March 23, 2013 2 Comments
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.