Earlier today, the U.S. Department of State designated Wanas al-Faqih (full name: Wanas Bin Hasin Bin Muhammad al-Faqih Husin), pictured above in the middle in the blue djellaba and white skull cap, as a terrorist for being “an AQIM associate who planned the March 18, 2015 Bardo Museum attack in Tunis, Tunisia that killed at least 20 people.” It should be noted that the Islamic State claimed responsibility for the Bardo attack, though the Tunisian government in the aftermath of it pointed to AQIM’s Tunisian front group Katibat ‘Uqbah Bin Nafi (KUBN).
The timing of the designation is also interesting because al-Faqih is currently imprisoned in Tunisia. He was captured by Nigerien security forces in November 2016 and extradited from Niger to Tunisia in January 2017 on twenty-nine charges related to terrorism. Since then, there has not been news of him being released from prison.
Through my research on the history of Tunisian jihadism for my Ph.D. dissertation, which I’m now turning into a book, Wanas al-Faqih came across my radar when I was examining Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s (AST) clerical network. He was a religious leader in AST and based in Mahdia, a coastal city southeast of Sousse. In particular, AST advertised and promoted al-Faqih in three different AST dawa events in Moknine, Kebili, and Sousse. Though he was likely involved in other activities as well.
Al-Faqih’s arrest a year ago wasn’t the first time he had been arrested by Tunisian authorities. Back in May 2013, in the run-up to AST’s annual conference, which the Ennahda-led government at the time banned, and as a result did a series of arrests, al-Faqih was arrested for his AST-related activities on May 20, 2013 in Mahdia. He would be released though a little more than a month later. Probably because he was having health problems and needed a wheel chair, though this was self-induced because al-Faqih and two other AST members had been doing a hunger strike, which likely weakened his body and immune system.
After this, there isn’t too much news from al-Faqih until two years later when he released two audio messages for KUBN — one in March 2015 in the aftermath of the aforementioned Bardo attack, not claiming responsibility, but calling for more attacks against the “tyrant” Tunisian state and a second in April 2015 eulogizing the death of the Algerian KUBN commander Khalid Shayb (Lukman Abu Sakhr).
Again, al-Faqih would go quiet and not be heard from until his extradition from Niger to Tunisia. Suggesting at some point he smuggled his way out of Tunisia, likely through Libya, and made his way to Niger. It also illustrates how jihadis adapt to changing circumstances from an open preacher in Tunisia to a media figure online, and later working clandestinely from a foreign country.
What this designation will actually accomplish since al-Faqih is imprisoned is hard to say, but he’s another case of a Tunisian jihadi that became more relevant and known within the movement over the past seven years.