Tuesday, December 2, 2014

The Tunisian Jihadist network, by Giovanni Giacalone

Italy has always been an appealing hideout for Tunisian jihadists during the years that Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was in power and that is mainly due to two reasons: the vicinity between the two countries, only about 140 km separate the Tunisian coast from Sicily and the possibility to disguise among the vast presence of Tunisians and North Africans in general.

A disguise that had to be particularly meticulous not only to avoid Italian and Western security but, most important of all, for the fear of being detected by the well spread Tunisian “mukhabarat” (security services), among the most effective on Italian soil.
Among the well-known jihadist groups were the al-Takfir wa al-Hijra and the so-called “Milan cell” linked to Sami Essid Ben Khemais’ network, which will later hook to Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (organization born in 2001 during the Arab Spring).
Al-Takfir wa al-Hijra in Bologna
In the late ‘90s a presence of Tunisian extremists ideologically linked to the al-Takfir wa al-Hijra and led by Mohammad Sultan (alias Hammadi), was detected in the city of Bologna. According to the statements of former president of “al-Nur” Islamic Center, Radwan al-Tungi, some of them stationed in a nearby abandoned area and engaged in attacks against the worship place. Many had criminal records for drug dealing, trafficking banknotes and false id. For Italian authorities they were common criminals but a deeper analysis showed how a specific ideology was behind the group and in particular the principle of “istihlal” (an authorization to consider legal what would otherwise be forbidden). Italy was considered “dar al-Harb” (land of war), which means that the extremists were allowed to carry out any type of illegal activity such as stealing properties of the Christians (who were considered kuffar, nonbelievers); in this specific case the action would not be considered as theft but rather as war booty. Selling drugs would also be considered legal to them because the objective was to harm a society of nonbelievers. They also refused to work because they did not want to have any type of relation with the Italian society and the Institutions.
On several occasions, individuals belonging to the radical group attacked the Islamic center with the objective of taking over and imposing an extremist view of Islam. They considered the leaders of the worship place as traitors and they often argued the fact that the khutba (Friday sermon) was translated into Italian, while according to one of their spiritual leaders, the well-known Abu Qatada, this was not legitimate. [1] [2] [3]
The “Milan cell” and Ansar al-Sharia
In the first decade of 2000 a Tunisian cell and its networks outside the country were at the center of major investigations.
In 2001 four Tunisians were arrested after a court in Milan found them guilty of terrorist-related offences. The prosecution alleged during the trial that they were connected with the al-Qaeda network. Two of them were sentenced to five years in prison and the other two received four years; they were convicted of association with intent to obtain and transport explosives and chemicals. According to the US State Department and other sources, the group plotted to attack the US Embassy in Rome in early 2001. Among them was Sami Essid Ben Khemais, suspected of leading al-Qaeda's regional network and Mehdi Kammoun. [4]
Ben Khemais had links with a group of Tunisian extremists living in Belgium, who provided the fake passports to the two terrorists who killed the anti-Taliban commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, on September 9th 2001. The leader of the group was Tarek Maaroufi, a naturalized Belgian of Tunisian descent and a member of the Tunisian Combat Group (TCG), who lost his Belgian nationality due to three terrorism convictions. He was arrested and convicted in Belgium in the mid-1990s for his involvement in an Algerian terrorist group. [5]
After being convicted in 2002 and sentenced to five years, Ben Khemais received another sentence in 2006 and was expelled in June 2008, together with Kammoun, who belonged to the Salafist Group for Call and Combat (GSPC), which later became al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM); Kammoun was in charge of sending volunteer jihadists to train in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Once deported, Ben Khemais and Kammoun were imprisoned by former President Ben Ali's authorities but in 2012, after the burst of the so called “Arab Spring”, the two jihadists were freed by the new Tunisian government.
Later in 2012, the Italian newspaper “L’Espresso” identified the two in a video, next to Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s leader, Seifallah ben Hassine, also known as Abu Iyad, who founded the group in April 2011.  [6] [7]
Ansar al-Sharia has been accused of organizing a wave of attacks, including the one at the Tunis-based US embassy in September 2012, the assassinations of Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi in 2013 and the recent attack (November 5th 2014) on an army bus in the region of Nebeur, near the Algerian border. [8]
Operation “Masrah” and the “Andria cell”
In April 2013 a group of five individuals were arrested between Andria, Catania and Milan with the accusation of criminal conspiracy to commit terrorist attacks.
The leader of the group and former imam of Andria’s Islamic center “Annour”, Hosni Hachemi Ben Hassem (alias “ Abu Haronne”), was sentenced in October 2014 to five years and two months of detention.
The other four (three Tunisians and one Palestinian), Ifauoi Nour, Khairredine Romdhane Ben Chedli, Faez Elkhaldey and Chamari Hamdi were sentenced to three years and four months. A sixth member of the group, Moroccan citizen Azam Nabil, is still at large.
All six of them are accused of cooperating in activities linked to radical indoctrination, financing extremist groups, recruiting jihadists and supplying them with fake documents. In addition, according to prosecutors, they were also active in studying methodologies to build explosive devices.
According to investigators, the group kept contacts with Ben Khemais in Tunisia and with other extremists well-known to Italian authorities, such as Ben Yahia Mouldi Ber Rachid and Ben Alì Mohamed. [9]

Giovanni Giacalone is an Italian researcher and analyst in Islamic radicalism, lives in Milan where he studies political Islam in Europe with a close look at issues linked to integration, radicalism and relations between the various European Institutions and the Islamic organizations present in Europe.He wrote this article in English for RIMSE.