Who is Tunisia’s Salafi Cleric Shaykh al-Khatib al-Idrisi?

Tonight it was reported by Express FM that Shaykh al-Khatib al-Idrisi was arrested in Sidi Ali Ben Aoun (in the governorate of Sidi Bouzid), where there has been recent violence in the past couple of days. On Wednesday afternoon after an exchange of fire occurred between militants and national guardsmen, six national guard officers were killed and four were wounded. Contrary to the article from Express FM, al-Idrisi is not the founder of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). In fact, he’s not even a member of the group at all. He is though one of, if not the most well-respected Salafi clerics within Tunisia as well as North Africa writ-large. More importantly, though, he is also viewed as a key unaffiliated spiritual guide for members of AST. His arrest will likely further galvanize those in AST and harden their belief that the state is at war with Islam and will never allow them to practice it as they see fit. It also could push AST away from its dawa-first approach and move into a more terrorism-first approach (something that Daveed Gartenstein-Ross has been hypothesizing would eventually happen), which would make it more like a classical jihadi organization.

Who Is He?

According to the biography that al-Idrisi has self-posted on his official Facebook page, al-Idrisi was born in 1373 H (1953/1954) in the city of Sidi Bouzid and is blind. In 1406 H (1985) al-Idrisi traveled to Saudi Arabia to learn Islamic scholarship under Wahhabi clerics. He studied with Shaykh Muhammad Sa’id al-Qahtani, Shaykh ‘Abd al-‘Aziz bin Baz, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Majid al-Zindani, Shaykh Salih al-Luhaydan, and Shaykh Sa’id Shafa, among others. He spent nine years studying and focused on the sciences of shari’ah and ethics. According to al-Idrisi, he was influenced by the Saudi sahwa movement, which is viewed by scholars as politico-Salafis. When he returned to Tunisia in 1415 H (1994) he wanted to apply their strategy to Tunisia.

Al-Idrisi’s return to Tunisia has been viewed as a turning point where Salafism begins to pick up a larger following within Tunisia, especially around the university. According to Allison Pargeter, unlike the violent trends, Ben Ali’s regime looked the other way with regard to the non-violent Salafis. After the December 2006-January 2007 showdown between Tunisian security and a jihadi cell named Jund Asad ibn al-Furat (more famously known as the Sulayman Group), the Tunisian state arrested al-Idrisi for allegedly penning a fatwa that sanctioned jihadi activity (though there are many who believe these were made up charges and that al-Idrisi was actually against these attacks). He was sentenced to two years in prison and was released from prison in January 2009.

Post-Tunisian Revolution

Since the fall of the Ben Ali regime, al-Idrisi appeared to be gaining even more popularity within Tunisia and the greater Salafi world. His work has been posted to Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi’s Minbar at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad’s website, which is a library of Salafi-jihadi primary sources. Al-Idrisi has also been loosely affiliated with al-Qayrawan Media Foundation, which was established in April 2011 and gained accredation on global jihadis’ premiere forum Shamukh al-Islam in January 2012. There is also a large affinity for al-Idrisi by individuals in AST (more on this below). Based on al-Idrisi’s recent interactions with Salafi-jihadi scholars, while not as popular, one can compare him to the likes of al-Maqdisi, Shaykh Abu Basir al-Tartusi, Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, or Shaykh Abu Qatadah al-Filistini insofar as although they promote and sympathize with the global jihadi cause they are more interested in the intellectual and scholarly aspects of the movement rather than joining the battlefield.

Relations With AST

Based off of field research I have conducted, I have learned that one of the first things that the original AST core did after being pardoned from prison in March 2011 was to reach out to al-Idrisi. Although there is more public distance between al-Idrisi and AST currently, when AST first began, al-Idrisi promoted its existence and early activities via his official Facebook page. AST’s early outreach to al-Idrisi highlights that it wanted strong backing from the ‘ulama to legitimize its cause. Since the spring of 2012, al-Idrisi has been less public in his support for AST. There are rumors that al-Idrisi and Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the leader of AST, differed over strategies and tactics partially because Abu Iyadh was viewed as too activist and political for him. It appears that the current relationship between the two is more seen as an unaffiliated outside spiritual guide and that Abu Iyadh is the link between al-Idrisi and grassroots AST members. Al-Idrisi is who AST members look to for religious advice since they view him as one of the few legitimate clerics out there.

What’s Next?

It is likely that one will begin to see an online campaign for the release of al-Idrisi, not only from AST and other jihadis, but also from more mainstream Salafis as well who respect him as a scholar. This arrest, if it is true, and is not one where is he released quickly, could further push AST up the escalation chain of radicalization and into more overt violence. It is still too early to know exactly how this will play out, but no doubt it will be another key turning point in the relationship between AST and the state.

Tunis Designates Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia

Since the assault on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012, a collision course has been set between the Tunisian state and the salafi-jihadi organization Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). It highlights the utter failure of the Ennahda-led government to fully appreciate or understand AST as a movement. Ennahda believed it could use a light touch approach and attempt to co-opt AST and bring them into the political system. This strategy was fraught with false assumptions; most notably that AST itself stated repeatedly it is against the democratic process since it contravenes Islam and places men on the same level as God. Today, Tunis designated AST as a terrorist organization. How the Tunisian government uses this new mandate against AST will likely provide more information on AST’s connections to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM) and/or the extent to which it has a secret fighting apparatus.

AST’s Public Persona

Following the founding of AST in April 2011, it has promoted an image of an organization only interested in conducting da’wa (missionary activities). The leader of AST Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (better known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi) continually noted that Tunisia was not a land of jihad, but a land of da’wa and that his movement did not carry weapons. Abu Iyadh also emphasized that the media distorted AST and that one should “hear from them, not about them.” While it is true that the majority of AST’s activities have been related to da’wa like passing out religious literature, providing food and medical services to the needy, and putting on lectures, among other things, from the beginning there has been a more nefarious side of the group, too.

Ties to the Global Jihad

Most notably, Abu Iyadh previously was involved in the jihadi counter-culture of “Londonistan” in the 1990s where he studied under al-Qaeda’s European cleric Abu Qatadah al-Filistini. Further, in the late 1990s, Abu Iyadh traveled Afghanistan and was in charge of the Jalabad House, which housed Tunisian foreigner fighters and co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group with Tarek Maaroufi, who is also now a leader, though, with a less public role within AST. Abu Iyadh and Maaroufi are responsible for the planning, recruitment, and facilitation of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Messud, the leader of the Northern Alliance and ally of the West, two days prior to 9/11 in anticipation of the America’s response in Afghanistan. Maaroufi, along with Sami Ben Khamis Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, who are also leaders in AST, were a part of al-Qaeda’s recruitment and facilitation networks in Brussels and Milan in the 1990s.

In terms of post-AST founding, there have also been signs of duplicity. In interviews in the winter of 2012, Abu Iyadh hinted that he was inciting and recruiting members of his organization to fight abroad so as to provide different roles for members who were not interested in only conducting da’wa. There are reports that AST members were in northern Mali and there is evidence that AST members are fighting jihad in Syria. Further, AST’s official news Facebook page since its inception has promoted news and propaganda on and from the “mujahidin” in the various fronts from Afghanistan to Yemen to Iraq to Syria to Libya to Mali as well as typical anti-Western and anti-Arab ‘tyrant’ regime rhetoric. AST even had the London-based jihadi and former leader in the Egyptian Islamic Jihad Hani al-Siba’i Skype into their second annual conference in May 2012.

Vigilantism

Moreover, while AST has not called for jihad in Tunisia, some of its members have been involved in vigilante-type activities going all the way back to late spring 2011:

June 2011: In response to the Tunisian film “No God, No Master,” individuals protested and rioted on Avenue Habib Bourghiba in the heart of Tunis because AST and other Islamists viewed the film as blasphemous.

October 2011: Similarly, only a few months later, in the run up to the Constituent Assembly election, the private station Nessma TV, aired the movie Persepolis. It is about one young woman’s experience of the Islamic revolution in Iran and contains a scene in which God is depicted in human form — a blasphemous act for religious Muslims. This led AST’s leader Abu Iyadh to incite his followers to violence against it and activists looted the home of Nessma’s owner.

November 2011 – March 2012: Following the election, a small group of Salafi students, the ring leader being Muhammad Bakhti a member of AST, started a sit-in at Manouba University to force the dean Habib Kazdaghli to allow women to wear niqab in the classroom and during tests. This led to a violent confrontation with Kazdaghli who was recently acquitted of any wrong doing during the incident.

March 2012: On a day when AST had called for a peaceful protest to honor the Qur’an, most Tunisians will remember the images of young protesters who climbed a clock tower at Tunis’s main intersection to raise al-Qaeda’s black flag. Some of these demonstrators also attacked and harassed a troupe performing in front of the city’s municipal theater.

June 2012: An art exhibit in La Marsa, a suburb of Tunis, which showed allegedly explicit images became the center of attention for AST and Salafis alike. They viewed it as an attack on the ‘holy’ and led to a riot for a few nights and confrontation with the police.

September 2012: Most notoriously, almost a year ago, members of AST as well as other Islamists attacked the U.S. Embassy. Had the attack gone on much longer, it is likely that more American diplomats would have been killed similar to what occurred at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi a few days prior.

February 2013: Following the assassination of leftist political leader Chokri Belaid, AST activated what it dubbed ‘Neighborhood Committees’ and ran around at night in different neighborhoods of major cities and smaller villages waving al-Qaeda’s black flag and serving vigilante justice against anyone they felt was misbehaving. How these individuals would assess this is unknown.

These are likely just the tip of the iceberg in terms of what we know since there have likely been other smaller and unreported incidents, especially in the interior of the country. In addition to this, the Tunisian government believes that members of AST have been involved in the fighting against the military in Jebel Chaambi on the Tunisian-Algerian border over the past few months. It has also claimed that AST was responsible for the assassinations of leftist political figures Belaid and Muhammad Brahmi in February and July 2013. Both accusations are unverifiable and need more independent corroboration, but would not be at all surprising if true.

What Next?

Put together, it is understandable why the government would designate AST. Dealing with groups that use da’wa as a tactic to ingratiate themselves to the local population and therefore make it more difficult to crackdown on the movement is something quite familiar to the United States and its allies as it has tried to deal with groups like Hizballah and Hamas in the past. How the Tunisian government deals with the da’wa aspects of AST will likely show if they plan to fully crackdown on the organization or use a more judicious approach as it relates to actual members that have connections to terrorist activities or associates of AQIM. This will be a difficult balancing act since the Tunisian government if it fails could create a full-blown insurgency, which it is unlikely to be able to deal with due to not having the proper training as well as being stretched thin as it is. We will likely know more about the trajectory of how AST and the government/military respond to this new designation mandate in the coming weeks and months.

New Evidence on Ansar al-Sharia in Libya Training Camps

Over the past few years there have rumblings about training camps in Libya that are run by jihadi entities such as al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib in southern Libya as well as ones by Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), the organization most likely responsible for the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi last September. It has been difficult to confirm these camps due to the secretive nature of these groups and the lack of self reported evidence by these groups. For the first time, though, on August 6, 2013, credible sources within Libya have confirmed such camps exist.

On Facebook, Moaoya EL Wrffli, posted two videos of two separate Tunisians that had been detained by locals in the Darnah region and later interrogated. The two videos below provide fascinating insights into Ansar al-Sharia in Libya and its non-publicized activities as well as facilitation networks as it relates to the war in Syria. Based on the information given in the these videos, even though they were just posted online, it is likely that they are from late spring/early summer 2012. Highlighting that ASL was already at that point very active with training fighters for Syria as well as other likely nefarious activities in light of what we know would eventually happen in Benghazi on September 11, 2012.

First Detainee:

The first individual mentions that his name is Usama al-Jufayr and admits that he is of Tunisian descent. Says he entered Benghazi, Libya in May 2012 and his purpose was for training to go fight in Syria. al-Jufayr states that the group running these camps is Katibat Ansar al-Sharia, which was the name used by ASL prior to consulate attack and only changed it afterwards for rebranding purposes. The detainee claims that the regime in Tunisia needs reform, but the set up in Libya is “al-hamdullilah,” suggesting good or permissive to the activities they are undertaking. It is likely that al-Jufayr is indeed a jihadi because he notes that parliamentary systems are contrary to the Islamic sharia, which in his eyes is the only acceptable system of governance. Further, he notes that those training with him had not been involved in military jihad previously and come from civilian backgrounds. The program takes twenty days and only included up to that point weapons training and no religious schooling.

Second Detainee:

The second individual does not give his name, but claims he is Tunisian as well. This man entered Benghazi, Libya by plane on April 20, 2012 and also joined the ASL camp in Benghazi. He notes that it is more like army training than police training. He also highlights that he was recruited to this camp by a man named ‘Abd al-Rahman from Tunis and had previously not known about it. Unlike al-Jufayr, the second detainee suggests that there is other types of training noting that he had been involved with learning guerilla warfare, booby traps, and surprise attacks. This training was supposed to last for about a month. In the end, his goal was to go to Syria and fight with the Free Syrian Army, illustrating that he might not be a jihadi and wanted to join up for more altruistic reasons, though, it is impossible to know for sure.

These two videos show that although ASL’s public image has been tied to its da’wa (missionary work) over the past eleven months, it is likely that they are also still active in training individuals to fight in Syria. Moreover, it shows in the case of the second detainee that there are active facilitation networks between recruiters in Tunisia and training camps to get fighters prepared for Syria before they head off to the front lines. These two videos likely only scratch the surface. While some might be skeptical of these videos, based on the level of detail, and what we generally know about how these groups and networks operate, I am confident that they are legitimate. That being said, more information is definitely needed to fill gaps in what we know about all these types of activities. Hopefully, this is the first of other leaks that uncovers more information related to the nexus of  these jihadi recruitment and facilitation networks.

Thanks to Adam Heffez, a research assistant at the Washington Institute, for helping with some of the translations of the Libyan/Tunisian Arabic. 

 

Did Tunisia’s Salafi Jihadists Just Announce Their Allegiance to al-Qaeda?

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On Friday, Magharebia came out with a report that has already garnered attention among those who follow jihadist militancy. The publication claims that Tunisia’s salafi jihadists have just announced their allegiance (bayat) to al-Qaeda:

Tunisian salafist jihadists announced their allegiance to al-Qaeda this week, accepting the group’s invitation to wage a holy war.

Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb’s call Sunday (March 17th) to fight Westerners, secularists, reformers and other so-called “enemies” was welcomed by Tunisian salafist jihadists, the movement’s leader Mohamed Anis Chaieb told Assabah.

This was the first time Tunisia’s salafist jihadist groups officially declared their allegiance to al-Qaeda. And the terror group’s call to arms could not have come at a more critical juncture for the still-fragile state.

This is an extraordinarily sloppily reported and misleading article that shouldn’t be taken at face value, although there is a relevant data point beneath the sensationalized presentation. The first, and most obvious, error is that Mohamed Anis Chaieb simply cannot be regarded as “the movement’s leader” in any way, shape, or form. The biggest salafi jihadist organization in Tunisia is Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST), and Abu Iyad al-Tunisi is widely recognized as AST’s emir. Chaieb is an obscure enough figure that most analysts who follow Tunisia and the Maghreb closely have probably never heard of him. He is, in fact, affiliated with AST, as we will detail below. But it is not clear that the statement he made can be construed as speaking for AST as a whole.

The second problem is that Magharebia‘s sourcing to Assabah may be inaccurate (although it is possible that it is referencing a print edition that doesn’t turn up in online searches). There are two Assabah news agencies, one based in Tunisia and the other based in Morocco. A comprehensive search of both websites did not turn up any interview with Chaieb; and an Arabic-language Google News search turned up only three sources. Two of them were Magharebia‘s own Arabic-language report on Chaieb’s statement, but the third source, an Al-Mogaz report, does contain some relevant information. And if Al-Mogaz provides an accurate account of Chaieb’s statement (given that Magharebia doesn’t quote him directly), then Magharebia seriously misquoted Chaieb. (It is also worth noting that Al-Mogaz‘s report doesn’t refer to Chaieb as the representative or leader of Tunisia’s salafi jihadist movement, but rather as a representative or leader, which appears more accurate than Magharebia‘s description.)

Al-Mogaz quotes Chaieb not as saying that Tunisian salafi jihadists will meet AQIM’s call “to wage a holy war,” but rather to do what AQIM asked in its March 17 statement. In that statement, AQIM advised Muslim youth in the Maghreb, particularly in Tunisia, not to leave their home countries to fight en masse, which would “leave the arena empty for the secularists and other expatriates to spread mischief on earth.” Rather, AQIM encouraged Tunisian salafi jihadists to undertake dawa at home. In fact, what AQIM urged Tunisia’s salafi jihadists to do is precisely the course that AST had already announced it was following.

In speaking of AQIM’s March 17 statement, Chaieb explained that AQIM “calls to preserve the gains of the Tunisian revolution.” He explains that AQIM’s rationale in calling young salafi jihadists not to leave their land is because the country is now “vulnerable to the onslaught of secularism.” As an example of this, he pointed to Amina, the 19-year-old Femen activist who posted a topless photo of herself on Facebook as a form of protest. Chaieb’s statement, even if it spoke for all of AST, falls short of being the oath of allegiance that press reporting painted it as.

Overall, though the Maghrebia report is highly misleading, Chaieb’s statement is not irrelevant: it is, in fact, another data point outlining the dimensions of the relationship between AST and AQIM, a relationship that is certainly important to understand. And since Chaieb is largely unknown to observers, we present a short profile of him based on Arabic-language material.

Mohamed Anis Chaieb. Chaieb was born in 1984. He was arrested in 2007, when he was in university as a fourth-year engineering student, and sentenced to three years of imprisonment under Tunisia’s 2003 counterterrorism laws. Since his release from prison, he has been active in AST. Here is video of him at one recent AST event in Mahdia; and he also appeared at an AST event in Kram on December 22.

The Night’s Watch: Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia’s ‘Neighborhood Committees’

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Following the untimely assassination of Chokri Belaïd (Shukri Bilayd), a Tunisian lawyer, opposition leader with the left-secular Democratic Patriots’ Movement and one of the leader’s of the Popular Front to which his party had adhered when the coalition was formed, there was a sense that security within Tunisia could break down. Although it appears, for now, that the situation has calmed down and many are returning to their normal everyday activities, on February 7th, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) for the first time activated its ‘Neighborhood Committees.’ The mobilization of these committees within a mere few hours illustrated the strength of AST’s organizing structures as well as its memberships obedience to orders coming from the top.

The ‘Neighborhood Committees,’ which were originally called ‘Security Committees,’ were announced and set up on October 6, 2012 as a preemptive precautionary measure in case there was a security vacuum within the country. In other words, aspirationally, the establishment of a de facto non-state controlled martial law force if need be (more on if they were successful in their first mobilization below). The original intent of these committees was to safeguard and protect individuals in case the country spiraled out of control on October 23, 2012, which was the one year anniversary of the Constituent Assembly Election. No security issue or vacuum developed and the date passed without the activation of AST’s committees.

This changed last week, though, in light of the assassination, as well as the tense environment on the streets of Tunisia. Some individuals attempted to take advantage of this and began to loot, but many have since been arrested for these crimes. As a consequence of the perceived lack of security, AST called on its followers to mobilize their ‘Neighborhood Committees,’ stating the goal was to protect individuals, their money and property, and ward off thieves and looters. AST also urged followers to remain vigilant and cautious in light of potential gangs and criminality. Within a few hours, AST was able to mobilize members in Sfax and Hammamet for the night of the 7th. The mobilization was even swifter on the 8th whereby committees in addition to the former two came to the streets in al-Zahra’, al-Wardiyyah, al-Qayrawan, Sousse, al-Qalibiyyah, Mahdia, Ariana, Sidi Bouzid, al-Tadhamin Neighborhood, Beni Khayr, Southern Suburbs (Tunis), al-Kef, Diwar Hishur, al-Dandan, al-Nur Neighborhood, Jendouba, the Western Suburbs (Tunis), Matar, the Braka Coast, al-Khadra’ Neighborhood, and Qarbah (excuse the literal transliterations from Arabic in some cases, I’m fully aware they are spelled differently in the French rendering). AST conducted some of their patrols with the League for the Protection of the Revolution (LPR), believed to be a hardline faction associated with Ennahda.

In the pictures and videos AST has posted to its official Facebook page, it shows men either hanging around certain parts of streets or riding on scooters and motorcycles through the center or outskirts of cities. In all cases they are waving the flag made famous by al-Qaeda in Iraq that has the first half of the Muslim testament of faith on the top and under it Muhammad’s official seal. For added effect in the videos, AST adds anashid that provide an even more visceral emotion that is meant to bring out pride for their efforts in “protecting” the average citizen in the particular neighborhood, village, or city. The amount of AST members that helped on patrols varied by place, but has ranged anywhere from 10-50 (if not more). Their largest turnout was in al-Qayrawan, where they also rode through the center of the city during the day this past Saturday in a convoy of scooters and cars holding up Rayyat al-Tawhid (what jihadis call the black flag). AST framed all of this in terms of securing the residents and being the true bearers of stability in the country in comparison with the state and using the slogan ‘Your Sons Are at Your Service.’ As I have argued previously, AST has been in the process of building a state within a state going back to their founding in March 2011. The addition of security patrols to their social welfare provides them a strong selling point for many dissatisfied with the government or Islamists disillusioned with Ennahda.

While this is the perception that AST wants to foster, especially for those not necessarily in these locations, the truth is slightly different. Based on conversations with a few individuals in Tunisia (whom I will keep anonymous), indeed AST members were out in the streets, but their actions were on the whole no more than photo-ops. It is true that in some places they were standing “guard” all night, but truly securing a neighborhood, village, or city seems a bit exaggerated at this juncture, especially since, although many worried that more violence would erupt, on the whole, while things are tense, there has not been any type of descent into chaos. Sure there were a few scuffles and AST claimed they caught a thief with a knife going after a women in Sousse, but overall, one should not extrapolate too much from this episode. As AST’s strength grows, though, and it continues to try and co-opt more hardline elements within Ennahda that are perplexed by the concessions to the secularists in the writing of the constitution and the perceived to-be moderate stances of Prime Minister Jebali. AST is preparing the groundwork for the potential split within Ennahda. It is therefore possible that AST could one day truly impose some type of non-state martial law in some locations. Based on the evidence thus far, though, it would be too soon to ascribe these capabilities to AST.

That being said, the mobilization does illustrate that AST is a strong organization. It highlights its ability to call on its followers in a rapid manner in a variety of locations within Tunisia to respond to a request made by the leadership of the group. As AST continues to provide social welfare services, it is likely that they will be able to further project power in even more locations as well as being able to call on more individuals to back whatever plan AST might have going forward. It seems for now that the ‘Neighborhood Committees’ have been decommissioned until the next crisis (since they have not posted anything related to it in more than a day now and if they were still doing them you can bet they would promote it, though it is certainly possible the committees are still activated), but one thing is for certain, AST continues to gain prestige and credibility among a certain segment of the Tunisian population. Therefore, expect more cases where AST attempts to show it is out hustling the state and other Islamist rivals.

Tunisia’s Contentious Transition

Since Tunisians overthrew former president Ben Ali’s regime in January 2011, its transition to democracy has been pointed to as a shining example in contrast to more tenuous situations in Egypt, Syria, Yemen, and Libya. While the elections for its constituent assembly went off without a hitch in October 2011, the past six months have proven far more contentious and difficult. A political, economic, and security malaise has cast a shadow over the prospects of a Tunisia living up to its expectation of providing a positive pathway to the rest of the region for transitioning to first stable and most progressive Arab democratic state.

Although many have worried about the rise in Salafism in Tunisia, there have been more immediate concerns over the shape and contours surrounding Tunisia’s future political arrangements. The constitution that was originally to be finished this October, a year after the elections has been reported will now be moved back to March 2013. Tunisian officials have yet to change the date of the next parliamentary elections, which are supposed to be at the same time as the completion of the constitution in March. Campaigning while completing a document that will provide the framework for Tunisia’s future is not the most effective way to secure a reasonable and non-politicized document.

Most troubling about the process of writing the constitution as well as developing a competitive political system is the fraying of secular and liberal parties. Party defections and individuals quitting their parties have decimated the two parties, CPR and Ettaktol, whom are in a coalition with the leading Islamist party Ennahda. This has put a wrench in the ability for these groups to apply pressure from the left to moderate Ennahda’s position. Without it, Ennahda has only had to worry about its right flank: the more conservative Islamist and Salafis parties Jabhat al-Islah and Hizb ut-Tahrir as well as the less moderate elements within its own party.

Without a strong secular and liberal opposition the idea of a moderate Islamist party becomes less likely when the only true challenge comes from the right. The failure of the secular/liberals to unite has created such an opening for Islamists. The controversial insertions in the draft of the constitution, which would criminalize blasphemy and limit the rights of women, are the first examples of what might be in store without a strong left-leaning opposition. While some might point to the preamble not including language about shari’a being source of law, Ennahda understands that it does not need it in the constitution because the process of gradual Islamization will take care of it overtime.

Questions surrounding whether Ennahda is up to the task of governing the country and providing a more robust economic future has also come under scrutiny. Many voted for Ennahda due to the belief that they would cleanse the government of corruption. Since in power though Ennahda has acted similarly to the prior regime in terms of nepotistic practices versus a meritocratic process in appointing individuals to governmental posts. Further, the economy continues to sputter yet Ennahda has deceptively reported foreign investment figures to make it appear that they have recovered to pre-revolution levels. However, it did not account for the devaluation of the Tunisian dinar, which was approximately 20%. So in dollar terms, the foreign investment was considerably less than in 2010, but in nominal terms it showed a modest increase.

Another issue many Tunisians are worried about is the very public rise of Salafi intimidation and vigilantism. While much of it is unconnected to organized parties and associations the lack of accountability in response to actions such as harassment of women over clothing choice, confrontation over alcohol consumption, violence over un-Islamic art, and sectarian attacks over Shi’a and Sufi cultural practices has created an emboldened minority. Unfortunately, members of Ennahda have brushed much of this off as a foreign plot or elements within the former regime trying to arouse provocation. The truth is, Salafism has been in Tunisia since the 1980s, it only now has the ability to express itself openly. It is possible Ennahda is also playing politics since they are concerned they could lose votes in the upcoming election to Jabhat al-Islah or Hizb ut-Tahrir.

These actions though are one of the reasons that hinder secular and liberal politicians activists’ willingness to work with Ennahda. They believe as a result of the lack of response from Ennahda they are complicit. While it is questionable and doubtful that there is some conspiracy, the difference in police response when there are secular/liberal demonstrations in comparison to the lack of response when there are Salafi incidents has created a sense that at the very least Ennahda sympathizes with the Salafi causes.

Further, Ennahda’s counter-response to secular and liberal activists’ demonstrating and complaining about these incidents also raises questions over Ennahda’s ability to truly be a credible partner. If Rachid Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda and who is viewed as the most moderate of Islamists in the region, is calling his political opponents extremists and enemies of Islam, it is a damning indictment against him, his party, and the notion that moderate Islamism is actually possible once in power.

While there are positive signs that secular and liberal Tunisians are fighting back against this, it is usually in the form of street activism, which does not necessarily translate into electoral or policy successes. The creation of Nida’ Tunis by a former Ben Ali hand Beji Caid el-Sebsi has given some hope that it might unite forces from the Tunisian left. Many are worried thought that because of el-Sebsi’s past it discredits the cause and El-Sebsi’s project is not actually liberal.

The lefts infighting and impotence and Ennahda’s lack of political courage and amateurism have led to an unfortunate state of affairs in Tunisia. Increased political polarization, a stagnant economy, and feelings of insecurity have created a situation in Tunisia where many are worried about the future of the country. It suggests that despite the high hopes regarding Tunisia being an outlier in its transition, it is in fact more in line with the other countries in the region. Tunisia is just not as relatively dysfunctional and there is still a glimmer of hope for a positive outcome. If the current trajectory continues on this course though it does not portend to an optimistic future.

Jihadi Soft Power in Tunisia: Ansar al-Shari’ah’s Convoy Provides Aid to the Town of Haydrah in West Central Tunisia [WITH PICTURES]

Yesterday, the salafi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia provided aid in a convoy to residents in the city of Haydrah (Haïdra) in West Central Tunisia who have been hit hard by extremely cold weather. This may give pause and alarm to the elites in Tunis. As Erik Churchill, based in Tunisia and an independent development consultant, pointed out to me: “The French speaking elites have been patting themselves on the back the last few weeks for their ability to mobilize aid to these regions. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s work shows that the elites (both secular and an-Nahdha) do not have a monopoly on this kind of social work.”

Over the previous few weeks, there has been a major cold front, which included sub-zero temperatures and snow in northwest and west central Tunisia in regions within the governorates of Jendouba and Kasserine. Due to the remoteness of some of the locations and coinciding with many strikes and protests by factory and distribution center workers, there has been a major shortage of essential goods to stay warm and replenish food supplies. According to Tunisia-Live:

Despite the fact that the new interim president and members of the interim government have visited several regions of the country in the past week, no efficient measures were taken to deal with the scarcity of essential goods in the North West.

However, while the government has failed to provide an answer, Tunisian citizens have tried to create solutions. A group of Tunisians living in Germany started a volunteering company, using social networking to collect covers and clothes for those struggling with the cold in the deprived rural areas of the north-west. The group of Tunisian-Germans were looking for more volunteers within Tunisia to help them deliver covers and clothes to families in need.

Additionally, Qatar and UAE both sent airplane loads of supplies. There are also indigenous Tunisian groups that have attempted to assist, including El Kolna Twensa, Le PaCTE Tunisien, the Enfidha airport workers, and the Assabah/Le Temps newspaper group. Part of the issue is the lack of access due to roads being blocked by as many as 2.5 feet of snow in very rural areas. Although efforts were difficult, an-Nahdha did mobilize some of its supporters to help with relief efforts.

The secular-affiliated relief groups and organizations have targeted its aid more so to the governorate of Jendouba, since that region is viewed as more independent, moderate and socially liberal; whereas areas in the governorate of Kasserine are seen as more amenable to the message of a group like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia. Although the snow has receded in some of the areas, the temperatures remain cold and residents such as in the city of Haydrah, which is in the governorate of Kasserine and about an hour northwest of the city of Kasserine, are still struggling to survive the harsh conditions.

On Saturday February 18th, the non-violent jihadi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (that has connections to al-Qa’ida’s global jihadi online network) announced on its Facebook page that it was planning a convoy to take aid to suffering brethren to the town of Haydrah on Monday the 20th. Prior to driving from Kasserine in a convoy of trucks and vans, the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia Shaykh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi emphasized to his followers the wajib (obligation) of providing aid to those in need as an Islamic duty and that these services were an aspect of jihad fi sabil Allah (in the cause of God), which would hopefully lead eventually to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate. One can see a variety of pictures from Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia’s da’wah activities that assisted the residents in Haydrah below.

Interestingly, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia is filling the vacuum of the Tunisian government, which is dealing with issues related to the economy, writing the constitution, and maintaining order while also redressing many grievances workers have. This type of social work had been what brought popularity to groups such as the Muslim Brothers in Egypt (and to a lesser extent an-Nahda in Tunisia because although Ben Ali’s former regime was corrupted they provided services far better than the Egyptian government). Assisting in social work gave space to preach ones ideology. As a result, if Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia is able to continue with similar efforts along with protesting cultural policies (the niqab and appropriate levels of freedom of expression/speech), one may see its small movement gain wider popularity. This could be especially true in rural areas where many citizens are more conservative, religious, and extremely disillusioned with the governments lack of attention to it. Churchill concurs stating: “an-Nahdha is very concerned that their social bona fides could be usurped by more extreme elements.”

Although in differing contexts, one sees similar efforts to provide services and governance in Yemen by Ansar al-Shari’ah in Yemen as well as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia. This differs from previous methods by jihadis, which did not emphasize providing social services and basic needs like the case of al-Qa’ida in Iraq or even al-Qa’ida Central to local populaces. From this, a potential pattern is emerging whereby jihadis have learned the valuable lesson of providing for locals to curry more support versus blindly just calling for jihad and rhetorically speaking about a future Islamic state. In short, they are actually (dare I say) on a minuscule level providing a positive good versus just wrecking havoc through audacious suicide attacks and bombings. Either way, not only should the secularists in Tunis be worried about the potentially rising popularity of anti-systemic pan-Islamists like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia, but an important aspect of an-Nahda’s raison d’être and credibility is being challenged in the same way an-Nahda did to the old regime.

Convoy on its way to the City of Haydrah from the City of Kasserine

Unloading Aid From the Trucks and Vans

Distribution of the Aid

‘Asr (Afternoon) Prayer Following the Delivery of Aid

Ansar al-Shari’ah’s Caravan of Aid Leaves Haydrah

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