|08TUNIS75||2008-01-24 15:52:00||SECRET//NOFORN||Embassy Tunis|
VZCZCXRO0118 OO RUEHROV DE RUEHTU #0075/01 0241552 ZNY SSSSS ZZH O 241552Z JAN 08 FM AMEMBASSY TUNIS TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHDC IMMEDIATE 4346 INFO RHEHNSC/NSC WASHDC IMMEDIATE RUEAIIA/CIA WASHINGTON DC IMMEDIATE RUEHXK/ARAB ISRAELI COLLECTIVE PRIORITY
S E C R E T SECTION 01 OF 04 TUNIS 000075
1. (S/NF) A new narrative is emerging about the chain of
events culminating in the December 2006/January 2007
disruption by Tunisian security forces of a terror cell in
the southern suburbs of Tunis (Reftels). The new information
derives from the public "Soliman trial," in which 30
Tunisians were convicted of terrorism-related offenses, 2000
pages of evidentiary documents made available to defense
lawyers (which we obtained), EmbOff discussions with defense
attorneys, and media reporting. While we do not present this
new information as fact, it does help paint a fuller picture
about how the terror cell came into being, how it sustained
itself, eluded capture for months, and grew in size. However
imperfect, this information can help us understand the
dynamics at play in the spread of violent extremism in
2. (S/NF) In this cable, we offer a summary timeline of the
events, based on this new information, along with
observations on implications. Of particular note:
-- The original six members of the cell crossed into Tunisia
from Algeria in April, 2006. The group reportedly planned to
launch attacks against "vital infrastructure," "symbolic
targets," "foreign interests," and "Tunisian and foreign
figures" (nfi). There was no mention in the court-provided
documents of plans to attack the US or UK Embassies or
-- The group was armed with six Kalashnikov rifles, one of
which did not work, some magazines, a few grenades, and
walkie-talkies. The group later manufactured explosives.
-- On the run after the capture of two members, the group of
four was able to enlist support from Islamist sympathizers in
Sidi Bouzid, the greater Tunis area, and Sousse. In the
course of a six-week period, the group mushroomed to 40.
-- Those who were convicted in the Soliman trial told their
defense lawyers that the top motivation for their actions was
the war in Iraq. Several had aspired to join the
"resistance" there. Because of the logistical difficulties
of doing so, they opted for "jihad" in Tunisia instead. In
addition, all 30 of the Soliman defendants harbored
grievances against the Tunisian state and its repressive
We will report in detail septel on factors contributing to
increased popular support in Tunisia for violent ideologies,
as well as on GOT countermeasures. End Summary.
Information Windfall Sheds Light
on Dec 2006/Jan 2007 Events
3. (S/NF) In the aftermath of the December 2007 trial ("the
Soliman trial") in which 30 Tunisians were convicted of
various terrorism-related offenses (Ref A), and the court's
release to defense attorneys of some 2000 pages of evidence,
a copy of which the Embassy has obtained, there is now a
great deal of information about these events in the public
domain. In addition, EmbOffs have had lengthy conversations
with several of the attorneys representing those convicted in
this case. These attorneys shared their impressions about
the events in question and the motivations of those involved,
based on both their reading of the court documents and
interviews with their clients. Meanwhile, the January 6
issue of Jeune Afrique magazine carried a four-page article
on the incidents. The article was based on court documents
and interviews with several of the same defense lawyers.
4. (S/NF) While some of this information tracks with
information provided to GRPO through liaison channels, the
sheer volume of information now at our disposal far eclipses
that which has been shared officially. We do not present
this new information as fact. Indeed, defense lawyers
complain that the 2000-page dossier to which they had access
TUNIS 00000075 002 OF 004
was incomplete. One lawyer, noting instances in which the
judge referred to documentation that was not included in the
file, exclaimed: "It's as if the judge had access to a
different file!" Moreover, the defense attorneys'
understanding of the events in question may be colored by
their own individual biases or the subjective understandings
of their clients. Even so, we believe this new information
helps paint a picture of the events leading up to the Soliman
Timeline of Events
5. (C) While it is possible to reconstruct at least parts of
the chain of events leading to the December 2006/January 2007
disruption of the terror cell, even one of the defense
attorneys who had spent hours reading court documents and
interviewing clients told EmbOffs that it is still impossible
to re-construct an exact sequence of events. With that
caveat, a rough timeline follows:
-- Spring, 2006: The Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat
(GSPC, which has since affiliated with al-Qaeda and become
known as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb -- AQIM) instructed
Lassaad Sassi to infiltrate Tunisia to recruit and train
terrorists and develop a network for logistic support.
(Note: According to Jeune Afrique, Sassi was a Tunisian
national who previously served in the National Guard. He was
also described as a former fighter in Bosnia who had received
military training in al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan
before joining the GSPC. In a letter to the editor in the
January 13th issue of Jeune Afrique, the Tunisian Ambassador
to France disputed that Sassi had ever served in the National
Guard. End Note.) According to court documents, the group
reportedly planned to launch attacks against vital
infrastructure, symbolic targets, foreign interests, and
Tunisian and foreign figures (nfi). There was no mention in
the court-provided documents of plans to attack the US or UK
Embassies or personnel. At one point in the trial the judge
asked one of the defendants about plans to attack the US and
UK Embassies, but the defendant denied knowledge of any such
-- April 22-23, 2006: Lassaad Sassi, together with four
Tunisians (Mohamed Hedi Ben Khlifa, Zouhair Riabi, Mohamed
Mahmoudi, and Tarak Hammami), as well as a Mauritanian
(Mohammadou Maqam Maqam, aka "Chokri") crossed the boarder
from Algeria into Tunisia on foot, settling at Djebel
Chaambi, Tunisia's highest mountain, near Kasserine, after
four days of walking. They were reportedly armed with six
Kalashnikov rifles, some magazines, a few grenades, and
-- Late April, 2006: Hammami and Mahmoudi left the
encampment to seek food supplies and to ask a family member
to help them find safe lodging. Police arrested the two men,
who were said to be carrying two grenades and a small amount
-- May, 2006: Having surmised that two members had been
arrested, the remaining four departed Djebel Chaambi. After
unsuccessfully trying to find shelter in Sidi Bouzid, the
group enlisted the help of traveling salesman Wael Ammami to
relocate to the greater Tunis area. They stayed with Majdi
el-Amri and Sahbi el-Masrouki, two members of a "Salafist"
cell in Tunis.
-- Beginning June, 2006: The group relocated to Hammam-Lif,
a suburb approximately 15 km south of Tunis.
-- Summer, 2006: Some cell members drove to Kasserine to
retrieve weapons from a cache in the surrounding mountains.
They were assisted by three students from the Higher
Institute for Technological Studies at Sidi Bouzid. The
members returned to Hammam Lif by bus, carrying the weapons
in gym bags.
-- Summer/Autumn, 2006: The group expanded to 20 members,
changing locations in the southern Tunis suburbs of
Hammam-Lif, Ez-Zahra, and Hammam-Chott to avoid detection.
Sassi began training cell members in handling of AK-47s and
the production of explosives with locally available items.
-- November, 2006: A group of 15 members of a "Salafist"
group from Sousse, led by Mokhles Ammar and Hassanin el-Aifa,
TUNIS 00000075 003 OF 004
fled to a cave in the Ain Tbornog mountain range near
Grombalia, about 45 km south of Tunis. Some of the "Sousse
group" had given up their dreams of becoming "jihadists" in
Iraq, having discovered the difficulties of traveling to
Iraq. Instead, they decided to do battle within Tunisia.
This group had planned at one point to raid a Central Bank
office in Sousse to seize the weapons of two policemen who
guarded the office.
-- December, 2006: The 15 members of a Sousse group joined
the Sassi group, which had already incorporated members from
Sidi Bouzid, Kasserine, and Tunis. Guided by Makram Jrid,
the son of a shepherd who knew the region well, some 24 men
set up a camp in the Ain Tbornog mountains, a five-hour walk
from the nearest road. The encampment included four tents
under cover of dense trees.
-- December 23, 2006: A small group of men stayed at a
hide-out in Hammam Chott, where they guarded explosives, food
supplies, and cash. Police arrested Makram Jrid, of the
Sousse group. He confessed details about the Hammam Chott
safe house and the role of traveling salesman Wael Ammami,
who was arrested the same day.
-- December 23-24, 2006: Security forces surrounded the
Hammam Chott safe house. Those inside refused to surrender,
instead opening fire, wounding at least three policemen. The
two terrorists who were firing at security forces (Zouhair
Riabi and Majdi el-Amri) were killed, and a third was
arrested. A fourth reportedly escaped. Police confiscated
two AK-47s, 315 cartridges and several thousand dinars.
-- December 24, 2006: The Tunisia-Africa Press Agency (TAP)
issued a statement reporting on a confrontation between
police and a group of "dangerous criminals."
-- December 28, 2006: The Army and National Guard began to
conduct search operations in Ain Tbornog mountain range.
Makram Jrid reportedly accompanied the military troops to
lead them to the encampment, but he is said to have escaped
under the guise of saying his prayers. He reportedly reached
the encampment ahead of the military. Sassi's group, armed
with four AK-47s, a few thousand rounds of ammunition,
grenades, and home-made bombs, reportedly held defensive
positions until nightfall.
-- December 29, 2006: Sassi divided his men into four
groups. Two groups of 15 men, led by Mokhles Ammar and
Taoufik Lahouimdi, were instructed to retreat toward Sousse
and await further instruction. Two other groups of a dozen
each were told to take refuge in Tunis. Sassi reportedly
kept with him all of the experienced fighters, who were armed
with AK-47s and took command of the first group.
-- End December 2006/Beginning January 2007: In a series of
clashes with security forces, most of the experienced
fighters resisted: Hassanin el-Aifa blew himself up at the
time of his arrest, causing the death of an army officer.
Sabeur Ragoubi reportedly threw a grenade at security forces
at the time of his arrest, but it did not explode. (He was
sentenced to death in the trial.) Rabia Basha and Mohammadou
Maqam Maqam (aka "Chokri" -- the Mauritanian) fled to the
home of Bacha's parents in Soliman. Police were waiting and
a shoot-out ensued, in which both terrorists were killed.
Five others (Mohamed Hedi Ben Khlifa, Sahbi el-Masrouki,
Makram Jrid, Mehdi el-Mejri, and Riadh Miri), armed with two
AK-47s, grenades, and hand-made explosives, took refuge in a
house under construction on the outskirts of Soliman.
Security forces surrounded the house, and a shoot-out ensued,
killing all of the terrorists. The other inexperienced
members did not offer resistance, and represent the bulk of
the 30 sentenced on December 30.
-- January 3, 2007: Sassi was reportedly killed in a
shoot-out at daybreak.
Motivations and Dynamics
6. (C) When asked about the terrorists' motivations, defense
lawyers told EmbOffs that the number one motivation --
without exception -- was the war in Iraq. Several of the
terrorists had reportedly aspired to join the "resistance" in
Iraq. Deterred by the logistical difficulties of doing so,
engaging in "jihad" in Tunisia became their next option.
TUNIS 00000075 004 OF 004
Defense lawyers also noted that all 30 of the Soliman
defendants harbored grievances against the Tunisian state and
its repressive security regime, whether due to a personal
experience of perceived harassment, or that of a loved one,
prior to being radicalized. One lawyer said many of the
defendants had no opportunity to discuss political or
religious issues with official or private Tunisians. When
his lawyer began a discussion about his actions, the client
asked, "Why did I never have an opportunity to talk to
someone before (I was arrested)?"
7. (C) Asked about the socio-economic status of the convicted
terrorists, defense lawyers explained that there was not a
set profile. Many of the Soliman defendants had been
employed as skilled or semi-skilled tradesmen. (One was an
ironworker, for example.) Some had been students and seemed
to have been recruited as a group among reported
"sympathizers." Lawyers also noted that some of the
terrorists were married, with children.
8. (C) Defense lawyers expressed concern about the apparent
ease with which the Sassi terror cell managed to recruit
members and cultivate a support network. Specifically, in
the space of a six-week period, the group was said to
mushroom from 4 members (after the arrest of two in
Kasserine) to 40. By the same token, Sassi managed to feed
and shelter some 40 men at the group's height. Clearly, this
was accomplished with the assistance of a much broader
network of sympathizers. One defense lawyer told PolCouns
that, based on the patterns of GOT detentions of suspected
Islamists, he was certain that the GOT was still working to
identify all of those who fell into this support category.
9. (C) However subjective and imperfect this new information
about the Soliman terror cell, we believe it can help us
understand the dynamics at play in the spread of violent
extremism in Tunisia. We will report in detail septel on the
factors contributing to increased popular support in Tunisia
for violent ideologies, as well as on the effectiveness of
GOT countermeasures. End Comment.
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