Tunisia Battles Jihadists on Algerian Border

Andrew McGregor

August 9, 2013

Even as tens of thousands of protesters take to the streets of Tunis to demand the ouster of the Islamist-led Tunisian government, the nation’s poorly-organized military and security forces have launched an offensive against Islamist militants who have established bases in the lightly-populated Jabal Chaambi region of western Tunisia, close to the Algerian border. The military offensive is aided by elements of the Tunisian National Guard and anti-terrorist units of the Interior Ministry.

Jabal Chaambi 1Tunisian Security Operation on Jabal Chaambi

Political violence is rapidly rising in Tunisia, with homemade bombs targeting National Guard and Marine Guard facilities, and a first-ever car-bombing in Tunis leading to high levels of public anxiety reflected in rumors of new attacks and bombs in public places. Tensions peaked in Tunis after the brutal but unclaimed murder of opposition leader Muhammad Bahmi, who was shot 11 times outside his house in front of his wife and youngest daughter. Public anger led to violent street protests, which led chants of “Down with the Islamists” and the torching of an Ennahda office in Sidi Bouzid (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 26). The assassination came six months after the murder of opposition leader Chokri Belaid, who was believed to have been the target of Islamist extremists. In a situation that is beginning to resemble Egypt’s political crisis, regular demonstrations against the Islamist-dominated government in Tunis have been countered by pro-government demonstrations.

Despite the apparent threat, the widespread belief in some quarters of Tunisian society that the “security crisis” is nothing more than a government-engineered fabrication has compelled Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou to recently address the allegations, describing them as “nonsense” and the work of people who “have no sense of patriotism… The terrorism in the Jabal Chaambi region is real and we are aware of the presence of armed groups in this location. We know every single one of them… They are Tunisian and Algerian nationals, members of the Uqba Ben Nafi Cell, which is affiliated with the so-called al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb” (al-Sahafah [Tunis], August 1).

The decision to begin military operations was taken after the brutal murder of eight Tunisian soldiers who were ambushed in the Jabal Chaambi region on July 29. The eight were part of a Special Forces unit working out of Bizerte. Those who were not killed in the initial attack on their patrol vehicle had their throats slit and five suffered further mutilations to their corpses as the militants seized their weapons, ammunition, uniforms and other supplies (Tunis Afrique Presse, July 31; al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 31).

There is speculation amongst security sources that the attackers were led by an Algerian militant named Kamal Ben Arbiya (a.k.a. Ilyas Abu Felda), who has since been arrested by Algerian authorities in the al-Wadi area near Tunisia’s southern border (al-Sharq al-Awsat, July 31; al-Shuruq [Tunis], July 31; L’Expression [Algiers], August 1).

Rumors in Tunis that Algeria had a hand in the deaths of the eight soldiers prompted a condemnation of such accounts by Algeria’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, followed by a clarification from Tunisia’s Ennahdha Party that Algeria was one of Tunisia’s most important strategic partners in the region (Tunis Times, August 1; al-Shahid [Tunis], August 3). Tunisia’s Ministry of Defense said that Algerian intelligence was aiding its operations near Jabal Chaambi and there are reports that a joint 8,000 man Algerian and Tunisian force has been deployed in the southern border region despite Algerian statements saying Algerian forces would not operate on Tunisian territory (Tunisia Live/Mosaïque Radio, August 2; Xinhua, August 2). Algerian Special Forces reported killing three Tunisian militants in an August 3 ambush inside Algeria at Tebessa, some 580 kilometers southeast of Algiers (Xinhua, August 4).

What military spokesmen described as “a huge operation, with ground and air units” was launched in the early hours of August 2. The initial focus of the operation was a group of 10 to 15 militants surrounded by Tunisian regulars and Special Forces in the Mount Chaambi district. Helicopters also launched airstrikes against targets roughly ten miles from the town of Kasserine (Mosaïque FM [Tunis], August 2; AFP, August 2). In tandem with the field operations, Tunisia’s Anti-Terrorism Unit arrested 12 “religious extremists” in Kasserine’s Ettawba mosque, alleged to be under the control of Salafist groups (Mosaïque Radio [Tunis], August 2). The land operation was preceded by three days of shelling and airstrikes, but ran into trouble when Tunisian armor began to encounter landmines that disabled several tanks and caused a number of casualties (al-Shuruq [Tunis], August 5; al-Safahah [Tunis], July 30).

Jabal Chaambi 2Jabal Chaambi Jihadists

The political disarray in Tunisia has worked its way down into the always heavily politicized Tunisian security agencies, impeding effective counter-terrorism operations and intelligence-gathering. Former armed forces chief-of-staff General Rachid Ammar (retired as of June 25) said the Tunisian military no longer carries out intelligence gathering operations, resulting in the failure to identify the militants and their bases in the Jabal Chaambi area (TunisiaLive, August 2). Even the wide distribution of land-mines in the Jabal Chaambi region appears to have escaped the notice of the military. Members of the civilian internal security services complain of “infiltration” by the Ennahda Party as being responsible for the increasing skepticism with which their activities are viewed in Tunisia and complain that units created to monitor jihadist activities around Jabal Chaambi and attempts to recruit Tunisian youth for jihad in Syria have been dissolved (al-Sahafah [Tunis], July 31). Meanwhile, an Algerian daily has reported that the Algerian-based al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has recruited over 200 Tunisians to fight American forces based in Iraq (al-Fadjr [Algiers], July 31).

Shaykh Rachid Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda Party which has the lead role in the ruling coalition, has accused the political opposition of exploiting the outbreak of terrorism to further its own ends:

Terrorism is not a phenomenon that is restricted to Tunisia, but it is an international phenomenon which has hit the strongest and most secure countries. Painful blows have been dealt to all the big countries and no official has come after the incidents to call for dissolving the parliament or the government. The moment of disaster is supposed to be a moment of unity and solidarity and not vice versa, but there is a political blackmailing of the government exploiting the developments… to achieve political objectives which they failed to achieve through the ballot boxes… Those who carry out these actions think that the Egyptian scenario can be implemented in Tunisia, but they do not know that the scenes of blood have made Tunisians hate this scenario and detest it (al-Sharq al-Awsat, August 1).

In an approach patterned on events in pre-coup Egypt, Tunisia now has its own Tamarud (Rebellion) campaign dedicated to organizing demonstrations and collecting enough signatures to support the dissolution of the government and the National Constituent Assembly (al-Shuruq [Tunis], August 1). The failure of the current government to rally Tunisians behind the offensive in Jabal Chaambi and its inability to rein in Ansar al-Shari’a extremists despite an official ban on the organization are contributing to what appears to be the imminent collapse of the Islamist-led government.

This article was first published in the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, August 9, 2013

Assassination Sparks Political Crisis in Tunisia

Andrew McGregor

February 22, 2013

Tunisia’s political crisis deepened this week with the emergence of a split in the ruling Islamist Ennahda Party and the subsequent resignation of Ennahda prime minister Hamadi Jebali on February 20. The split was the consequence of Jebali’s attempts to form a new government of technocrats in the wake of the February 6 assassination of Chokri Belaid, the 48-year-old secretary general of opposition party al-Watad (the Movement of Democratic Patriots – MDP).

Hamadi BelaliHamadi Belali

The assassination and the announcement soon after that Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali intended to form a new “apolitical government” of technocrats to replace the existing government created a rift within Ennahda, which had the most to lose from the proposal. Jebali is Ennahda’s secretary-general, but admits he did not consult the party before deciding on a new government: “The situation is difficult and urgent; there is a danger of violence. What can I consult about? I’m the head of the government. I could not wait” (Le Monde, February 11). Jebali, like Ennahda party leader Rachid Ghannouchi, was set on fast-tracking the new constitution in order to begin the first round of elections in July. At the time of his resignation it is estimated that Jebali had the loyalty of less than 25% of Ennahda (Jeune Afrique, February 17).

Ghannouchi denounced the proposed new government as being a way to “circumvent the legitimacy” of the electoral “victory” won by Ennahda (Tunisian Press Agency, February 17). Ennahda took 89 of the 217 seats in Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly in the October, 2011 election. The Islamist party was far from forming a clear majority in the elections, but succeeded in forming a government as senior partner in a coalition with Mustapha ben Ja’afar’s Ettakatol party and President Moncef Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic. The three-party coalition is popularly known as “the troika.” Ettakatol supported the formation of a government of technocrats (Tunisian Press Agency, February 17). Ennahda’s insistence on holding all ministerial positions of importance is one of the most important factors behind Tunisia’s current political turmoil. The party is now seeking an Ennahda member to serve as a replacement for Jebali but has hinted it might be willing to open up senior ministries to members of other parties.

The current crisis was sparked by the death of Chokri Belaid, who was assassinated by two gunmen outside his home on the morning of February 6 (see Terrorism Monitor Brief, February 8). Belaid’s colleagues claim that the well-known critic of the ruling Islamist party was preparing to make public on February 15 various files he had built on the corruption of a number of top government officials (Jeune Afrique, February 17). Though no evidence has been provided to substantiate the allegations, Ennahda has been widely accused of orchestrating Belaid’s murder. Belaid’s family has been especially vocal in its accusations of Ghannouchi and Ennahda, and on February 11, Belaid’s widow joined thousands of demonstrators outside the National Assembly in calling for the resignation of the government (Jordan Times, February 13). Ghannouchi and other Ennadha leaders were told by Belaid’s family to stay away from the political leader’s funeral, as were representative of the other two parties in the coalition government.

Chokri Belaid FuneralFuneral of Chokri Belaid

Ennadha responded by organizing marches of their supporters on February 15 and 16 to support the “legitimacy” of the government and “express the unity of the movement” (Tunisian Press Agency, February 16). Speaking to a rally of Salafists and Ennahda members on February 16, various Islamist leaders denounced the formation of a government of technocrats, claiming it was a “conspiracy against the electoral legitimacy” of the government (Tunisian Press Agency, February 17).

Perhaps unconvincingly, Ghannouchi has attempted to portray Ennahda as the real victim in the Belaid assassination: “We believe that Belaid’s assassination is part of the conspiracy against the revolution and the coalition government led by Ennahda. We believe that these bullets were aimed at the Ennahda party, the revolution, and all those fighting for the revolution… There is a force that does not want any overlap between democracy and Islam, or modernity and Islam, but this will not affect us.” (al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 13). In a recent interview with a German daily, Ghannouchi painted the murder as a “coup” designed to force Ennahda from power:

The key question is: ‘Who profits from this crime?’ We, the Ennahda party, are the biggest loser because we are responsible for Tunisia’s security. Why should we harm the security while we are governing? … This attack is an attempt to destroy the image of Ennahda, destabilize the government, and bring Tunisia to the brink of civil war. The attack is equivalent to a coup… The coup aimed to drive the elected Ennahda ministers from the cabinet. On the very day of the attack the prime minister suggested appointing a government of technocrats. He has been driven into a corner by Belaid’s murder (Sueddeutsche Zeitung [Munich], February 17).

As Islamists pilloried Belaid before his death as a “saboteur of the revolution” and “an agent of foreign powers,” the Watad leader was personally warned of plots on his life by Tunisian president Moncef Marzouki, who has frequently warned of violence by Islamist extremists in Tunisia (see Terrorism Monitor, November 30, 2012). Belaid’s assassins were not interfered with by the Interior Ministry, which had been warned of the threats, or the secret service, which was similarly alerted and has responsibility for protecting opposition leaders as well as government leaders (Jeune Afrique, February 17). A memorial dedicated to Belaid was destroyed by unknown parties earlier this week (TunisiaLive, February 18).

Only days before his death, Belaid had pointed out that the regime had given its approval to political violence by calling for the release from prison of members of a pro-Ennahda militia (the League for the Protection of the Revolution) that were involved in the death of leading Nida Tounes party activist Lotfi Naqdh (Jeune Afrique, February 17). The same militia is perceived as a prime suspect by many Tunisians in the murder of Belaid (al-Jazeera, February 16).

Economic stagnation has helped provide a recruiting pool for extremists amongst Tunisia’s youth, who are typically well-educated but suffer from over 30% unemployment. Recruitment bonuses of as much as $27,000 for young men willing to perform jihad in Syria are very enticing compared to the absence of prospects at home (Jeune Afrique, February 13). A local report recently claimed that dozens of young Tunisians had been killed fighting for the Islamist Jabhat al-Nusrah and other insurgent groups when a Syrian government airstrike hit a concentration of Islamists near the Aleppo airport, killing 132 fighters (Shams FM [Tunis], February 13; al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 15).  

This article was originally published in the Jamestown Foundation Terrorism Monitor, February 22, 2013

Salafists and Secularists Challenge the Authority of Tunisia’s Islamist Rulers

Andrew McGregor

February 8, 2013

Growing tensions in Tunisia between that nation’s Islamist government, secular political forces and radical Salafists exploded on February 6 following the assassination of a leading Tunisian secularist politician, Chokri Belaid. Within hours, the Tunis headquarters of the ruling Islamist Ennahda  party was set ablaze, thousands of protesters gathered outside the Interior Ministry demanding the fall of the regime and major protests erupted in cities across Tunisia (Reuters, February 6; Tunisia Live, February 6).  Though the perpetrators have yet to be identified, popular suspicion has fallen on both the Salafists and Ennahda. Elements of both groups were accused by Belaid (a forceful critic of the government) of attacking a conference of Belaid’s Democratic Patriots party on February 2 (AFP, February 2). The murder took place in the midst of a political crisis generated by Ennadha’s need for a coalition government to remain in power but its unwillingness to share important cabinet posts (Agence Tunis Afrique, February 2; AFP, February 2).

Chokri BelaidChokri Belaid

Tunisia is also facing a growing jihadist movement within its borders. On February 1, Tunisia renewed its two-year-old state of emergency for another month in reaction to recent confrontations between security forces and armed jihadists seeking to create an Islamic state. Security was also stepped up with “special units” being posted at oil facilities in southern Tunisia in the aftermath of the In Aménas terrorist attack in neighboring Algeria.

According to Interior Minister Ali Larayedh, 16 militants were arrested in December after accumulating arms with the intention of imposing an Islamic state in Tunisia (al-Ahram [Cairo], January 29). The cell was tracked down in the mountainous pine forests of Jaball Chambi National Park in Kasserine governorate after a Tunisian National Guard patrol was attacked by gunmen near the Algerian border, with the loss of one NCO and four wounded guardsmen. The gunmen were identified as members of the Uqbah ibn Nafa’a group and were said to be equipped with arms, explosives, maps, communications equipment and uniforms (al-Hayat, January 22; Jeune Afrique, February 4, 2013; Tunis Afrique Presse, December 11, 2012; al-Watan [Algiers], January 30). [1]

According to a major pan-Arab daily, Tunisian jihadists are reported to be training in camps run by the Libyan Ansar al-Shari’a in the Abu Salim district of Tripoli, Zintan in Jabal al-Gharbi (western Libya) and Jabal al-Akhdar (eastern Libya) (al-Hayat, January 22). In Tunisia’s west, trafficking of all sorts has increased along the Algerian-Tunisian border since the Tunisian revolution two years ago. Border controls are much diminished with bribes or the threat of retaliation usually being enough to ensure smooth passage for smugglers. Algerian Prime Minister Abd al-Malik Sellal identified 11 Tunisians among the terrorists who seized the natural gas facilities at In Aménas in January (Tout sur l’Algérie, January 23).

Tunisia’s Salafi-Jihadists received a declaration of support in late January from Sanda Ould Bouamama, the spokesman of the militant Ansar al-Din organization of northern Mali, now engaged in fighting with French-led international forces:

As for the brothers in Tunisia, we really cannot but stand up and say out loud: ‘May God salute you and make more people like you.’ Tunisia is restored to its nation and leads the rejection of aggression as it led the revolution. It also leads the rejection of the Crusader projects… France is gasping behind its economic greed and is drowning in its debt. All the French interests all over the world should be targeted. France came up with these interests to slaughter your brothers in Azawad [northern Mali] and others. All these interests should be targeted (al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 25).

Like their counterparts in Libya, Egypt, Somalia and elsewhere, the Salafists have launched a campaign against the “idolatry” of traditional Sufist Islam, largely by a series of fire-bomb attacks against over 40 Sufi shrines and mausoleums in Tunisia since the revolution. This campaign has stepped up recently, with the perpetrators seemingly emboldened by a systemic failure of security forces to prevent such attacks.

After trying unsuccessfully to persuade their fellow Tunisians to abstain from celebrating the Mawlid al-Nabi (the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) in January, Salafist marked the occasion by torching the 300-year-old mausoleum of Sidi Muhammad al-Ghouth in the oasis town of Douz (site of a major firefight between militants and police in August, 2011), the mausoleum of Sidi Ali Ben Salem al-Hamma in Gabès and the mausoleum of Sidi Knaou in the small Berber town of New Matmata in southern Tunisia (Shems FM [Tunis], January 24; Webdo.tn, January 24). This was followed a few days later by an arson attack on the mausoleum of Sidi Boughanem in Kasserine governorate, a sparsely inhabited region in the Tunisian interior where Salafist militants appear to have set up operations (Shems FM [Tunis], January 31). Kasserine is useful as it borders Algeria, allowing the possibility of direct contact with Algerian militants of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. There are allegations that Libyan arms are now passing both ways across the border in this region (al-Hayat, January 22).

A blow was struck against both traditional Islam and a tourist industry that relies heavily on European visitors when Salafists destroyed the mausoleum of Sidi Bou Said on January 12 in the town named for him on the Tunisian coast. A famous artists’ colony entirely repainted in blue and white in the 1920s at the behest of artist and resident Baron Rodolphe d’Erlanger, Sidi Bou Said is a cornerstone of the Tunisian tourist industry. The famed mausoleum of 13th century Islamic saint Sidi Bou Said (a.k.a. Abu Said ibn Khalif ibn Yahya Ettamini al-Beji) was of special interest to historically-minded visitors due to its legendary association with Saint Louis (King Louis IX of France, 1214-1270), who died in Tunisia after a lifetime of crusading in the Middle East. Local Berber legend maintains that Louis IX adopted Islam and married a Berber princess before his eventual death in the town, though there is little in the historical record to support this legend. [2] A number of rare manuscripts containing the teachings of Sidi Abu Said were also destroyed in the fire (France24, January 18).

Such attacks have brought strong criticism from traditional Islamic leaders in Tunisia such as Mufti Uthman Batikh: “[The Salafists] accuse people of being infidels; they don’t accept dialogue. Such stiffness is what made people reject them. This is all a result of their ignorance of the reality and the history of Islam” (NPR, January 29).

Unexpectedly, fugitive Tunisian jihadist leader Abu Iyadh described those responsible for burning mausoleums and other shrines as “stupid,” saying that such monuments must first be “burned in the minds of the people before begin burned in reality,” an allusion to the need for religious education before undertaking such acts (Mosaique FM [Tunis], February 3; Tunisie Soir, n.d.). Abu Iyadh (a.k.a. Sayfallah bin Hussein), is the leader of the Tunisian Ansar al-Shari’a movement and is believed to have organized the September 14, 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis in which four attackers were killed. The veteran jihadist fought in Afghanistan and was sentenced to 43 years in prison in Tunisia after being arrested and extradited by Turkish authorities in 2003. After receiving a presidential pardon from the new Islamist regime, Abu Iyadh dedicated himself to the furtherance of Salafism and Shari’a in Tunisia (for Abu Iyadh, see Militant Leadership Monitor, May 1, 2012). The Salafist leader claims to have no connection to the growing violence in Tunisia, saying the West only fears Ansar al-Shari’a “because of its charitable work.” Abu Iyadh also regrets the departure of young Salafi-Jihadists for the battlefields of Syria and Mali, as the young Salafists are needed at home (Mosaique FM [Tunis], February 3; Middle East Online, February 5).

Besides attacking concerts, bars and individuals on the street who are deemed to be wearing “un-Islamic” clothing, Tunisia’s Salafists have also staged anti-government rallies and hunger strikes designed to obtain the release of the roughly 900 Salafists detained for various acts of violence.

Another of Tunisia’s leading Salafist radicals is Shaykh al-Khatib al-idrissi, a blind Islamic scholar who advocates the return of a Caliphate in Ifriqiya (Tunisia) that will eventually extend to all the world’s Islamic communities. He rejects the participation of Salafist political fronts like Jabhat al-Islah in the political process, asserting that anything short of full and immediate implementation of Shari’a is unacceptable. According to Shaykh al-Khatib, “Today, it is the West that governs economically, politically, militarily and in the media, but everything is collapsing and Islam is strengthened. The economic crisis has weakened the West, so this [political] model is vanishing. It is then that the Caliphate reappears” (Le Figaro [Paris], May 31, 2012).


1. The group is named for Uqbah ibn Nafa’a al-Fihri, the 7th century Arab general of the Quraysh tribe who defeated Berbers and Byzantines to seize Ifriqiyah (modern Tunisia) for Islam. For the growth of radical Salafism in Tunisia, see Terrorism Monitor Brief, November 30, 2012.

2. See Afrodesia E. McCannon, “The King’s Two Lives: The Tunisian Legend of Saint Louis,” Journal of Folklore Research 43(1), January-April 2006, pp. 53-74.

This article first appeared in the February 8, 2013 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor.

Tunisian President Warns of Growing Strength of Salafist Jihadi Movement

Andrew McGregor

November 30, 2012

Like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Islamist-dominated government is facing often violent demands for the immediate imposition of an Islamic state from radical Salafist groups, leading Tunisia’s secularist president to warn of the threat posed by Salafi-Jihadists to that nation’s democratic evolution.

Moncef MarzoukiPresident Moncef Marzouki (Business News)

Moncef Marzouki became the interim president of Tunisia after his election by the new Constituent Assembly in December, 2011. Marzouki was a long time dissident during the regime of Zine al-Abdin bin Ali, suffering imprisonment and an extended exile in France. Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic political party was one of two secularist parties that joined the larger Islamist Ennadha Party to form a new post-revolutionary coalition government. While Ennadha member Hamadi Jebali assumed the greatest power as Prime Minister, the president remains in charge of defense issues and foreign policy, though he must consult with the prime minister on both portfolios (Reuters, December 13, 2011).

According to the Tunisian president, those Arab Islamists who accepted the democratic process following the Arab Spring revolutions are finding themselves increasingly at odds with more extreme Islamist factions that regard acceptance of democracy as treason, as well as with the broader population that has looked to moderate Islamists for rapid reforms and improvements in their living conditions:

“Now the Islamists are finding out that they have fallen into the trap of democracy because they have heavy responsibilities in the economy and regarding living conditions. The people now want solutions to the problems of water, food, security etc. The people will judge them [the Islamists] on the basis of performance. I can say with full frankness now that if Ennahda went to the elections today it would perhaps be surprised by a violent reaction from the people because they did not do what was expected of them” (al-Hayat, November 4, 2012).

Marzouki has previously suggested that the center of jihad was shifting from the Afghanistan-Paskistan region to the Arab Maghreb (North Africa west of Egypt) after finding a foothold in northern Mali. Fear of becoming embroiled in the international “war on terrorism” has produced a policy of dialogue with religious extremists, “but these policies have not produced a result until now and, on the contrary, we have seen what happened” (al-Hayat, October 4, 2012).

Since the revolution, Tunisia’s new Islamist government has been challenged by mass protests and a series of attacks by radical Salafists, including the September 14 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis led by veteran jihadist Abu Iyad al-Tunisi. Four of the attackers were killed by security forces. In late October, Salafist militants attacked two National Guard posts in the Tunis suburb of Manouba after a Salafist was charged with assaulting the head of the local public security brigade. Shortly afterwards Khalid Karaoui, imam of the Ennour Mosque in Manouba, died of wounds incurred in the attack (al-Jazeera, October 31, 2012; AFP, November 1, 2012). There have even been direct clashes in the streets between Salafists and supporters of Ennadha with sometimes fatal results (AFP, November 5, 2012). Ennadha is also facing pressure from its youth wing, which is demanding quicker reforms and the prosecution of former regime members accused of corruption and torture.

Many of the leaders of these strikes are veterans of the Salafi-Jihadist Groupe Combattant Tunisien (GCT), founded in 2000 by Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (a.k.a. Sayfallah bin Hussein) and Tarik bin Habib Maaroufi, who returned to Tunisia last spring after serving time in Belgium on terrorism-related charges (Tunisia Live, April 1; for Abu Iyad, see Militant Leadership Monitor, May 1, 2012). Maaroufi is best known for his role in planning the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Mahsoud in Afghanistan in 2001.

Fifty-eight of those arrested in the clashes at the U.S. embassy went on a hunger strike in prison in protest of the conditions under which they are held and to bring attention to what the hunger-strikers describe as government persecution of the Salafist movement. Two prisoners have already died, including Muhammad Bakhti, a colleague of Abu Iyad and a senior Tunisian Salafi-Jihadist who was sentenced to 12 years in jail after clashes between the army and Salafists near Tunis in 2007. Bakhti was released in the amnesty that followed the revolution (AFP, November 17, 2012).

The bloody demonstration at the U.S. embassy was led by Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (a.k.a. Sayfallah bin Hussein). A one-time follower of radical Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada, Abu Iyad was a founder of the GCT and is the current leader of the Salafi-Jihadist group, Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AST) (Business News [Tunis], September 17, 2012). Abu Iyad left Tunisia in 1991 under pressure from the Ben Ali regime. He attempted to obtain political asylum but his anti-British sermons did little to endear him to his hosts, who eventually sent him packing. Abu Iyad then joined the battle against American forces in Afghanistan before his arrest in Turkey in 2003 and subsequent extradition to Tunisia, where he was sentenced under the anti-terrorism act to 58 years in prison, where he remained until his release under the post-revolution amnesty in 2011 (Business News [Tunis], November 17, 2012). Abu Iyad has since stated his belief that it is the U.S. embassy that rules the country “and pulls the strings of the party in power” (Business News [Tunis], September 17, 2012).

Police efforts to detain Abu Iyad after the incident appear to have been half-hearted, missing him at home, at a funeral he attended the next day, and most revealingly during an appearance at a Tunis mosque that had been widely announced on social networking sites earlier that day (Business News [Tunis], September 17, 2012).

Ennadha has been criticized by the opposition for not taking a firmer line with Tunisia’s Salafists, but party leader Rached Ghannouchi is wary of alienating the community, possibly pushing it towards even greater violence: “We need to avoid the rhetoric of the enemy within. We have the experience of Ben Ali, who detained tens of thousands of Ennahda members and demonized the party. Then the regime fell, and now Ennahda is in power. If we want to demonize the Salafists, they are the ones that will be in power in 10-15 years’ time. This is why we talk to them as citizens, not as enemies” (Le Monde, October 18, 2012).

In remarks that mirror the difficulties Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is having with the Egyptian Salafist community, Gannouchi has elsewhere warned that the Salafis’ demonstrations and violence result in the depiction of Tunisia as a “center for terrorism and extremism” and a “Salafi State, even though they are a minority within a minority. I do not think they follow Ennadha. Actually they might become the biggest enemies of Ennadha” (al-Hayat, October 4, 2012).

In the post-revolutionary period, not only has the disparate coalition of secularists, leftists and Islamists that deposed the Ben Ali regime returned to its component (and rival) parts, but almost each political party represented in the new parliament, including Ennadha, has suffered splits and defections, hampering Tunisia’s political transition and weakening its response to internal threats (al-Jazeera, October 23, 2012). In a response to these growing tensions, a state of emergency has been imposed on a month-by-month basis since July, but on October 31, President Marzouki imposed a three-month extension of the state of emergency, reflecting a deteriorating security situation (Tunis Afrique Presse, October 31, 2012).

This article first appeared in the November 30, 2012 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

A Revolution is Not a Jihad: A Salafist View of the Arab Spring

Andrew McGregor

September 23, 2011

MaoMao Zedong once famously said “A revolution is not a dinner party.” Now, according to a Jordanian Salafi-Jihadist ideologue, “A revolution for a loaf of bread is not a jihad.”  Ahmad Bawadi, a frequent contributor to jihadi internet forums, made this the central point of his analysis of the revolutions of the “Arab Spring” in an essay that appeared on jihadi websites entitled “Revolutions Are No Substitute for Jihad” (ansar1.info, September 17).

Bawadi insists that the concepts of freedom and democracy inhibit the realization of a Shari’a state, as do improper motivations; only devoting their revolutionary banners to the “Deen [religion] of Allah” will bring the revolutionaries the security they desire:  “The state of Islam will not be established by a revolution for a loaf of bread, if that revolution was not undertaken for the sake of the Deen and Shari’a of Allah.”

According to Bawadi, revolutions carried out in the name of economic or political reforms are insufficient to promote the social and moral transformation required by the true jihad:

No one should think that a revolution over unemployment will close the wine shops and nightclubs. They will not prevent women from going outside wearing make-up and unveiled and will not prevent them from showing their nakedness at pools and on the beaches. The networks of singing, dancing, prostitution and shamelessness will not be shut down by these revolutions, if they are not indeed the catalyst and motivator for these sins, when freedom and democracy become the religion and constitution of the people and are an alternative to Jihad

Bawadi warns that states established on the principles other than those found in the Shari’a “would be like the Buyid state and require new Seljuqs to deal with them.” The reference is to the Buyid Empire, a Shi’a Persian dynasty that ruled Iraq and Iran in the 10th and 11th centuries, but which drew heavily upon the symbolism and rituals of the pre-Islamic Sassanid Empire before falling to the Seljuq Turks in the mid-11th century.

Addressing those who have overthrown the regimes of Tunisia and Egypt, and those who appear to be on the brink of doing the same in Libya, Bawadi reminds them that overthrowing a tyrant does not give them the right to become a regent themselves or to fashion constitutions “that accord with [their] whims and desires.”

The apparent irrelevance of al-Qaeda and other Salafi-Jihadist movements to the momentous political shifts in the Arab world is something of a sore point for ideologues such as Bawadi; even though the revolution in Egypt has inspired a reappraisal of Egypt’s relationship with Israel in a way no number of lectures from Ayman al-Zawahiri could achieve, Bawadi nevertheless warns that: “These revolutions and their people will not recover Palestine, nor will they take the place of jihad and the mujahideen and expel the invaders and conspirators from Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia.”

Bawadi urges scholars and preachers to advise the ummah [Islamic community] that they have a duty to “raise the banner of Islam in these revolutions.” Preachers should avoid becoming sidetracked by becoming occupied with disputes or issuing Shari’a rulings, noting that injustice and oppression have led to the people “acting spontaneously” without waiting for a Shari’a ruling.  In Bawadi’s view, “the courses of these revolutions must be diverted” onto the path of jihad and the Muslim scholars and preachers must remember “it is they who are the leaders of the ummah.”

This article first appeared in the September 23, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Libyan Conflict Shows Signs of Spilling Over Tunisian Border

Andrew McGregor

May 20, 2011

Though first indications suggested that Tunisia had avoided a wave of political violence with the overthrow of Tunisian president Zine al-Abidin Ben Ali on January 14, the continuing civil war in neighboring Libya is threatening to spill over into Tunisia as operatives from al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) seek to exploit the worsening situation.

A battle between Tunisian troops aided by National Guard forces and an al-Qaeda cell on May 18 began when a member of the local security forces who was helping cell members carry their luggage after they arrived from a town close to Kasserine became concerned with the weight of their bags. He called for assistance, and when other units arrived, the militants opened fire, wounding two soldiers and killing their commander, Colonel Tahar Ayari. Two civilians were also wounded, one severely. According to several reports, the militants were carrying Libyan passports (AFP, May 18; Ennahar [Algiers], May 18; al-Arabiya, May 18). The firefight took place in Rouhia, a small town in the Siliana governorate south of Tunis. Two of the militants were killed, while others were reported to have escaped.

Two suspected al-Qaeda members equipped with an explosives belt and several bombs were arrested near Ramada in southern Tunisia on May 15. Security forces said the two men, a Libyan and an Algerian, were tied to two other suspects who were carrying a homemade bomb when they were arrested a week earlier in Tatouine, 80 miles from the Libyan border (al-Arabiya, May 18; Reuters, May 15).

Tunisian authorities have made a show of tightening security at the border, but continue to allow Libyan rebels to resupply in Tunisia and seek medical attention there for their wounded. However, this has not prevented Tunisia from threatening to report Libya to the UN Security Council for shelling the border region, saying that it viewed this as “belligerent behavior from the Libyan side, which had pledged more than once to prevent its forces from firing in the direction of Tunisia” (al-Jazeera, May 18; al-Masry al-Youm [Cairo], May 16).

This article first appeared in the May 20, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb Says Mujahideen Will Defend the Tunisian Revolution

Andrew McGregor

February 3, 2011

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) has responded to the overthrow of Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali with a statement calling on Tunisians to complete their revolution and beware of the machinations of the “Jews and Crusaders” (al-Andalus Media/al-Fajr Media Center, January 26).

Tunisian RevolutionThe statement describes the deposed Ben Ali as a taghut, an unjust ruler who rules by laws other than those revealed by Allah. While praising the Muslims of Tunisia for removing Ben Ali (“You have revived hope in a people in despair!”), AQIM warns that the “taghuti system remains” and the beneficial results of the revolution remain prone to “theft and circumvention.” While Ben Ali has fled to Saudi Arabia (a favorite target of al-Qaeda), his “apostate regime of tyranny and corruption” remains in Tunisia’s “constitution, laws and institutions.” According to AQIM, the battle against kufr [disbelief] and transgression will be a long one, and this is only the first round.

AQIM describes the Tunisian revolution as “a devastating earthquake which reached the throne of the taghut Ibn Ali,” who fled in humiliation and disgrace. The revolution was a warning to other Arab rulers, an earthquake that “was felt in each and every capital city in the Arab world, frightening its rulers out of their wits and preoccupying their minds and speech.”

AQIM sees a role for armed Islamists in consolidating the revolution and defending it from America, France (“the Mother of all Evils”) and the infidel West. France in particular is singled out by AQIM, which has had a number of confrontations with French troops in the Sahel/Sahara region in the last year:

France is the one who supported Ben Ali till his last breath, helping him to such an extent that they even offered him their expertise in quelling the revolution. The French Crusaders are the ones who supported the Taghut regime of the criminal generals in Algeria, and they are the ones who help them to kill and suppress the Muslims there to this day. Based on these facts, we have not the slightest doubt that America and France will play the same filthy role in the future of Tunisia, unless they are repelled by the strikes of the mujahideen, the progeny of Yusuf bin Tashfin [a reference to the 11th century Berber king of the Almoravid dynasty who ruled North Africa and Spain].

More generally, the statement also warns that all intelligence agencies in the Arab World are “apparatuses of repression” whose role is to defend Arab rulers from their subjects: “For this reason, they will never think twice about committing the most atrocious crimes or massacres to repress a revolution or mass uprising.”

The statement also denounces the important role tourism plays in the Tunisian economy, suggesting that local Muslims were “almost like Ahl al-Dhimmah [literally ‘the people of the contract,’ i.e. non-Muslim subjects] to the Christians who invaded it under the pretext of ‘tourism’.” Ben Ali is condemned for his efforts to impose secularism in Tunisia and his repression of Islamists. In a warning that might also be intended for Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, AQIM notes that when Ben Ali’s “oppression and crimes were exposed to the world, the infidels washed their hands of him, deserted him and handed him over. The loyalty he paid to them and his many years of service to them did him no good.”

This article first appeared in the February 3, 2011 issue of the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor

The Tunisian Army in the Crimean War: A Military Mystery

Dr. Andrew McGregor

Military History Online, December 22, 2006


Though it solved little at a great expense in human life, the Crimean War of 1853-55 remains a much-studied turning point in military history. Despite its name soldiers and sailors from a variety of nations and empires fought the war on seven fronts; the Danube region, the Crimea, the Caucasus, Eastern Anatolia, the Baltic Sea, the White Sea, and the Kamchatka Peninsula on Russia’s Pacific Coast. With several other nations on the brink of joining in (including Spain, Austria-Hungary, Prussia, Sweden and the United States), the Crimean War very nearly became the first world war. For the combatants its often-disastrous conduct exposed the need for revisions in military tactics, improved medical services and the creation of efficient logistical systems. The Muslim Ottoman Empire entered into an alliance with the Christian nations of Western Europe against Russia, laying the historical groundwork for the eventual presence of modern Turkey as the second-largest military force in NATO. Britain and France’s union against Imperial Russia marked the beginning of an important but occasionally testy military alliance between ancient rivals. Less well known are the roles played by the armies of Egypt and Sardinia on the allied side, but least understood of all is the role of the Tunisian armed forces. Though Tunisia’s contribution of nearly 10,000 troops to two separate fronts is well established, it remains hard to say with any certainty just what the Tunisian expedition actually did there. It is surprisingly difficult to answer even the most basic question; did they fight or not?

Tunisia Crimea 1Ahmad Bey, Ruler of Tunisia

Though the Ottomans could be meticulous in other areas, Ottoman military affairs in the 19th century are often so poorly recorded as to astonish Western historians, used to a rich literature of official accounts, archival records, personal memoirs, diaries, correspondence and press accounts surrounding nearly every campaign undertaken by Western armies. Many Ottoman officers were in fact illiterate, while many of those who could record their thoughts might have thought twice about detailing the corruption and intense personal rivalry that plagued the 19th century officer corps. The opinion or memories of the common foot soldier were unsought and in any case considered irrelevant at the time. These problems in historical documentation are typically multiplied in researching the role of Ottoman vassals like Egypt and Tunisia during the Ottoman Empire’s long death struggle.

The Tunisian Army

From the time of the Ottoman conquest of Tunisia in 1574 the Tunisian army consisted mainly of elite formations of Turkish volunteers recruited in Istanbul and a small number of Mamluks. This army was augmented by native auxiliaries and the Zouaves, professional Berber soldiers from Algeria’s Kabylia Mountains. Unlike the large Mamluk establishment in Egypt, there were probably no more than several score Mamluks of any age in Tunisia at the time, and these were often engaged in destabilizing ethnic and political rivalries. Egypt’s own Mamluk establishment was strictly unofficial, Muhammad ‘Ali having destroyed their power in the massacres of 1811. Slaves continued to be imported quietly into Egypt and Tunisia from the north Caucasus until the 1850s, when the Russian conquest of the region eliminated this source of supply.

Typically purchased from the slave markets, young Greek, Circassian or Georgian boys were brought to Tunis where they would be attached to the ruling family or the family of an existing Mamluk, converted to Islam and given a Koranic education and training in the traditional military arts, often leading to manumission (liberation from slavery) and a senior position in the Beylicate’s administration.

The military modernization along European lines achieved by the Ottoman Sultan and the Viceroy of Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali, did not escape the attention of Tunisia’s ruler, Husayn Bey. The old style Turkish army with its emphasis on flamboyant cavalry and the use of swords, spears and other ‘white arms’ was already severely outdated. The future belonged to the infantryman, drably and cheaply uniformed, and expert only in his drill and the operation of his musket. In January 1831 Husayn Bey established the Nizami (New) army. The drill and uniforms of the new army were European, with training provided by a French military mission. With rare exceptions, only Turks and Mamluks served as infantry officers. The Cavalry (Spahis) were Tunisian with Tunisian officers, acting as a counterforce to the Turkish element in the army. During the 1840s Ahmad Bey (1837-55), expanded the European style army founded by his predecessor. It was to reach peak strength of about 16,000 men before the financial strain of such a large establishment began to overburden the Tunisian treasury. At this time the Nizami army consisted of seven infantry regiments, two artillery regiments, and a small regiment of light cavalry.

The Nizami army suffered from several problems. The infantry was equipped with a variety of outdated muzzle-loading European muskets. There were far too many officers, most of whom knew nothing of military science, while others could not even read or write. Logistics and supplies were carried out by private contractors, an arrangement that was not always satisfactory, as will be seen. Conscription gave the army the numbers it required, but little differentiation was made between the firm and the infirm during recruitment. As in Egypt, the term of enlistment was life, making the visits of conscription details greatly feared by the native Tunisians. Wealthy conscripts could purchase substitutes or short-term enlistments while the urban population of Tunis was made immune from conscription after a public demonstration. At one point an entire regiment was composed of men on 6-month short-term enlistments. In a military sense it was useless, but may have served as a means of subsidizing the other regiments.

Tunisia Crimea 2Tunisian Troops, Crimean War Period

Among Ahmad Bey’s social reforms were the abolition of the slave trade in 1841 and the emancipation of all Tunisia’s slaves in 1846. Many of these new freedmen may have sought employment in the Bey’s army. In 1837 an attempt was made to recruit an army entirely from black freedmen. The project soon fell apart when a Tunisian general decided ‘recruitment’ meant seizing every black man in Tunis, slave or free, and herding them into a barracks like cattle. The project was soon abandoned after the scandal. During Ahmad Bey’s reign conscription was applied for the first time to the native Tunisians, who at first greatly resented this violation of the social structure of Tunisian society, in which the ‘Turks’ were entirely responsible for military affairs.

Ahmad Bey was in a precarious position, with the expanding French empire to his west in Algeria, and an Ottoman army to the east in Tripoli. Like his more powerful counterpart in Egypt, Muhammad ‘Ali Pasha, Ahmad Bey began to play Britain and France off each other while increasing his symbolic and practical independence of Istanbul without going so far as to renounce allegiance to the Sultan. France encouraged Ahmad Bey’s independent streak, knowing that an independent Tunisia might eventually be more easily severed from the Ottoman Empire and added to French North Africa when the time came. A French military mission was sent to aid Ahmad Bey’s formation of a modern army, and the Bey was even received as a head-of-state on a visit to France in 1846.

Raising the Expeditionary Force

The finances of the beylicate suffered a severe blow in 1852 when one of Ahmad Bey’s ministers secretly obtained French citizenship and then fled to Paris with most of the treasury. The timing couldn’t have been worse as the whole country was suffering from the economic impact of several years of failed crops. Ahmad Bey suffered a stroke in 1852 and by January 1853 was forced to disband most of an army he could no longer afford. Only the Mamluks and a small bodyguard of mostly Turkish professional soldiers remained.

The ‘Crimean’ War actually began with the May 1853 Russian invasion of the Danubian Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia, under Ottoman suzerainty. The Sultan and his council did not declare war until October 1853. When the Ottoman Empire found itself at war it traditionally called on its vassals for military contributions. To everyone’s surprise, Ahmad Bey responded positively to the Sultan’s call despite having no army to send. The Bey sold his personal jewelry and arranged for European loans to finance the raising of new regiments of infantry, cavalry and artillery for the Crimean campaign. Training of the new recruits appears to have been perfunctory, though many of the first draft of soldiers were likely rehired veterans of the units disbanded in 1853. France initially opposed Tunisian participation in the war, fearing that such a gesture might be the first step to closer ties to the Istanbul government, thus undoing all France’s efforts to promote a schism between the two.

The rapid mobilization of the Tunisian army remains a puzzle. Starting virtually from scratch, the first part of the expeditionary force sailed from Tunis only two months after the Bey made the official announcement of Tunisia’s intentions on May 10, 1854. Even more surprising is the fact that the French military mission was not asked for its assistance in mounting this enormous effort, which, moreover, was opposed by many of the Bey’s ministers. One might suppose that the Bey devoted his full energies to the project, but in fact Ahmad Bey was suffering from partial paralysis as a result of his stroke and could not even address the troops. Yet despite all odds the army sailed in good order in record time. Most likely it was an enormous effort by the Bey’s devoted Mamluks that was responsible for the rapid mobilization. Chief among these would have been Mustafa Khaznadar (a Greek Chiote brought as a slave to Tunisia in 1821while still a boy) and a Georgian Mamluk named Rashid, who took command of the expedition. Devoting himself to the study of military science, Rashid was a chief military commander and advisor under Ahmad Bey.

We can assume with such a short preparation time the organizers would have fallen back on what they already knew, organizing the expeditionary force along the same lines as the old army, i.e., regiments of Arab Nizami and Berber Zouaves led by Mamluks and professional Turkish soldiers. Haste and enthusiasm are poor substitutes for proper training, and even though most of the recruits were probably veterans of the disbanded elements of the Nizami, it is impossible to believe that the Tunisian force was in any way combat ready. This does not preclude their being thrown into the cauldron of battle soon after their arrival; they would not be the first or the last untrained unit to be thrown into the frontlines.

The independent kingdom of Sardinia was another small state eager to play an international role, contributing troops to the anti-Russian alliance. Sardinia was a strange partner to Tunisia, the two having nearly come to war in 1833 and again in 1844. Sardinia had once been prey to the powerful corsairs of Tunis, and at times seemed keen to provoke a conflict with now much-weakened Tunisian Beys. Sardinia joined the war in January 1855.

Tunisians at Balaklava?

As Balaklava’s first line of defence, a series of timber-reinforced earthworks known as redoubts was built by Ottoman troops, each armed with several guns. The work was done under the supervision of Major Charles Nasmyth, a British officer of the Royal Engineers who had led the successful defence of the Ottoman forts at Silistria on the Danube front earlier in the year. Evidently the Allied command was intent on a repeat performance. The redoubts were built overlooking the valley about two miles from the town of Balkalava. They were thus the first to detect a large movement of Russian troops under General Pavel Liprandi (a veteran of the 1812 campaign against Napoleon) towards the town on the morning of October 25. The most important redoubt, No. 1, with 600 men and three guns, was placed on a point known as Canrobert’s Hill, named for the French commander. Spaced about 500 yards apart, Redoubts 2, 3 and 4 had 300 men and 2 guns each. Two additional redoubts remained unfinished at the time and played no part in the battle. One source suggests that Liprandi learned in advance that the redoubts were occupied by second-line troops, drawn from Turkish militias, the Tunisians and various untrained recruits.

There are varying accounts as to how stiffly Redoubt No. 1 was defended. Some maintain that the Ottoman troops fired only a few rounds before abandoning the redoubt and their guns to the advancing Russians. Others suggest a one to two hour-long battle that began with a barrage by thirty Russian guns, followed by a massive infantry assault by the Azov and Dneiper Regiments. The latter version seems to have been confirmed by General Liprandi’s claim that 170 men of the redoubt’s garrison of 600 were found dead when the Russians entered, and Russian eye-witness account that describe a shower of bullets and shells that inflicted heavy losses on the Azov Regiment. (By comparison, 134 men were killed of the 658 that rode in the charge of the Light Brigade later that day). Ottoman losses suggest nothing less than a determined defence of the position before it was abandoned.

In each Ottoman redoubt was a British NCO of the Royal Artillery to supervise the operation of the guns. When the outnumbered troops of Redoubt 1 broke the NCO had the presence of mind to spike the guns before leaving. The Russians ran a battery of four guns up into the redoubt and began to fire on Redoubt No. 2. The sight of their comrades streaming out of Redoubt 1 was enough to convince the men of Redoubt 2 to do likewise as the Ukraine Regiment advanced on their position. Their retreat was a strange spectacle as the men left at a leisurely pace, encumbered by their belongings and various items of equipment like pots and pans. Again it was up to the British artillerymen to spike the guns. The redoubts now began to collapse like a house of cards as the Russians kept moving their artillery into each captured earthworks to fire on the next. As the Odessa Regiment moved up in columns Redoubt 3 was abandoned, and then Redoubt 4. It was not long before the Ottoman soldiers dropped their arms and possessions in favour of full flight as they found themselves raked by Russian artillery fire or run down by the merciless pikes of the Don Cossacks. At a time when the loss of artillery was considered shameful, the Ottomans had abandoned a great deal of ordnance after barely using it (one source claims that many of the shells sent to the redoubts were the wrong caliber). That the nine lost 12-pounder guns had all been on loan from the British compounded the problem.

The evacuation of Redoubts 2, 3 and 4 in front of the French and British armies destroyed the reputation of the Ottoman army in only a few minutes. This was probably unfair. Once Redoubt 1 (the right anchor of the defensive line) fell, there was no chance of holding Redoubts 2 to 4. These hastily built fortifications held only a combined total of 900 men with six guns. The Russian force heading for the redoubts consisted of 15,000 men, 4,000 cavalry and nearly 80 guns, many of a higher caliber than the Ottoman twelve-pounders. Apart from a battery of British artillery that was run up and quickly destroyed during the Russian barrage, no help was forthcoming from the British army. Despite intelligence warnings of an attack, the allies had been caught off guard, with many senior officers (including the allied commander Lord Raglan) arriving hours late to the battlefield. It was only the concerted defence of Redoubt 1 that bought the allied armies enough time to deploy, but this did not prevent Lord Raglan from suggesting in his official report of the battle that the men of Redoubt 1 had fled without a fight. Raglan, like Times correspondent Peter Russell, arrived only in time to see the Ottomans fleeing Redoubt 2, both assuming in their dispatches that Redoubt 1 had been abandoned the same way. Lord Lucan (the British cavalry commander) witnessed the assault and is reported to have praised the defence of Redoubt 1 to his Turkish interpreter.

In the second line of defence Scottish General Sir Colin Campbell lined up his 93rd Highlanders and a company of about 100 men from the Invalid Battalion midway between the town and the redoubts. Sir Colin managed to stop some of the soldiers fleeing from the redoubts and formed them up on his flanks. When the Russian cavalry reached a point 600 yards from their line (well out of range) the Ottoman troops fired a useless volley and turned to their heels, heading for the ships in the harbour.

Following Sir Colin’s orders, the Highlanders laid concealed in the high grass of the ridge before they shocked the fast-moving Russian cavalry by rising and firing their first volley with the Russians barely in range. With little time to reload and no other defence than their bayonets against this raging mass of hooves and steel many units would have broken at this point. The Highlanders allowed their discipline and training to take over, reloading their rifles even as the Russian horsemen bore down on their ranks. A second volley was delivered with devastating effect at 150 yards, forcing the cavalry to turn back. The performance of the ‘Thin Red Line’ of the Highlanders (as it became popularly known) provided an unfortunate comparison to the flight of the Turkish troops, who (as far as many in the allied armies were concerned) abandoned well defended positions against the same cavalry the 93rd repelled in the open field.

Now the subject of near universal scorn and abuse from the allied forces, a breakdown in Ottoman morale was quickly followed by a breakdown in the soldiers’ health. In the filth and mud of their positions near Balaklava typhoid began to run through an army already decimated by cholera on the Danube Front. The un-afflicted were often reduced to begging or pilfering from Allied supplies. The inefficiency of the Allied supply system meant that British and French soldiers also suffered (indeed, the British army was in rags and often shoeless by December), but there was almost unanimous consensus that no one’s plight was worse than the Ottoman foot soldier. With their pay in arrears and the allied commissariat unwilling to extend credit to ‘Turks’, the soldiers were unable even to buy tobacco, their lone consolation. The pork and rum that were a normal part of Allied issue were declined on religious grounds, but only a small increase in biscuit was given as compensation. Still, there was little sympathy from the British and French ranks, most of whom were engaged in their own desperate struggle to survive the winter. By this time they had come to regard the Ottoman soldiers as useless non-combatants and a drain on supplies during that terrible winter. In his diary British officer Henry Clifford (V.C.) recorded the plight of Ottoman troops in January 1855, when allied sentries were routinely found frozen to death in the morning:

The poor Turks, though I believe I am the only one in the Army, who has any pity for them, are fast disappearing. The paths leading to water are no longer dotted with them. Everyone has a blow or a kick for the poor fellows, and nothing but brutal hard language. They are broken hearted, despised, neglected, ill-treated, miserable men.

So who were the men in the Balaklava redoubts? Ottoman records do not seem to exist and British accounts rarely distinguish between Ottoman Anatolian, Egyptian or Tunisian, all simply being ‘Turks’. One possibility is that Turkish regulars occupied Redoubt 1, while second-line troops (including the Tunisians) held the other earthworks. Very plainly the men of redoubts 2, 3 and 4 were not the Turks and Egyptians of the Ottoman Army of the Danube who had repulsed attack after attack on the Silistrian forts. Redoubt 1 was furthest from the allied armies and the struggle for this position may have been difficult to see from the allied lines. Because of the nature of the terrain different parts of the Allied army could at any one time see parts of the battlefield but not others, depending where they were positioned. This was an important contributing factor to the confusion behind the charge of the Light Brigade a few hours after the battle for the redoubts.

It is not unlikely that Tunisians were present in the redoubts. The expeditionary force, after all, had been sent to fight, not to watch battles. The political element of the expedition was to demonstrate Tunisia’s interest in joining the world of modern nations by making an appreciable contribution to an important international effort. Did the Tunisian commander Rashid persuade the Ottoman command to place his freshly arrived troops in the redoubts at Balaklava? He may not have needed to argue too hard; Ottoman practice was to keep experienced troops in reserve. Politically motivated deployments of this type did not take into account the actual capabilities of the soldiers. Many of the Tunisians would have had some experience in raids and desert skirmishes while others would have had little experience of any kind of fighting. The hasty training the expeditionary force received before departing for Crimea would have been inadequate preparation for standing fast before disciplined columns of Russian infantry supported by a large number of guns.

The Last Campaign

The fall of the Russian fortress at Sevastopol in the summer of 1855 is often regarded as the final act of the Crimean War, but for the Ottoman forces the war with Russia went on. Russian troops had descended from the Caucasus to enter the Anatolian heartland of the Ottoman Empire, capturing a number of cities and besieging an Ottoman army at the fortress of Kars. To relieve pressure on the Anatolian front the Allied command decided to allow the Ottoman Army in the Crimea to cross east across the Black Sea to the Caucasus, where Circassian Muslims were fighting a losing battle to repulse invading Russian armies. As British, French and Sardinian troops were loaded on transports for the return to Europe, British steamers began shipping the Ottoman forces to a new front. With Omar Pasha at their head, a 45,000 strong army of Turks, Egyptians and Tunisians disembarked at the Black Sea ports of Sukhum-Qal’a and Batoum through September and October of 1855. If the expedition was to have any success it had to come before the arrival of the autumn rainy season, but the march into the interior was slowed by mud and the difficulty of passing through thick forests.

Correspondent Laurence Oliphant encountered a group of Tunisians at Zikinzir, close to the main Ottoman camp at Batoum: “We found ourselves surrounded by swarthy Arabs, who, peering out of their huts, looked like the slaves of some tale in the Arabian Nights. The officers were as black as the men; and a Negro colonel told us that these were Tunisian troops waiting for the arrival of Omer Pasha.” Oliphant’s description suggests that at least part of the Tunisian expeditionary force consisted of Black African troops. None of these men appear to have been involved in the Balaklava fiasco; given the racial attitudes of the time it seems impossible that some of the more vitriolic European accounts of the ‘Turks’ abandoning the Balaklava redoubts would not have mentioned the sight of ‘negro troops’ fleeing their posts.

Omar Pasha led an Ottoman column into the heavily wooded interior. The Ottomans finally encountered the Russian army at the Ingur River, where the campaign’s only battle of note was fought. The confused battle in the forest was a small triumph for the Ottomans, but ultimately spelled the doom of the expeditionary force as it only encouraged Omar Pasha to continue into Georgia. Kars fell to the Russians at the end of November, but the news was slow to reach the Ottoman commander. Ironically it was news of Omar’s arrival on the Black Sea coast that led the Russians to intensify their attacks on the fortress. It was late in the season, already inefficient supply-lines were overstretched, and now the rains came, turning the landscape into a sea of thick mud. The army turned back for the coast, struggling through the quagmire with little food or leadership, the officers having followed Omar Pasha’s example by heading for Sukhum-Qal’a well in advance of the rest of the army. Those soldiers not felled by disease, exposure, starvation or the constant attacks by Georgian partisans were shipped home after they straggled in to the coast. The last campaign of the Crimean War was at last over.


When the much smaller expeditionary force returned in 1856 its members were awarded a silver campaign medal. At this point the force was dissolved, with nobody apparently interested in recording their contribution to the war. The last contingent of troops sent after Ahmad’s death by his successor Muhammad Bey was probably viewed as part of the traditional presentation of gifts to the Ottoman Sultan before the official investiture of the Tunisian Bey.

Though Ahmad Bey made unusual efforts to ensure the well-being of the expeditionary force in the field, it seems that the sums he provided for this purpose never made it through the Ottoman chain-of-command. There is no indication that the Tunisians suffered any less than the Turks and Egyptians in the Crimea. The usual arrangement for vassal expeditionary forces in Ottoman campaigns was for Istanbul to take care of all the troops’ needs on campaign, including pay, uniforms, arms, ammunition, food, etc. In practice a remarkable inefficiency and widespread corruption in the Ottoman officer corps meant that little reached the soldier in the field. Perhaps aware of these deficiencies, Ahmad Bey made private arrangements with Tunisian merchants in Istanbul to supply the expeditionary force with whatever supplies they needed. Judging from the 40% of the force who died from disease or exposure in Batoum it seems safe to say that, for whatever reason, few if any of these supplies reached the army.

If the Tunisians did not fight beside the Turks and Egyptians at the Ingur River either (and there is no evidence they did), then where were they? Had they been left behind at Batoum because of their poor performance at Balaklava? If there was no intention to use them on the campaign then it would seem rather pointless to ship them on to the Caucasus from the Crimea rather than returning them home, though trying to apply logic to the deployments of the 19th century Ottoman Army can be a fruitless exercise. In defence of the Tunisians there is no mention in any official dispatches from the front regarding poor behaviour on the part of the Tunisians. There are French accounts claiming (without documented evidence), that the Tunisians mutinied in Batoum when they realized they had been left to die of disease and exposure without any opportunity to fight. Other French accounts, including official reports, state that the Tunisians performed well, though what they were doing well is not stated.

If, as so often reported, the Tunisian expeditionary force was left to die of disease in their camps without ever fighting, it must have been a fatal blow to Ahmad Bey, who had invested his wealth and reputation in fielding the expedition. The Tunisian role at Balaklava cannot be confirmed, and if the troops fought elsewhere they apparently did little one way or the other to merit mention by observers. Ahmad Bey’s successors allowed the military to decline into a disgraceful state and in 1881 Tunisia fell to the French without a fight.


[1]. Ian Fletcher and Natalia Ishchenko, The Crimean War: A Clash of Empires, Staplehurst Kent, 2004, p.159)

[2]. NF Dubrovin, Istoriya Krymskoy Voiny Oborony Sevastopolya II, St. Petersburg, 1871-74, pp.129-30)

[3]. Henry Clifford, His Letters and Sketches from the Crimea, London, 1956

[4]. Parts of this article rely upon L. Carl Brown’s important history of 19th century Tunisia; The Tunisia of Ahmad Bey: 1837-1855 (Princeton, 1974). Brown refutes the possibility of a Tunisian presence in the redoubts of Balaklava as a rumour, but does not seem to be aware of contemporary British accounts of Tunisians in the battle (such as George Dodd: Pictorial History of the Russian War, 1854-56, Edinburgh, 1856). Indeed, Brown may have contributed to the evidence for Tunisian participation by citing the November 27, 1854 report of the American Consul in Tunis, which describes Tunisian troops fleeing the Balaklava redoubts without firing a shot. Brown refers to the report as “a myth.”

[5]. Laurence Oliphant: The Trans-Caucasian Campaign of the Turkish Army Under Omer Pasha, London, 1856