Why is Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s Leader Threatening the Government?

Yesterday, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s fugitive leader Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (Saif-Allah Benahssine) issued a bellicose statement threatening the overthrow of Tunisia’s government if it interfered with AST. Abu Iyad specifically threatened to cast the Tunisian government into the “dustbin of history.” (For a more complete translation of Abu Iyad’s statement than appears in press reporting, see this post at Long War Journal.) Abu Iyad’s statement is noteworthy, and perhaps surprising, because it represents the first time he has made a threat against Tunisia’s government: he had previously affirmed, on multiple occasions, that “Tunisia is a land not of jihad, but of preaching (dawa).” In this sense, the statement represents a deviation from the strategy AST has established toward the use of violence, albeit perhaps a smaller deviation than it appears at first glance.

AST’s strategy toward use of violence has had a few distinct characteristics. AST has publicly condemned the use of violence, as when Abu Iyad told Al Jazeera in July 2011 that “we have the gentlest attitude” toward the Tunisian people, “and will never be dragged into harming them in any way.” But on the other hand, AST has been purposefully ambiguous about its connection to actual acts of violence — it seems to have been involved in several such acts, but with plausible deniability built in. Essentially, AST’s strategy was designed to intimidate its domestic opponents through the use of force, and consistently expand the boundaries of what might be considered “acceptable violence” (in other words, acts of violence that won’t trigger a state crackdown). At the same time, AST maintained its ability to operate openly, and in that way build its base and power:

  • AST’s official position has been that Tunisia is a land of dawa, and not of jihad.
  • AST has undertaken violence against civilians, while maintaining ambiguity about whether the group was actually carrying out such attacks. I recently wrote an article for Foreign Policy outlining the rise in hardline salafi vigilante violence in Tunisia: though AST hasn’t claimed any of those acts, the degree of organization involved in several of them suggests AST involvement.
  • AST occasionally pushes the boundaries of acceptable violence against foreign targets of jihad. Most prominently, AST was fairly clearly behind the September 2012 assault on the U.S. embassy in Tunis, something that one can discern even from its social media activity.
  • AST consistently undertakes dawa to grow its organization, including through the provision of social services.
  • Though the evidence on this point is somewhat ambiguous, AST seems to be stockpiling weapons for use at some point in the future. This is consistent with the advice of jihadist ideologues and strategists such as Hamzah bin Muhammad al-Bassam and Abu Sa’ad al-Amili (with whom AST enjoys a particularly close relationship).

Abu Iyad’s statement is a departure from this established strategy because it threatens the Tunisian state for the first time. So what could explain this move? Here are several possibilities, moving from what I consider the most likely to the least likely:

  • AST may be concerned that the anti-terror crisis cells Tunisia is setting up, in addition to other arrests of salafis following the assassination of Chokri Belaid, suggests that Tunisia intends to get tougher on AST in a way that may threaten its growth. There are so many candidates to have assassinated Belaid that it is entirely conceivable (perhaps likely) that AST didn’t carry out that killing. If so, Abu Iyad’s statement may also send a message to Ennahda warning them about pinning the killing on salafis. If, on the other hand, AST did kill Belaid, this may be a warning to Tunisian politicians that they too may be individually targeted. Either way, the goal of the warning is to coerce the Tunisian government to maintain its policies of containing AST, rather than moving toward a crackdown.
  • AST may think the government will be unwilling or unable to escalate following the threat. If so, this further pushes out the bounds of acceptable violence within Tunisian society through a direct threat against the state that essentially goes unanswered.
  • AST may believe it has gained enough strength that it can withstand any government response. In that way, this threat could represent another step toward AST fully establishing itself as a parallel state structure.
  • It could be an emotional error on Abu Iyad’s part, especially given that he has been living as a fugitive for months.
  • Finally, AST may believe that now is the time to transition from dawa to jihad. This option seems quite unlikely.
It is well worth watching how both the Tunisian state and also AST react following this threat.
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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.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq Enters the Syrian Conflict

Earlier this morning, the Islamic State of Iraq, the front name for al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI), claimed responsibility for a March 4th attack that killed 48 Syrian soldiers and nine Iraqi guards. This was the first confirmed case of AQI announcing its involvement in what is now the greater Syrian conflict. As Syrian jihadist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (JN), which according to the US government was originally established by AQI, continue to consolidate their hold on border posts and regions along the Syrian-Iraqi border, it is likely that more cross-border incidents could occur. This attack also highlights the potential for a more permissive jihadist corridor of open coordination between western Iraq and eastern Syria, the zones where jihadists are strongest in each country.

It is unsurprising that the Syrian-Iraqi border would start to heat up. There is a history going back to the US-led Iraq war last decade that connected eastern Syria to the jihadist front in western Iraq. At the time, the Assad regime turned a blind eye to the staging ground that AQI used in eastern Syria for facilitating training, weapons and fighter trafficking, and document forgery. In other words, eastern Syria was a key hub for the lifeline of AQI’s efforts. Not until 2007 did the Assad regime start cracking down on these networks.

This is also one of the reasons for the rapid rise of JN last year. Unlike other groups, they were not completely starting from scratch. Many of the Syrians that lead JN previously fought with AQI during the height of the jihadist insurgency last decade. Further, according to the US Treasury Department’s designation of JN, in the fall of 2011, AQI sent two senior leaders Maysar Ali Musa Abdallah al-Juburi and Anas Hasan Khattab to help establish and prepare the groundwork for the creation of JN in January 2012. Therefore, while JN is majority Syrian, there are past and present links between it and AQI.

The recent JN seizure of the border post at Yarubiyah on March 2 as well as JN’s leading role in governance and social welfare in the Eastern Region of Syria highlights the soft nature of the Syrian-Iraqi border since jihadists do even not recognize such lines. Put together, it is possible that JN and AQI might start openly coordinating attacks, whereby JN attacks border crossings, Syrian soldiers try to take safe haven in western Iraq, and AQI is waiting on the other side to finish the job.

AQI now also has other motivations for overtly taking part in the fight against the Assad regime. The sectarianization of the Syrian conflict coupled with the nature of the Iraqi Sunni lot has provided an opportunity for AQI to regain its credibility among the Iraqi Sunni community, which turned on it as a result of its excessive violence and perceived foreign implementation of sharia last decade. As the Sunni protests in western Iraq have picked up steam over the past year, AQI has attempted to co-opt it by cultivating a narrative that it is the only true defenders of the Sunni community. They even went so far as calling a video “The Anbar Spring.”

Through the Syrian conflict, by defending the Sunnis there, AQI will try to convince Iraqi Sunnis that they are on their side too against the marginalization of the Shia-led Iraqi government. All of this also feeds into AQI’s master narrative regarding the Iraqi government as truly doing the bidding of the Iranian regime. In light of Iran and Hizbullah going all in on Syria and assisting the Assad regime, what began as local fights in Syria and Iraq, could meld together through the work of AQI and JN.

The announcement of involvement by AQI in killing the Syrian soldiers illustrates how the Syrian conflict is no longer confined to its borders. The longer the fight against the Assad regime continues the more likely more incidents like this are to occur. Jihadist actors have a key motivation for this: they do not see the Syrian conflict through a nationalist lens, but as part of their greater global conflict to reestablish the Caliphate. Through sectarian rhetoric, AQI will use the Syrian fight to try and gain more recruits in Iraq and redeem itself for its lost opportunity last decade. Time will tell if they are successful.