Tunisia Waged a Successful Air War Against Militants — And No One Noticed
Tiny air force kicked extremists’ asses
by TOM COOPER
The air wars against Islamist extremists in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan receive reasonable amounts of public attention. On the contrary, a much smaller — although still very important — aerial campaign in Tunisia went almost completely ignored.
The usual Western perception is that despite several terrorist attacks, and massive involvement of Tunisian nationals in various extremist groups abroad, Tunisia is the only Arab country that has achieved a successful political transition since the start of the Arab Spring in 2011.
Indeed, some Tunisians are so proud of the success of their country that they call it the “Tunisian Spring,” instead.
While there is no doubt that Tunisia’s made progress toward pluralism and personal and political freedoms — primarily owing to its relatively well-educated and homogenous population and its history of state-encouragement of women’s rights — the fact is that the country could not escape becoming an echo-chamber of the ideological conflicts that are rattling the entire region.
For most of the last 30 years, young Tunisians were raised under a dictatorship that suppressed critical thinking, rendering many hungry for instantaneous improvement, but also causing them to search for religious identity and thus exposing them to extremist preaching.
Although Tunisia entered the period of democratic transition in 2011, anger and hopelessness resulted in thousands of youngsters falling prey to violent networks offering not only economic opportunities and social inclusion, but also a “confident” world-view.
Between 1,000 and 1,500 Tunisians have joined Salafist militias in Libya, while more than 4,000 Tunisians have joined Wahhabist groups in Syria.
Worse, at least 200 have joined the Islamic State in Iraq and another 60 could be fighting for Al Qaeda in Mali plus around 60 for Al Qaeda on the Arabic Peninsula and Daesh in Yemen.
French authorities are known to be actively searching for at least a dozen extremists of Tunisian origin living inside the European Union. This is making Tunisia one of the world’s top exporters of extremist combatants — that is, measured by the relative size of its population.
Finally, since the mid-2000s, several groups of Algerian extremists have fled into the mountains of western Tunisia to hide from prosecution.
In comparison, militant activity by Tunisian extremists at home is relatively light. The movement known as Ansar Ash Sharia was established in 2011 by Saifallah Ben Hassine — a.k.a. Abu Iyadh — a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan in the 1990s and 2000s.
Ansar insists it acts only as a charity, but it’s been accused of serving as a recruitment pipeline for extremists. Tunisian authorities launched a security crackdown on its activists and mosques in 2011. In turn, extremists began attacking police and military bases in the Kasserine area, particularly in Sidi Bou Zid and around the 1,544-meter Mount Chaambi — ironically the very places from which sprang the revolution that ended the 23-year authoritarian regime of Pres. Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Ever since, the country has suffered a small but bitter insurgency perpetrated by an Al Qaeda-linked group called Oqba Ibn Nafaa and several Ansar-related groups.
Unlike in other Arab states, the military in Tunisia has demonstrated no political ambitions. Through the revolution of 2011, it either sided with protesters or remained neutral. Understandably considering the situation, local sources are extremely reluctant to release any details about the military’s ongoing counterinsurgency campaign and thus most of Tunisia’s war efforts escape wide public attention.
Tunisia has a relatively small air force, primarily equipped with U.S.-made aircraft. It’s organized into five wing-like groups, each of which controls one base and anything between one and three flying squadrons. The backbone of its fighter fleet is a dozen or so Northrop F-5E/F fighter-bombers, nine Aero L-59T Albatross and some 16 Aermacchi MB.326B/LT/KT training jets that also function as light strikers.
The transport component operates eight Lockheed C-130 Hercules and three Let L-410UVPs. The relatively large helicopter fleet consists of around a dozen Agusta-Bell AB.205As and 20 Bell UH-1Hs, five Aérospatiale SE.316B Alouette IIIs and six Eurocopter AS.350B Ecureuils. Furthermore, some 15 out of a total of 18 ex-U.S. Air Force Sikorsky HH-3E Jolly Green Giant helicopters remain in service.
Successive Tunisian governments expressed interest in the acquisition of 12 Sikorsky SH-60Fs and then 12 UH-60Ms — together with a sizeable package of advanced weaponry such as AGM-114R Hellfire missiles — to replace the ageing HH-3Es, but the country lacks the money to pay for the new copters, and the West appears reluctant to bolster Tunisia’s counterinsurgency capabilities.
The force saw its first action against extremists in the autumn of 2011 with an intensive operation along the border with Algeria. The op resulted in several airspace violations — five by L-59Ts and another by a C-130 — in an area close to Algeria’s Ouragla air base.
Ironically, while the government of Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika is clandestinely cooperating with several Western intelligence agencies, its official standpoint is that all security affairs are internal issues and no Western powers should meddle. Algerians were thus surprised by the intensity of Tunisian operations and suspected the involvement of non-Tunisian military forces.
After several diplomatic protests, an Algerian Sukhoi Su-30 fighter-bomber was scrambled in reaction to the Tunisian flights. However, the type proved entirely useless for quick-alert duties. Its highly complex nav/attack system requires up to 30 minutes to spool up before take off, and thus the Tunisian L-59 that the Su-30 was supposed to intercept was already back at the tarmac at Gafsa by the time the big Sukhoi got airborne.
The official position of Tunisian authorities is that they do not grant basing rights for any kind of foreign troops on their soil. However, it cannot be denied that they do cooperate with various Western agencies. For example, just weeks after the fall of Pres. Ben Ali, French air force Mirage 2000 interceptors made a refueling stop at Sidi Ahmad air base while underway to Chad.
Ever since, U.S. Navy Lockheed EP-3 Aries II ELINT/SIGINT-gatherers from the Rota, Spain-based VP-2 squadron have been flying weekly sorties over Kasserine and Djerba. Starting in mid-2013, the U.S. overflights expanded to include Northrop Grumman RQ-4B Global Hawk drones from the U.S. Air Force’s 7th Reconnaissance Squadron, forward deployed at Naval Air Station Sigonella in Sicily.
The Algerians eventually accepted Tunisia’s excuses and explanations. Their protests ceased and today the official standpoint in Algiers and Tunis is that all Tunisian border violations ceased on Sept. 30, 2011.
During the first free elections in Tunisia on Oct. 23, 2011, the Islamist An Nahda Party won a plurality of seats. Curiously, this only emboldened the militants. In May 2013, Ansar attacked the U.S. embassy and the American School in Tunis, prompting the government to launch its largest-ever counterinsurgency campaign.
Lasting until August 2013, this included severe aerial bombardment of militant bases in Kasserine and Gafsa areas, followed by the heliborne-deployment of special forces. Once again, Tunisian fighter-bombers and helicopters operated intensively, some foreign observers describing their sortie rates as “incredible.”
At any time of the day during this period, the air force had up to a dozen aircraft and helicopters airborne over the combat zone. As far as is known, it suffered no losses, but several helicopters and one of the L-59Ts returned to Gafsa air base with bullet holes in their fuselages.
Sources close to Western intelligence circles have confirmed the high effectiveness of this operation, citing “excellent use of intelligence” and “sound planning.”
This enterprise proved highly successful. The Oqba Ibn Nafaa group was practically destroyed, emerging with fewer than 30 survivors — 20 of whom were Algerians.
Ansar suffered heavy losses, too, and An Nahda subsequently came under such pressure from powerful trade union and other civil society leaders that it agreed to cede control of the government and form a “troika” — a coalition — with two centrist, secular parties. This in turn opened the way for the drafting of a new constitution that was accepted by overwhelming majority of the national assembly in early 2014.
Sure, the situation in the country ever since has been anything but perfect. Time and again, security forces have been forced to launch additional counterinsurgency operations. For example, late in 2014 the military combed southern Tunisia for members of the Libyan Dawn militia that fled from the fighting in the neighboring country.
In early 2015, the Tunisian armed forces undertook a series of large-scale arrests of extremists suspected of planning assassinations and spectacular attacks on various government facilities. Foreign reconnaissance aircraft and drones still regularly fly over Kasserine and Djerba, and Tunisian F-5E/Fs and L-59s still launch sporadic attacks.
However, the successful counterinsurgency operation in 2013 not only helped prevent Tunisia from descending into a civil war, but also made possible the relative stability the country has enjoyed ever since.