Zelin (2011) in “The Rise of Salafists in Tunisia After the Fall of Ben Ali” indicates the interest of an emerging Tunisian grouping, Ansar al-Shari`a, in Tunisian nationals imprisoned in Iraq. While the role of Tunisian foreign fighters in Iraq has been noted in the 2007 Sinjar documents (Felter and Fishman; 2007) and more recently in the 2011 arrest of an Iraqi resident in Canada, accused of facilitating the travel of 8 Tunisians to Iraq in 2009 (US DOJ; 2011), information about earlier involvement and the key roles played by a number of Tunisians is partial, dispersed and contradictory. A piecing together of the various elements suggests that Tunisian nationals were present during the development of the foreign fighter networks and in some cases held key facilitation roles.
Tunisians were present in foreign fighter operations early in the Iraqi insurgency. An Italian investigation into the Mullah Fuad network suggested that a number of Tunisians had traveled from Italy to Iraq to participate in suicide attacks in 2003 (LA Times; 2003). A French national of Tunisian origin Mohamed el-Ayouni traveled to Syria from France in 2004 and fought in Fallujah. He was eventually expelled from Syria in 2006, arrested, tried and convicted for his involvement with 19th network in Paris (Le Monde; 2008).
A New York Times article in October 2005,citing US military figures for foreign fighters captured since April of the same year, states that of the 312 persons in custody, 10 were Tunisian, outnumbering Algerians (8), Libyans (7) and Moroccans (1). MNF-I press releases detailing operations or central criminal Court of Iraq activities from the MNF-I also indicate that Tunsians were present in Iraq (MNF-I; 2006). Tunisian Human Rights organisations monitoring trials in Tunisia reported on numerous trials of individuals for involvement with Iraq networks (Association Internationale de Soutien aux Prisonniers Politiques; 2007, 2008).
At least two individuals played important roles as Damascus-based facilitators and another individual played a short-lived role inside Iraq. One of the individuals is Abu Mohammad al-Tunisi (Abu Mohammed al-Tounsi or Abou Mohamed Tounsi). There are a number of accounts of his activity, all of which tend to place him as based in Damascus, associating with members of the Zarqawi-network and with some connections to Western European foreign networks (Le Figaro; 2005, Le Monde; 2005, Le Jeune Independent; 2010, Mokkadem; 2010 pp. 186-194). An anonymous French official describes Mohammad al-Tunisi as the link with the different groups based in Europe (Le Monde; 2005). He is variously linked to Ouassini Cherifi, a France-based activitist (Le Monde; 2005) and to Benyamina Mohamed aka Abou Allayth (Mokkadem; 2010). Mokkadem writes that Mohammad al-Tunisi was involved in arranging training for Europe-based militants from the Ansar al-Fath group in Lebanon (2010, p.188).
The varying reports suggest he was involved in coordinating terrorist planning in Europe (Le Figaro; 2005, Le Monde; 2005, Mokkadem; 2010 pp. 186-194). The majority of the accounts indicate that Abu Mohammad al-Tunisi was killed on the Iraqi-Syrian border in June 2005 (Le Figaro; 2005, Le Monde; 2005) following a joint operation by the Algerians, Iraqis, Lebanese, Jordanians and Syrians (Le Figaro; 2005). Mokkadem states he was arrested in May 2005 by the Syrians (2010, p.191).
If Abu Mohammad al-Tunisi was, indeed, killed in 2005, then it is conceivable that his real identity may have been Mejdi Zribi, a Tunisian identified in a Reuters article as killed on the Syrian-Iraqi border (Reuters; 2010). The Reuters article states that “one of those found guilty of joining insurgents in Iraq and undergoing military training outside Tunisia, whom he identified as Mejdi Zribi, was sentenced to five years’ imprisonment even though he had died near the Syrian-Iraqi border” (Reuters; 2010). Tunisian human rights groups reported that other co-defendants tried in absentia in the same case, No.1104, included Malek Chrahili, Mejdi Zribi, and Rabii Agrabi (Association Internationale de Soutien aux Prisonniers Politiques; 2008). Malek Chrahili and Rabii Agrabi are reported as active in Iraq-linked activities around the same time as Zribi; Malek Chrahili (Charahili) was arrested by Turkish authorities in August 2006 for his involvement in Iraq facilitation networks. Charahili is alleged to have been connected to the Belgium-based Bilal Soughir network from which he received financial transfers (Zaman; 2007). He has contested this stating he was an Ennahda member and not linked to al-Qaida (Zaman; 2007 and ECHR; 2010). Rabii Agrabi is described as having been killed in Fallujah (Reuters; 2010).
Another Tunisian facilitator is named variously as Abou Adam Attounoussi (aka Abdellah) or Abu Adam al-Tunisi. Jordanian press described him as facilitator for the foreign fighters in Syria (Jordan Times; 2006). The article also states that in June 2005, Abu Adam contacted a Jordanian national asking him to recruit people in Jordan and send them to Iraq to launch suicide attacks. (Jordan Times; 2006) Moroccan press suggest a link to Mohamed Ben Hedi M’Sahel and describe Abu Adam as having putting in place a facilitation network in Syria for foreign fighters seeking to transit to Iraq. The reports suggest he was active in June 2005 which would make him a contemporary or the replacement of Abu Mohammad.
The US military reported that in August 2005, they had killed a Tunisian, Abu Mujahir, describing him “a facilitator of foreign fighters and foreign suicide bombers in the Mosul area. He is also alleged to have received and dispersed money from Abu Khallad to finance fighters under his control” (MNF-I;2005).
The recent interest of Ansar al-Shari`a in detained Tunisian foreign fighters may originate with individuals who were active in networks disrupted in Tunisia between 2005 and 2008.
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European Court of Human Rights. (2010, April 2010). Case of Charahili v. Turkey (Application no. 46605/07), Judgement, Strasbourg.
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Zelin (2011) in “The Rise of Salafists in Tunisia After the Fall of Ben Ali” CTC Sentinel 4(8)