All These Spy Planes Over Tunisia — Where Are They Coming From?
Surveillance flights are more widespread in the North African country than the government cares to admit
by TOM COOPER
On Nov. 23, 2016, Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi finally admitted that U.S. surveillance drones are flying over Tunisia.
Essebsi explained that American unmanned aerial vehicles are “flying over the Tunisian-Libyan border” — and that this is “necessary to avoid cross-border attacks by militants such as the Islamic State assault on the Tunisian town of Ben Gueran” in March 2016. Islamic State-aligned militants also attacked a museum in Tunis the same month, killing 22 people — mostly European tourists.
The Tunisian president stressed that the drones are unarmed, operate strictly with his government’s permission and are based outside of Tunisia.
But it’s possible Essebsi is holding back some key information. Local sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, indicate that most drone ops in Tunisia in fact occur deep inside the country — not just along the border, as Essebsi implied.
And it’s not just American drones flying over Tunisia. Manned spy planes are busy over the country, too.
Broadly speaking, surveillance flights over Tunisia break down into two categories — foreign aircraft flying from Europe, and foreign aircraft coming from Central Africa.
For two years at least, there have been as many as three surveillance flights per week over Tunisia. Most have come from Italy, including reconnaissance sorties by unarmed RQ-4 Global Hawks from the U.S. Air Force’s 9th Operations Group/Detachment 4, forward-deployed at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily.
Nearly all of the Global Hawk flights have “ended” in an orbit around the area north of Jebel Chambi — deep inside Tunisian airspace — and lasted around 12 hours.
In addition, local sources have reported aircraft resembling transports transiting Tunisian airspace on a roughly north-south axis, coming to or from Libya. Since March 2016, the tempo of these overflights has increased to a rate of one or two flights per day.
While some of the aircraft in question have been identified as EP-3 Aries signals-intelligence planes belonging to U.S. Navy squadron VQ-2 based in Spain, the identities of some others remain unclear. The EP-3s were frequent visitors to Tunisia until around two years ago.
It’s possible some were Dash-7-type planes on contract with U.S. Special Operations Command — and which have been flying reconnaissance sorties over Libya since the spring of 2016. A contractor-flown King Air has also operated from the Italian island of Pantelleria, apparently on behalf of the U.S. military.
Significantly, it appears that none of the foreign spy planes are French. This is important. Tunisia’s neighbor Algeria suffered badly under French colonial rule and is highly sensitive to French military ops in the region.
Now, it’s true that French air force aircraft flying to or from Chad have crossed Tunisian airspace — but the fact is, these French planes have entered Algerian airspace, too. Furthermore, in November 2015 France obtained a two-month permit for transit of Tunisian airspace by airliners and military transports involved in the evacuation of French nationals from Burkina Faso.
But the apparent absence of French spy planes indicates that Paris is busy elsewhere — and the Americans are the major players in helping Tunisia search its interior for Islamic militants.