Tunisia: Joint operation between Tunisian and U.S. forces targeted AQIM militants in Kasserine – “Battle of Mount Semmama”
In an article by Task and Purpose, previously undisclosed information revealed that two U.S. members of the Marine Special Operations Command (MSOC), also referred to as Marine Raiders had received decorations (Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with Combat “V”) following a battle with militants of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) at an unknown location in Northern Africa. The article provides a relatively detailed account of the course of the battle, notably that air-support was called in following an initial engagement which resulted in the killing of a militant. However, specific details about the operation were withheld due to “classification considerations, force protection, and diplomatic sensitivities”. It was further stated that the events occurred within the frame of “..a three-day operation to train, advise, and assist partner forces in the unnamed country”.
In any case, the article does reveal some crucial details about the operation including the date, February 28, 2017, and the identity of the opposing belligerent, as previously mentioned, Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. This information enabled a rapid identification by triangulation of the actual event which undoubtedly took place on the aforementioned date in the area of Douar el Atrach at Mount Semmama, situated in the Kasserine Governorate of Tunisia. Notwithstanding that it is speculated in the article where the actual events took place, unknowingly, it testifies about a fierce battle between joint Tunisian and U.S. forces against militants of Katibat Uqba Bin Nafaa (KUBN), AQIM’s Tunisian branch. Militants attempting to flank U.S. forces and its Tunisian counterparts, as well as returning accurate fire, wounding a Tunisian M60 gunner aboard a helicopter accompanied by U.S. soldiers, one of the U.S. soldiers taking over the control of the M60 machine gun in order to maintain suppressive fire against the enemy. Eventually, Tunisian forces secured the site of the battle, which resulted in the killing of two militants including an Algerian and a Tunisian, a Steyr AUG rifle, magazines, ammunition, solar cells, and medical supplies were also seized. While not of comparable magnitude, the U.S. and its partner force (Tunisian Armed Forces) sustained one casualty each, echoing the dramatic events that took place seven months later in Tongo Tongo, Niger.
The personal trajectories of the two militants killed differ significantly. The Algerian, Hichem Messaadia began his journey of jihad in his early 20s. In early 2006, Messaadia crossed the border from Syria into Iraq where he in Al-Qaim fought for several factions before ending up in Tandhim Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Al-Qaeda in Iraq) under the leadership of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. After about a year on the field, a militant gathering was hit by a U.S. airstrike, most of Messaadia’s companions were either killed or wounded, Messaadia himself was wounded. Lonely he escaped to Syria for treatment and to heal his wounds. Despite the willingness to return to Iraq upon recovery, the communication lines with the comrades in Iraq had been broken. Stranded, Messaadia went to Turkey in preparation to make hijra (emigrate) to Afghanistan. A house where Messaadia stayed was raided by Turkish security forces, and Messaadia once again returned to Syria. Contacts with Iraq were resumed but his group was monitored. Ultimately, he was arrested and detained by Syrian intelligence at the infamous Fir’a Filistin (Palestine Branch) for three months before being extradited to Algeria and handed over to Algerian intelligence. Back in Algeria, Messaadia toured the prisons of Harrach, Serkadji, and Berrouaghia. Following his release, he joined militants in the Aurès mountains, roaming the hills, plains, and valleys before reaching the western highlands of Tunisia. The Tunisian killed, Ammar Alaoui, was born and raised in El Kef, staggering through his youth and life as an adult, spending time in prison for common law crimes. At the age of thirty, he became more religious and started frequenting mosques, seemingly like so many other Tunisian youths and young men, feeling disenfranchised, confronted with a lack of prospects for the future, probably also influenced by fellow inmates during his stay in prison. In 2015, Alaoui joined KUBN at Mount Ouergha, the Kef Governorate’s largest mountain range which constitutes KUBN’s secondary stronghold. Alaoui was reported to have provided support for militant groups, planted IEDs at Mount Ouergha, and taking part in more than one attack against Tunisian defense and security forces. Alaoui later linked up with militants in the Kasserine mountains amidst increased pressure in the highlands of Kef.
While Tunisia has been a key regional U.S. counter-terrorism partner post-9/11, annually receiving substantial security assistance, more recent involvement in counter-terrorism operations dates back to February 2014, when a team of fewer than 50 U.S. special operations troops was deployed to a remote base in western Tunisia. In the wake of a terrorist attack against the Bardo Museum in Tunis in March 2015, U.S. forces provided operational support amidst a counter-terrorism operation targeting core members of KUBN in Sidi Aich, Gafsa. Possibly taking part in a raid in July 2015 in Ben Guerdane against the home of arms smuggler, Hocine Rebai (Maiz), also known as “the Prince of the Borders” with connections to militant networks. Later the same year, a joint force consisting of U.S. advisors and Tunisian soldiers discovered a militant camp in the heights of Kasserine. The joint force only observed the camp and did not launch any assault due to the presence of women and children at the site. The United State Air Force (USAF) component of the United States Africa Command (Africom) has frequently flown intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions across Tunisia from Sigonella and Pantelleria, Italy. U.S. staff and Reaper drones have also operated out of the Sidi Ahmed Air Base in Bizerte.
Beyond the various dimensions of U.S.-Tunisian partnership in the domain of counter-terrorism, this particular event apparently surfaced because of the dramatic circumstances. However, it would be naive to believe that this was an isolated incident limited to a three-day training and advisory mission considering the documented presence of U.S. forces on Tunisian soil for more than four and a half years. Noteworthy, in the context of a low-level insurgency driven by a number of militants estimated between 100-200 individuals, the number 200 representing the very upper end of estimates. On February 17, 2017, eleven days prior to the publicized operation, another operation had taken place in Ain Fara at Mount Semmama, resulting in the killing of two KUBN militants. Once again, an Algerian and a Tunisian, just like the events involving the joint Tunisia-U.S. force. The “Battle of Mount Semmama” was effectively fought between February and May 2017 including a detour operation in Sidi Bouzid that resulted in the elimination of KUBN’s emir, the Algerian Sofiane Segni (“Abu Sufyan al-Soufi”) and his Tunisian associate Iheb Yousfi (“Abu Yaqin al-Qayrawani”). Segni and Yousfi had descended the mountain and were holed up in a safe house in the town of Sidi Bouzid. It was a month ahead of Ramadan, the month of “raids and conquests”, the two militants had planned to carry out attacks. On April 30, Special Units of the National Guard (USGN) launched a pre-emptive operation by assaulting the safe house. Segni cornered, detonated his explosive belt, Yousfi also equipped with an explosive belt was shot dead before he managed to detonate his device. The operation had ended, two AKs and a hand grenade had been seized, a dozen people including the owner of the safe house were arrested. Segni had been sought by authorities since late March 2015, accused of having planned the mass-casualty attack which had targeted tourists at the Bardo Museum in the capital of Tunis.
Militant presence at Mount Semmama did not end with the battle that raged during the spring of 2017, IEDs have continued to be triggered by soldiers conducting combing operations, and shepherds herding their flocks of sheep or goats, repeated shellings and airstrikes against suspected militant positions, and militants raiding villages adjacent to the mountains in hunt for supplies. On January 20, 2018, an operation conducted by USGN targeted two KUBN cadres on the western hillside of Mount Semmama near the town of Khmouda, namely two Algerians, Bechir Neji and Bilel Kobbi. Neji, a veteran described as a mountain guide with excellent knowledge of the mountain routes between Tunisia and Algeria, while Kobbi has been attributed the assignment of reorganizing KUBN and being an aide of AQIM emir Abdelmalek Droukdel, functioning as the liaison between Tunisia and Algeria. A media hype surrounded the deaths of Neji and Kobbi, portraying the events as being linked to efforts by Al-Qaeda to regroup and to reunite splinter groups in Tunisia against the backdrop of Islamic State setbacks. Anyways, both Neji and Kobbi had fought in the ranks of KUBN for years. KUBN cooperates closely with AQIM militants on the Algerian side, in particular, Katibat al-Fath al-Mubin active in the provinces of Tebessa, Khenchela and El Oued. Militants frequently move back and forth across the border. Naturally, since their areas of operations are found in the borderlands, stroking the frontier on the Tunisian side from Jendouba in the north to Gafsa in the south.
Arms, ammunition, IEDs, explosives, IED manufacturing materials, and other equipment seized at Mount Semmama, Kasserine (February 17, 2017 — January 20, 2018)