TUNIS, Tunisia — Two years in the past, American Marines battled Al Qaeda militants in western Tunisia alongside the border with Algeria. A Marine and a Tunisian soldier had been wounded and two different Marines had been later recommended for his or her valor within the gunfight.
But many particulars of the February 2017 conflict stay murky, largely due to the Tunisian authorities’s political sensitivities over the presence of American forces on their territory.
Publicly, American officers will say solely that the battle occurred in a North African “host” nation. The Tunisian authorities have refused to substantiate that something occurred in any respect.
Final 12 months, when probably the most detailed accounts of the conflict to this point surfaced in a report in Job & Function, a privately owned American web site centered on army and veterans affairs, the Tunisian Ministry of Protection was dismissive. It mentioned the “presence of American troops in Tunisia was just for cooperation and coaching, not conducting operations.”
However in reality, the US and Tunisia have quietly expanded and deepened their safety and counterterrorism ties over the previous a number of years, with some 150 People coaching and advising their Tunisian counterparts in one in all largest missions of its form on the African continent, in line with American officers.
And the 2017 conflict, confirmed by an American official and an American safety skilled, was a stark instance of the dangers American forces face in making an attempt to assist their North African allies battle Qaeda-linked teams.
The deepening American involvement in an array of secret missions goes largely unreported due to Tunisian and American issues that publicizing this might entice much more extremist violence. There may be additionally a powerful aversion throughout the political spectrum in North Africa to Western intervention within the area.
Nonetheless the rising cooperation is notable as a result of it comes at a time when the Pentagon is lowering its presence elsewhere on the continent, particularly in West Africa, because the army shifts to focus extra consideration on challenges elsewhere from Russia and China.
“Tunisia is one in all our most succesful and keen companions,” Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, the pinnacle of the Pentagon’s Africa Command, instructed Congress in February.
Among the many 150 People working in Tunisia is a contingent of Marine Corps Particular Operations forces who had been concerned within the 2017 gun battle.
Unarmed American surveillance drones fly reconnaissance missions from Tunisia’s primary air base exterior Bizerte, the northernmost metropolis in Africa, looking terrorists who may be searching for to infiltrate by way of the nation’s border with Libya and different areas, American army officers mentioned.
America had sought permission to fly from bases farther south, the place climate situations are higher. However the Tunisians needed the American presence to be extra hid, officers mentioned.
There are different indicators of Washington’s growing safety cooperation with Tunisia. Physique armor, rifles and night-vision goggles; reconnaissance plane and quick patrol boats; radios and units to counter improvised explosives: The worth of American army provides delivered to the nation elevated to $119 million in 2017 from $12 million in 2012, authorities information present.
Tunisia was the birthplace of the Arab Spring uprisings and is extensively seen because the lone success story amongst international locations that had been swept up within the revolts. It emerged with a democratic system and a free society after the 2011 overthrow of its authoritarian president of 23 years, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
But it has struggled to regulate a menace from Al Qaeda and different radical teams, which have exploited the brand new freedoms to radicalize followers and set up networks of cells throughout Tunisia.
The issue first turned obvious in 2012 with an assault on the American Embassy within the capital, Tunis. Three days earlier in neighboring Libya, militants had attacked the American Consulate within the japanese metropolis of Benghazi. 4 People had been killed, together with Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens.
Riots in Tunis and two political assassinations by a Qaeda-linked group, Ansar al-Sharia, adopted in 2013. The identical 12 months, an insurgency by Al Qaeda’s North African department started to focus on the army within the mountains of the Kasserine area close to the Algerian border, the realm the place the 2017 gunfight would later erupt.
Assaults on the police escalated across the nation. Then in 2015, there have been two massacres of overseas vacationers that captured worldwide consideration — one at a museum in Tunis and the opposite on the seaside resort of Sousse on the Mediterranean.
Within the Nationwide Bardo Museum assault on March 18, two attackers killed 22 folks, largely vacationers. 4 months later, the taking pictures on a seaside and inside a resort in Sousse killed 39.
In March 2016, jihadists mounted an assault from Libya on police and army posts within the border city of Ben Gardane, which Tunisian forces efficiently countered.
Tunisia has succeeded in dismantling a lot of the militant networks since 2015, in line with authorities officers, diplomats and safety analysts. Nevertheless it nonetheless faces threats.
Final month, a civilian was not too long ago beheaded and mines had been planted close to his physique. Troopers had been wounded in a separate mine blast, in line with the Ministry of Protection.
“The jihadist cells have fully given up the playbook of gaining the sympathy of the inhabitants,” mentioned Matt Herbert, a director of Maharbal, a Tunisian strategic consulting agency. Now, he mentioned, they’re making an attempt to terrorize them.
In October final 12 months, a suicide assault on Avenue Habib Bourguiba, the principle avenue in downtown Tunis, wounded 20 folks. The one one who died was the bomber — a lady recognized as Mouna Guebla who was not on the authorities’ radar.
However a suicide assault within the capital set off alarm bells for the federal government as a result of it got here after three years of laborious work and dear safety funding in opposition to the terrorist networks.
Prime Minister Youssef Chahed helps the struggle in opposition to terrorism. The federal government spends 15 % of its price range on the protection and inside ministries for that objective, he mentioned not too long ago. However he acknowledged that this has come at a value for different urgent issues, similar to poverty and unemployment.
Officers level to enhancements in logistics and operations within the struggle in opposition to terrorism. However the nation remains to be fighting its porous borders with Libya and Algeria, which function transit areas for Al Qaeda’s department in North Africa and in addition to the stays of Islamic State cells in Libya.
The 2017 conflict involving the Marines was a reminder of the resilience of the jihadists, even amid the mixed American-Tunisian efforts. Within the Kasserine mountain space, just a few dozen guerrillas are lively at any given time. But due to its proximity to the Algerian border, the Tunisian military has struggled to safe it.
The group of Marines was on a three-day mission with Tunisian forces when it bought right into a “fierce struggle in opposition to members of Al Qaeda within the Islamic Maghreb,” in line with one of many award citations for the Marines, who weren’t recognized. Though the Marines had been mentioned to be on a “prepare, advise and help” mission, the citations made clear that they had been preventing and, at occasions, directing occasions.
America command withheld the main points of the conflict for “classification issues, power safety, and diplomatic sensitivities,” in line with the report by Job & Function, which obtained the citations, with some particulars redacted, by way of a Freedom of Info Act request.
The award quotation signifies that the Tunisian forces killed one Qaeda operative within the preliminary gunfight, however that the unit then got here beneath correct fireplace from the rear because the insurgents tried to outflank them and a Marine was wounded.
One Marine was recommended for tending to his wounded comrade whereas beneath fireplace and winching him to a hovering helicopter. A second was recommended for coordinating air help from the helicopter and taking on behind the machine gun when the Tunisian gunner was wounded.
In an interview with The New York Occasions in December, Kamel Akrout, a nationwide safety adviser to the Tunisian president, was requested about what had occurred that day within the mountains of Kasserine. He would neither verify nor deny the incident.
“We’ve an intense cooperation with the People, but in addition with different international locations,” he mentioned. “Though I can guarantee you that no Tunisian soldier would settle for a overseas soldier preventing on their behalf. They aren’t with us throughout operations.”