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