Tunis Designates Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia
August 28, 2013 4 Comments
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.
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.
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.