The Uqba bin Nafi Battalion, a jihadist group that operates in Tunisia, is quite the interesting group. It has ties to both Ansar al Sharia Tunisia and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which is al Qaeda's official branch in North Africa. Part of why it is so interesting is that there seems to be a deficiency of readily available information on the group. From information gathered from social media and experts in the field, I've found some fascinating information. I am hoping to clean the situation up, so to speak, on some misconceptions of the group I see on social media.
But first, it is important to know the basis of the name Uqba bin Nafi. The name derives from an Arab general by this name, who conquered the Maghreb for the Umayyad Caliphate. As such, he is a legendary figure, especially for those in the Maghreb. This carries over to its new media wing, the "Descendants of Uqba media". Below is a graphic from its (now suspended) Facebook page, courtesy of Gilles. N on Twitter:
Operationally speaking, however, who are they? According to the Terrorism Research and Analysis Consortium (TRAC), the battalion was initially set up by AQIM to recruit Tunisians and then put them through rudimentary training before sending them off to larger AQIM training camps in Algeria, Libya, or Mali. However, the group also seems to operate offensively inside Tunisia, as well. In July 2014, the group was responsible for an attack in the Chaambi Mountains that left 14 Tunisian soldiers dead and 20 others wounded. Additionally, on Dec. 18, the group published photos showing its spoils of war gained from attacks on the Tunisian military. In that same document, they also claimed two attacks on the Tunisian military. You can read my reporting of this over at The Long War Journal, by clicking here.
But the group, through a supporter Twitter page, has also documented and showcased at least one of its training camps in Tunisia. A few photos were uploaded to this page in late December and then were quickly disseminated by its supporters and other jihadists and jihadist sympathizers. The camp, which appeared to be very rudimentary indeed, showed more than a dozen recruits training in an open field. One photo can be seen below:
Uqba's ties to other groups
As I said earlier, the group is tied to both Ansar al Sharia Tunisia and AQIM. In a Combating Terrorism Center report, it was stated that the group is essentially a joint project between the two aforementioned groups. The report later goes on to describe the group as fitting in with AQIM's strategy for Tunisia. Furthermore, Magharebia has noted that the leader of Uqba, Khaled Chaieb (real name Lokman Abou Sakhr), is close to AQIM's emir, Abdelmalek Droukdel. Indeed, Magharebia describes Chaieb as Droukdel's "henchman."
A very interesting assertion of the Combating Terrorism Center report is that Uqba is also concerned with attacks outside of Tunisia. The report notes that alleged Uqba fighters were behind an attack on
an Algerian army base at Khenchela, which is in northern Algeria. The report also notes that Tunisian security officials have alleged that several Uqba fighters have also fought in Mali prior to joining the group. Moreover,the report asserts that Uqba could operate in Mali, as well.
Some have reported that the group has switched alliegance to the Islamic State, but Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, confirmed to me that even from the beginnings of the group, "it was extraordinarily clear where its allegiance lies." He continued by telling me that being a joint project between AQIM and Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, it should be clear that its allegiance is to AQIM.
Indeed, in a recent video released by the group, a speaker identifies Uqba as being part of AQIM. The video has since been deleted from YouTube, but I discussed this fact on Twitter. Below is a screencap of me discussing this on Twitter:
Not only that, but one frame of the video cuts to a graphic showing the pictures of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and Abdelmalek Droukdel. The frame can be seen below. (I apologize for the horrible quality, but the video was not filmed in anything close to high definition)
It is also worthy to point out that in the aforementioned post with the pictures of the "spoils of war", the group did not claim those attacks in the Islamic State name. The group did not mention the Islamic State nor did they mention al Baghdadi in claiming those attacks on the Tunisian military. Some may point to the the group using the Islamic State-style of flag, but this is a misunderstanding.
That style of flag was first popularized by al Qaeda in Iraq (indeed, this group is now the Islamic State) and then spread to other al Qaeda branches. One can find this style of the black standard in the ranks of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al Shabaab, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, Ansar al Sharia Libya, and even some elements of AQIM and even in Ansar Dine in Mali. Using that style does not necessarily mean affiliation or affinity for the Islamic State.
Switching to its ties to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (AST), it is important to remember AST's own al Qaeda connections. AST was noted as being "ideological aligned with al Qaeda and tied to its affiliates, including AQIM" by the US State Department. Moreover, the group has been added to the UN's list of al Qaeda affiliated individuals and entities. But its ties to al Qaeda goes much further than that. Below is a list of just a sliver of work done by my colleague Thomas Joscelyn over at The Long War Journal. He has done an excellent work of documenting these ties.
- Al Qaeda ally orchestrated assault on US Embassy in Tunisia
- From al Qaeda in Italy to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia
- Tunisian government arrests al Qaeda cell tied to Ansar al Sharia
- Tunisian government: Ansar al Sharia is a terrorist organization
- State Department designates 3 Ansar al Sharia organizations, leaders
- Al Qaeda and the threat in North Africa
- UN recognizes ties between Ansar al Sharia in Libya, al Qaeda
Additionally, the aforementioned Combating Terrorism Center report provides another good look at the relationship between AST and AQIM.
This is not to say that the Islamic State has not taken some members from the group. It is possible that some fighters from Uqba has defected to the Islamic State, especially in the Kairouan region according to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross. However, Gartenstein-Ross told me that Uqba quickly made sure to say that the "Kairouan branch spoke for itself". Indeed, he went even further and explained to me that it is important to look at the leadership level of Uqba to understand its allegiance.
However, the Islamic State has also previously released a video featuring Tunisian jihadists in Syria calling on jihadists in Tunisia to pledge allegiance to the Islamic State. While no group was mentioned by name, it is likely they were referring to Uqba and AST. "This is very similar to Ansar Bayt al Maqdis," explains Gartenstein-Ross, "where the Islamic State called on its supporters in that group to pledge allegiance before any official statement from the group." So far, Uqba is firmly keeping itself in the al Qaeda camp.
From all this, it is reasonable to assume that Uqba is still an al Qaeda franchise in Tunisia. While some members have likely defected to the Islamic State or some have expressed support or sympathy, it seems the group as a whole is still loyal to al Qaeda.
It is also reasonable to assume that unless dislodged by the Tunisian military, the group will continue to operate as usual. It is likely the group will continue to recruit and train for AQIM, as well as attack Tunisian military positions and operate alongside AST. It could also be possible another attack outside of Tunisia could be undertaken by the jihadist group.
On Feb. 18, 2015, Uqba took responsibility for an attack on Tunisian military personnel in the Chaambi region that left four dead. In a statement of responsibility released online, the group makes very clear where its loyalty lies.
"A significant message from the Katibat (Battalion) Uqba bin Nafi, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb." Keeping with the trend in the aforementioned video and Facebook post, the group is more open about who they are and where their loyalty lies.