Tunisia’s Interior Minister, Ali Laarayedh, announced during a press conference yesterday (Dec. 21) that authorities have arrested 16 members of a terrorist cell affiliated with al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). In addition, 18 other members of the group are still being pursued.
According to the Tunisian Press Agency (TPA), Laarayedh “stressed that all the apprehended or pursued elements were active within” Ansar al Sharia Tunisia.
Tunisia Live reports that members of the al Qaeda cell “were known for their active participation in events organized by Ansar al Sharia,” including protests.
Laarayedh said he could not prove that there was an “organizational relationship” between the cell and Ansar al Sharia, however.
The al Qaeda cell calls itself “The Militia of Uqba Ibn Nafaa in Tunisia.” The name is apparently a reference to Uqba Ibn Nafaa, a famous Arab general who established a base of operations in Kairoun, Tunisia in the seventh century.
Laarayedh said the cell attended “a training camp run by three Algerians close to AQIM leader Abou Moussab Abdel Wadoud,” according to Agence France Presse (AFP). Wadoud is also known as Abdelmalek Droukdel.
Tunisian authorities seized various weapons and military paraphernalia during the raids “with most of the weapons thought to have come from Libya,” Laarayedh explained, according to AFP.
Laarayedh added that the cell’s members were sent to AQIM camps in Algeria and Libya for training. Three Libyans were among the suspected terrorists arrested.
The AQIM-trained cell is dedicated to implementing sharia law in Tunisia, Laarayedh said.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia orchestrated the Sept. 14 ransacking of the US Embassy in Tunis, as well as a nearby school. The group is headed by Seifullah ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), who has longstanding ties to al Qaeda. In 2000, Hassine co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), an al Qaeda-affiliated group that participated in the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.
Two other Ansar al Sharia Tunisia leaders are Sami Ben Khemais Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, both of whom were convicted by Italian courts for their participation in al Qaeda’s operations in Italy. Essid was the head of al Qaeda in Italy before his arrest. According to the US State Department and other sources, Essid plotted to attack the US Embassy in Rome in early 2001.
After the Sept. 14 Embassy assault in Tunis, the Tunisian government imprisoned numerous Ansar al Sharia members. One of them is Bilel Chaouachi, a young imam who has openly praised Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.