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.