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.

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