Al Qaeda wing ambushes police officers in northern Tunisia

Militants from the Uqba bin Nafi Battalion in a 2015 photo release. 

Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s (AQIM) branch in Tunisia, the Uqba bin Nafi Battalion, claimed credit for a deadly assault on Tunisian police officers yesterday near Ghardimau in northwestern Tunisia. Yesterday’s statement is the first claimed attack by Uqba bin Nafi since last December.

At least six police officers were killed after the jihadists ambushed their patrol with grenades and small-arms fire near Ghardimau in Jendouba Governorate. In Uqba bin Nafi’s statement, it claimed to have killed nine police officers – but estimates in news reports later lowered that number. Uqba bin Nafi also said its forces captured several weapons, including FN FAL rifles and heavy machine guns.

The group’s last claim came in December when it took responsibility for an improvised explosive device (IED) ambush on a Tunisian Armed Forces military vehicle as they were on patrol in the Mount Chaambi region. According to those reports, one soldier was killed in the ambush, while another six were injured.

Prior to that, Uqba bin Nafi also said it was responsible for an IED on Tunisian troops in the Mount Ouargha area of Kef Governorate last April.

While Tunisia has been relatively stable, it faces a small, but residual jihadist threat. This is largely from the Uqba bin Nafi battalion, which continues to target Tunisian security forces and harass the local population. However, last August, Tunisian security forces killed the overall leader of the group, Mourad Chaieb, and other leaders were arrested.

In January of this year, a senior AQIM militant sent to Tunisia to help Uqba bin Nafi regroup, was also killed by Tunisian security forces. Raids and operations conducted against the jihadist group have done a considerable number on the group’s overall effectiveness.

Its most deadly ambush on the Tunisian military occurred in the Mount Chaambi region in July 2014, an incident that left 15 soldiers dead and 20 others wounded.

Uqba bin Nafi has claimed several other assaults in the area over the last few years. In Dec. 2014, the jihadist group claimed two attacks on Tunisian forces in the Mount Chaambi region, posting photos from the raids days later. Just two months later, it took credit for killing four soldiers in an operation in Kasserine. In Aug. 2015, the group killed a customs agent in Bouchebka.

In October 2015, Uqba bin Nafi said it killed two Tunisian soldiers in Kasserine. In March 2016, it claimed another ambush in Bouchebka. In Aug. 2016, it claimed a deadly ambush in the Mount Sammama area of Kasserine Governorate. Just a month earlier, the jihadist group took responsibility for targeting the military with two landmines, killing one soldier also in the Mount Sammama area.

Tunisia also faces a threat from the Islamic State. In 2015, the small North African country saw a spate of attacks conducted by the Islamic State. This includes the terrorist attack on the Bardo Museum, an ambush on a popular beach just three months later, followed by a suicide bombing in the capital Tunis in November. In March 2016, the Islamic State also claimed an assault on the Tunisian town of Ben Gardane near the border with Libya. It continues to claim sporadic attacks inside Tunisia, including one last month near Sfax.

Caleb Weiss is a contributor to FDD's Long War Journal.

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