A reader asked for comment on AQIM and Tunisia. At the moment only limited comment is possible given the lack of extensive public information, the difficulty in assessing the validity of confessions of individuals captured and claiming to be members of AQIM and the complexity of the group’s presence in Tunisia and Libya in light of the Libyan uprising and the NFZ there. Below are very brief thoughts attempting to integrate these problems taken form notes from the last two weeks on the Algerian position on Libya and the arrests of AQIM suspects in Tunisia. Readers with more information/knowledge on the issue are encouraged to comment and correct.
Algeria, Libya, Tunisia and AQIM.
- Algeria has strongly opposed the No Fly Zone in Libya decrying it publicly with Russia as well as other African and non-Allied states. This has been clear from the start; whether or to what extent Algiers has provided the Libyan government with material, financial or other support is less clear. The Libyan rebels have accused the Algerians of actively supported the Qadhafi regime by providing areal transport for mercenaries and providing money or even personnel. Most of these reports are unsubstantiated by conclusive evidence; the rebels claim to have captured Algerian mercenaries as well as Saharawis from the POLISARIO camps in Algeria. The Algerians cite fear of terrorists exploiting the implosion of the Libyan state as their main fear resulting from the intervention in Libya (they also fear the normalization of the “responsibility to protect” norm which they view as potentially destabilizing). Algerian officials have spoken (usually anonymously) to regional and international media on how AQIM might exploit Libya’s unrest to procure Libyan armaments and transport them to Mali or elsewhere. Algerian security sources have said AQIM has acquired weapons from Libyan stocks (Strelas, Duskas,) since the conflict began, and have warned that the fall of the Qadhafi regime would lead to regional chaos and allow AQIM to extend its reach farther north. Smuggling routes into Algeria via Tunisia and Libya have very probably become more active and lucrative in recent months (higher risk, less enforcement, etc.)
- According to the Tunisian authorities men linked to AQIM arrested on 11 and 14 May carried suicide belts, grenades, AK-47s all of which came from Libya. Recent clashes between the Tunisian military and AQIM fighters at Rouhia (18 May) have lent credence to some of these fears, though the extent of AQIM’s presence in northern Libya since the beginning of the uprising and the NFZ remains unclear. AQIM previously had only a light presence in both Tunisia and Libya. Continued erosion of the Libyan state as the Libyan conflict drags on will likely lead to greater proliferation of conventional arms out of the country and into the hands of smugglers and groups like AQIM. Tunisians and Libyans have been less well represented in AQIM than other North Africans but recent arrests have included them distinctly, likely due to geography and their increased activity. It is yet determined whether these men are new recruits or “sleepers” or long active militants. As more information becomes available so will more clarity. Increased AQIM activity in southern Tunisia is likely to be one consequence of the Libyan crisis although it will probably become more manageable in the next few months as the authorities adjust to its patterns of activity in an area with a relatively small population, generally qualified border security personnel and a largely unsympathetic host population. More attacks or arrests will alarm Tunisians and increase western interest in the country’s security but Tunisia is unlikely to become a problem area as far as AQIM is concerned, particularly if the border with Libya is effectively policed. Refugee flows will complicate this and a study of the phases of migration into southern Tunisia from Libya and of the geographic origins of known Tunisian AQIM members (in comparison with recent incidents involving the group in Tunisia) would help improve analysis of AQIM’s presence in Libya.