In an unprecedented incident in Tunisia’s Kasserine governate on the borders with Algeria, a bank robbery took place on August 1st. The province is a home to jihadist groups settled in its mountains, of which some are affiliated with Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and ISIS.
In a statement, the Tunisian Minister of Interior, Hichem Fourati said “it cannot be verified at the moment and before the investigation concludes whether the robbery is a terrorist operation”. The same day, Tunisian Africa Official news cited security sources saying, “the bank robbery, which was executed by four armed men in Kasserine, is an act of terrorism that was executed by 11 terrorists who hijacked a civilian car in Djebel Selloum. Four of them rushed in to raid the bank using three rifles while the rest of the attackers stayed in the car with its owner. Then the robbers escaped with the other seven attackers and left the car and its driver at the site”.
The security investigations have revealed the identity of one of the attackers, called Hafez al-Rahimi, a jihadist who was under the security surveillance from 2015, before he disappeared to join the armed groups in the mountains.
The operation seems to be part of a practice terrorist groups call “Al Ahtitab” (meaning wood cutting), a term they use to justify taking over private and public property, relying on historic religious texts. Jihadists in Tunisia, who live in caves, have used this strategy previously against the villagers in the mountains. They would rob the villagers’ food, fuel and livestock whenever they were in short supply themselves. However, this is the first time a bank has been attacked, which is considered a development in their operations.
Rami Al Tallagh, a researcher in the French University of Lorraine, said to 7Dnews, “The terrorist groups rely on various resources to fund their activities, including external funding that comes from the groups in Libya, and the smuggling activities on the borders between Tunisia and Algeria, in addition to robbing public and private property. I think this operation reveals that the resources of these groups have been depleted. The security authorities have controlled their communication with their counterparts in Libya, and the border control in cooperation between Tunisia and Algeria affects their movement. It seems that these measures have weakened their financial abilities”.
After the collapse of the Zine El Abidine Ben Ali regime, the activity of the jihadist groups grew. They relied on external funding sources, especially from extremists in Libya, and also on support from some charities.
Since 2015, local authorities in Tunisia have listed 157 associations suspected of terrorism and having ties with terrorist groups. Anti-corruption and money laundering activists have demanded the formation of a financial intelligence authority to monitor the activities of the suspicious associations.
There are around 500 court cases in Tunisia linked to money laundering and the funding of terrorist operations between 2012 and 2018. Some reports state that AQIM sought help from one of the charities to smuggle weapons to a number of terrorists in 2015, the bloodiest year in the history of Tunisia.
The existence of strong, complex networks that fund terrorist groups has led the European Parliament to blacklist Tunisia in relation to money laundering and terrorism from the beginning of 2018. The Tunisian government responded by urging parliament in April of this year to amend counter terrorism and money laundering laws.
Laila Al Shatawi, a member of the Tunisian Parliament, said to 7Dnews, “despite the challenges the Tunisian government faces, the counter terrorism efforts are going well in comparison with the situation between 2011 and 2014, during the reign of the trio coalition led by the Islamic Ennahda Movement. The policies of the coalition created an environment conducive to the progress of the terrorist organisation. An organised and parallel economic network was established, which operated outside the formal economy and away from the banking system. Reversing this situation needs time, political will and a stable political environment”.
This robbery operation also indicates the strength of these groups. The operation took place during daytime, involved 11 armed men, in a busy residential area. It shows the ability of these groups to move and strike at a time and place of their choosing and to withdraw without any losses.
This operation impacts the public perceptions about the performance of the security authorities. The timing of the operation also might impact the tourism season, one of the main income-generating sectors for the country. This is the second terrorist operation to take place this season, after the death of 9 National Guard personnel in the Ghardimaou region, north west of the country.
In spite of the recent decrease in terrorist group activities in Tunisia, compared to 2011- 2015, the Tunisian authorities’ war on terrorism still continues. Those groups remain a threat to the security of the country, which in turn affects the economy and the society.