian army vehicles and killing a good many of their occupants. This group calls itself – charmingly – “The Uqba ben Nafi Brigade”. Its Jihadist agenda has been known from the first, as has its ability to recruit fighters, equip itself with varied weapons and sow fear and trembling in its ever-widening surroundings. The Brigade is seen as part of the widespread and familiar “Al Qaeda of the Islamic Magreb” – Al Qaeda’s North African branch.
Tunisia’s main problem, is the fact that its Algerian and Libyan borders are meaningless lines on the map…
Except that recently the group’s affiliation has been called into question, because information has begun filtering down claiming that it is now swearing allegiance to Caliph Abu Bakr el Baghdadi of Islamic State. This possibility is important because of the existing split beween Al Qaeda and its leader Ayman al-Zawahiri on the one side and Islamic state and its leader El Baghdadi on the other.
The Western onslaught against Islamic state makes the split between Al Qaeda and Islamic State – which began as the Iraqi branch of Al Qaeda in 2004 – an issue of ever-rising significance. Now, due to the Western attacks, calls are heard calling for the two Jihadist Sunni groups to unite against the infidel onslaught.
In this context it is important to note that one of the forces fighting Islamic State is the Peshmerga, the Kurdish army. This force has sustained several losses in its campaign against the “Islamic Army” over the past few months, but the last few days have seen it gain victories in the field, thanks to new and deadly weapons, mainly anti-tank missiles which it has received from Iran.
This is especially interesting because Iran is a Shiite nation while Peshmerga is Sunni – yet both sides have recognized the common danger facing them and are cooperating at this point in time. It is quite possible that there are those in the West and possibly in Washington, who have been encouraging Iran to provide the Kurds with advanced weapons, realizing that when the time comes to deal with Iran’s nuclear weapons the Iranians will be able to call upon the debt owed them for the help they gave in fighting Islamic State.
And now, back to Tunisia.
Tunisia’s Interior Minister, Loutfi ben Jaddo, revealed that Al Qaeda has given its fighters in North Africa instructions to eliminate, yes, eliminate anyone who attempts to bring the idea of Islamic State to the region, whose control by Al Qaeda was unchallenged up to now. This echoes the bloody dispute going on between Jabhat al Nusra and Al Qaeda in Syria, a dispute whose victims are also the ordinary citizens that each attempts to entice to its side. The Tunisian government, and that of Jihad adherents, is convinced that a similar struggle on their soil will lead to mass murders as it has in Syria – not limited to the Tunisian borders with Libya in the east and Algeria in the west, but also inside the poverty stricken suburbs of its cities, whose residents are highly fundamentalist.
The most well known names among Al Qaeda supporters in the area are Abd al-malik Durkedal the Algerian and Louqman Abu Sakhr, the Tunisian. To their happiness, Islamic State has not officially declared its presence in Tunisia, but there are signs that more and more people are sympathetic to that entity. This is deduced from social media, where praise and awe at Islamic States’ accomplishments in Iraq and Syria are being posted, along with expressions identifying with its goals and the means used to achieve them.
The most immediate danger facing Tunisia comes from the hundreds of Tunisians who have returned from the Jihad fields of Syria and Iraq, having gained much experience in explosives, mine laying, terror and butchery, as well as being provided with additional training in the Libyan Jihad camps. If these returnees join Uqba ibn Nafi, they will turn it into the Tunisian branch of Islamic State. It is quite possible that this has already happened, because there has been a report that the Uqba ibn Nafi brigade has sworn allegiance to Abu Bakr, calling on him to “advance, cross the borders and destroy the thrones of the infidel despots everywhere.”
The Tunisian government has been fighting the Brigade from the day it began its activity in the mountainous areas on the Tunisian-Algerian border, especially Mount Ash-Shaʿnabī and succeeded in killing tens of soldiers and policemen. Destroying the organization is especially important in light of the government’s plans to hold parliamentary and presidential elections in October and November of this year.
Tunisia sees its struggle against the Jihadists as a battle of life and death, especially in the context of what is going on in Iraq and Syria. During the past year, according to the Tunisian Minister of the Interior, more than two thousand terrorists were arrested, about a quarter of them returnees from the Syrian and Iraqi Jihad. According to his claims, the Tunisian security machine maintains a strong presence within the Tunisian population and its agents have revealed attempts to commit terror attacks in the country during the Moslem holiday celebrated this week. Security forces staged mass arrests among the suspects in the poverty-stricken municipal neighborhoods, which serve as dormant terror cells.
Tunisia’s main problem, however, is the fact that its Algerian and Libyan borders are meaningless lines on the map, drawn over mountainous areas where army vehicles cannot compete with donkeys, mules or even people laden with weapons and arms, who stride with impunity on the narrow, winding and steep paths, easily jumping over ” hills and dales”. Look at the Sinai, where the Egyptian army cannot overcome the Jihadist terrorists.
The Tunisian government is not a dictatorship, but it is in the main a game of political democracy, one in which the players are political parties, some of them secular liberals, some religious Islamic, with many of the politicians themselves steeped in corruption. That makes the system vulnerable and apt to crumble, and is the reason political crises have been frequent since President Ben Ali was deposed in January 2011.
Tunisia’s economy is shaky so that many sectors feel that democracy has not improved their personal and financial situations. The secular public still identifies with the country to a large extent, but those sectors closer to Islam tend to accept the Islamic solution to the ills of society and nation. The daylight between the Islamic solution and the Al Qaeda and Islamic State’s solution shrinks as the political crises which plague Tunisia last longer and longer.
It is unclear if the West can help the Tunisian government at this point, beyond providing secret intelligence data on the progress of Jihadist organizations. Any obvious Western aid weakens the already limited legitimacy of the government in the eyes of those loyal to Islam. It is, however, quite clear that if the government fails in its struggle against the Jihadists – whether Al Qaeda or Islamic State – the West will be drawn into the resulting chaos just as it was into the predatory swamp of Iraq and Syria.
The danger that Tunisia poses to Europe is in no small part due to its proximity to that continent, and an armed terrorist boat can reach Italy from Tunisia in one night’s rapid sailing. European intervention in Tunisia will take place much earlier than serious intervention in Syria or Iraq, which is why the Tunisian arena may turn out to be even more incendiary than that of Syria and Iraq.
Without doubt, the time has come to rewrite the rules of war and the international agreements that stand at the foundations of international law regarding conflict management. These were decided on when the world talked in terms of armies and nations, and they are irrelevant in the present wars, in which a modern nation finds itself fighting militias using methods taken from the seventh century.
Noble Ideas such as “distancing the war from civilians”, “human rights of fighters”, “the treatment of prisoners” that were laid down in post World War Europe have lost their relevancy in recent years. Most of the wars fought in the past twenty years were against organizations not subject to international law and unaffected by it. These militias attempt to paralyze the organized armed forces facing them, who,forced to battle fighters in civilian clothing who hide in populated areas, are prevented from hitting them effectively because of their extreme sensitivity to the possibility of harming peaceful citizens.
Written for Arutz Sheva, translated from the Hebrew by Rochel Sylvetsky