Two suspected militants were killed in the central Sidi Bouzid region of Tunisia when they detonated an explosive device during a counter-terrorism operation targeting a jihadist group linked to Islamic State, the interior ministry said.
A spokesperson for the Tunisian counter-terrorism agency, Soufien Sliti, told Reuters that the militants belonged to Jund al-Khilafa, a local group based in the mountains between Sidi Bouzid and Kasserine that has pledged allegiance to ISIS.
Ezzedine Alaoui, the head of the Brigade of Jihad and Unity, was named as one of the combatants killed during the raid on Thursday, January 3. According to Sliti, Alaoui joined Jund al-Khilafa in 2014 but left to join the Brigade of Jihad and Unity.
Tunisia has suffered persistent terrorist attacks after former president Ben Ali was deposed during the Arab Spring. This has led to a significant security vacuum in the country. Most recently, a female suicide bomber blew herself up in the capital Tunis on October 29, injuring 26 people.
The attack went unclaimed but the Tunisian authorities said the suicide bomber, identified as Mna Guebla, had sworn allegiance to ISIS.
Tunisian authorities on December 7 again extended a state of emergency that was first imposed after an ISIS-claimed attack that killed 12 presidential guards in November 2015.
In June 2015, 38 people – 30 of whom were British citizens – were gunned down at a beach resort in the coastal city of Sousse in another ISIS attack. This significantly damaged Tunisia’s important tourism sector.
It has been estimated that up to 6,000 Tunisians have left the country to join ISIS, although that number is disputed by Aaron Zelin, a Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who studies Tunisian jihadism.
Zelin told The Defense Post that the figure was never credible, and “a little more than 2,500” people actually left Tunisia to join ISIS. However, Zelin estimates that some 30,000 Tunisians attempted to go to Iraq and Syria, and as many as 30,000 people in Tunisia’s prisons would have liked to make the trip.
Tunis has sought to cooperate with its neighbors in order to combat jihadists who mainly operate along the porous Tunisian-Algerian border. On Thursday, Interior Ministry spokesperson General Sufian al-Zaq emphasized that continued intelligence-sharing and attempts to strengthen the border region with help from the interior and defense ministries as steps to improve security.
The Tunisian government is particularly concerned that many battle hardened fighters returning home from ISIS territory in Iraq and Syria and pose a significant security threat.
However, there are a multitude of jihadist groups already operating in Tunisia, the most prominent groups being Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, Islamic State, and Katibat ‘Uqbah Bin Nafi,” al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib’s Tunisia branch, according to Zelin.