The Washington Institute published an analysis of the situation in Afghanistan and the relationship of the Tunisian Fighting Group and Al-Qaeda to the September 11 attacks in 2001.
The analysis written by Aaron Zelin considered that this Tunisian group launched the beginning of the events of September 11, by being involved in the killing of Ahmed Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001, as a gift offered by the Tunisian group and Al-Qaeda to the Taliban in exchange for fighting their local enemy.
After the Taliban declared victory over the resistance forces led by Ahmed, the son of Massoud in the Panjshir Valley, it is certain that Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups will try to exploit Afghanistan as they did twenty years ago.
Tunisians helped assassinate the leader of the Northern Alliance
The writer says that twenty years ago, on the ninth of September 2001, the Tunisians helped assassinate the leader of the Afghan “Northern Alliance”, Ahmed Shah Massoud, two days before the September 11 attacks.
In the late 1990s, Massoud was a key ally of the United States against the advance of the Taliban, and although his fortunes had changed dramatically by 2001, Washington would undoubtedly have depended on him heavily during the post-9/11 invasion, if only survive.
The writer adds: “If we skip those years to the current week, the moment the Taliban declared victory over the resistance forces led by Ahmed Masoud’s son in the Panjshir Valley is a painful end to the battle that the movement has been waging against the “Northern Alliance” for two decades.”
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However, Tunisia’s significant role and other circumstances surrounding the 2001 assassination deserve a closer look, not only for their impact on subsequent developments in the global jihadist movement, but also for the repercussions they bear now that Afghanistan is once again under Taliban control.
The analysis indicates that the killing of Massoud served multiple purposes, some of which were not fully clear until after the killing occurred: his killing came as a gift offered by the “Tunisian Fighting Group” and “Al-Qaeda” to the “Taliban” in exchange for fighting their local enemy, and also as a public indication of launching attacks September 11 and an important part of Al-Qaeda’s preparations for the coalition’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Here’s the story of the assassination, who was behind it, and why it remains important to those trying to understand how jihadist networks have changed over time—and what kind of agents might be returning today to Afghanistan.
The Evolution of Tunisian Ties with Al-Qaeda
The Tunisian Fighting Group was founded in June 2000 by Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi and Tariq Maaroufi, two key figures in the Arab Expatriate Organization set up to support the global jihad movement in Europe.
Tunisian jihadists were mainly based in Milan, Paris, Brussels, and London, and were known to forge documents. Many of them also fought as foreign fighters in Afghanistan, Algeria, Bosnia and, to a lesser extent, Chechnya.
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During the 1980s, jihadist theorist Abu Musab al-Suri described the Tunisians in Afghanistan as a “scattered group whose image is less than ideal” due to frequent infighting, disorganization, and lack of cohesion within its ranks.
By the 1990s, however, Tunisian elements were essentially serving as mediators in jihadist facilitation networks, sufficiently experienced to avoid internal disagreements and to cooperate effectively with multiple groups.
By 2001, the fledgling Tunisian Fighting Group was ready to assist al-Qaeda in the assassination of Massoud and other plots, as well as planning foreign operations in Europe.
“Tunisian Fighting Group” the killing of Massoud
In the early 2000s, Abu Iyad arrived in Afghanistan after having settled in London since 1994 and studying under the supervision of the Palestinian jihadi ideologue Abu Qatada.
When the Tunisian Fighting Group was founded in June of that year, the group had at least twenty members. Abu Iyadh was in charge of the Tunisian guest house in Jalalabad, while his co-founder Maroufi was based in Brussels and focused primarily on planning terrorist operations and supervising overseas logistical facilities and networks.
At least three other members have held positions on the advisory board of the Tunisian Fighting Group: Lotfi Ben Ali, Adel bin Ahmed bin Ibrahim Hakimi, and Mohamed bin Riad Nasri. Hakimi was Abu Ayyad’s deputy in Afghanistan and oversaw communications and recruitment efforts.
He also took command of the “Tunisia Cave” during the “Battle of Tora Bora” in December 2001, while Nasri was the supreme military commander of the “Tunisian Fighting Group” inside Afghanistan. Other senior members include Abd bin Muhammad bin Abis Al-Aurji, the group’s chief financial officer.
In Europe, Sami bin Khamis bin Saleh Al Essid was a member of the Maaroufi network in Milan, while Kamal bin Musa held a similar role in London.
This network has been involved in several failed terrorist plots on the European continent, targeting the “Christmas Market” in Strasbourg in December 2000, the “European Parliament” in February 2001, the US Embassy in Paris in July 2001, and Belgium’s Kleine-Brogel Air Base in September 2001, and Philips Tower in Brussels in February 2003.
By the time of 9/11, Abu Iyadh had become one of Osama bin Laden’s top lieutenants.
According to a 2016 interview, when Maaroufi met bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri, who eventually became the leader of al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in 2000, he saw this meeting as a “perfect opportunity to gain a foothold within the organization.”
The analyst says: “The fact that bin Laden attributed the assassination of Massoud to the “Tunisian Fighting Group” at this time is likely to reflect the importance of Abu Ayyad.”
The operation was carried out jointly with the military leader of Al-Qaeda, Muhammad Atef.
According to Mustafa Hamid, who is familiar with the networks of foreign fighters collectively called the “Afghan Arabs,” the Tunisian Fighting Group had been planning the assassination with al-Qaeda for more than a year.
Tunisian agents Dahmane Abdel-Sattar and Barraoui Al-Awir impersonated journalists interested in interviewing Massoud, planting a bomb in a camera they stole from a French television network and then detonated near him—according to some reports, detonating the bomb immediately after asking him: “Commander, what What do you intend to do with Osama bin Laden after you have taken control of Afghanistan?”
In the memoirs of Abd al-Sattar’s second wife, Malika El Aroud, entitled “Les Soldas de Lumieres” (“Soldiers of Light”), Malika outlined the link between the components of the “Tunisian Fighting Group” in Afghanistan and Europe. She explained that her husband studied the curriculum with Abu Qatada in London in the period May-August 2000 before traveling from Brussels to Afghanistan.
While in Britain, he obtained a letter of introduction to meet Massoud from Yasser Al-Sari, an exiled member of the Egyptian jihadist “Islamic Group”. Later, when they applied for press visas in Pakistan, Abdul Sattar and Al Awir received stolen passports from Maaroufi, who had obtained them from Milan-based agent Fadl Al Saadi (who is affiliated with the aforementioned Sami bin Khamis bin Saleh al-Said network).
Additionally, although Tunisian agents were not among the 9/11 hijackers, some reports indicated that several of them were involved in or knew of the plot.
According to Nasri and other figures, Massoud’s assassination was a deliberate signal to the kidnappers to begin attacks in the United States.
Elsewhere, Spanish courts ruled that Tunisian agent Hadi Ben Youssef Boudhiba provided logistical/financial assistance and forged documents to the 9/11 hijackers while they were in Spain and Germany.
He later left Hamburg for Istanbul just days before the attacks, likely to be linked to al-Qaeda networks based in Turkey, which became an important logistical and facilitating center for Tunisian jihadists in subsequent years.
One case related to 9/11 remains open – that of the Tunisian-Canadian Abdel Raouf Jeddi, who was initially among the 29 “finalists” to carry out the plot.
He even made a video martyrdom letter and trained on a PlayStation flight simulator while living with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Muhammad Atta, and other al-Qaeda figures in Karachi, Pakistan, that summer.
It is believed that he withdrew from the operation when traveling to Canada sometime before the attacks; According to the 9/11 Commission, al-Qaeda assigned him a “second wave” of similar attacks that he hoped to carry out later.
My grandfather remains on the FBI’s Most Wanted list for further questioning, and little is known about what happened to him after he left Afghanistan.
At the time of Massoud’s assassination, the reality of the involvement of a Tunisian network had not received much attention.
Nonetheless, Abu Iyadh’s work before 9/11—and, essentially, after it—shows why such details deserve close and long-term scrutiny.
In the weeks following the attack on the United States, Abu Ayyad fought the Northern Alliance before fleeing to Pakistan and then Turkey. There, as the world focused on the war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda forces in Afghanistan, he and other operatives helped plan the bloody 2003 Casablanca bombings and the initial stages of the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Even after his arrest in Turkey in March 2003 and extradited to Tunisia, he continued to establish jihadist networks from his prison cell.
Once released with other prisoners after the 2011 revolution, he founded the jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and helped recruit foreign fighters from his country—whose numbers were disproportionately large—to conflict areas in Iraq, Libya and Syria.
This is the nature of jihadist networks: Abu Iyadh is a poorly known follower of 9/11 and even was imprisoned for years at one point, but he continued to play a major role in high-profile terrorist attacks and recruiting in subsequent decades. That is why Washington and its allies should continue to seek a deeper understanding of jihadist networks, individual groups, and plots, because exposing, tracking, and weakening major operatives such as Abu Ayyad may contribute to impeding future attacks and the flow of foreign fighters. Otherwise, individuals and networks who appeared dependent in one decade may later become important local influencers, exacerbating conflicts in multiple countries.
Certainly, Al-Qaeda and its affiliates will try to exploit Afghanistan, as they did twenty years ago.
It remains to be seen if they can succeed again, but their fortunes will increase if individual jihadist “entrepreneurs” can effectively carry out their operations and create transnational networks in the dark.
Aaron Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow at The Washington Institute and a visiting scholar at Brandeis University.
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