Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s International Connections21 Mar 2013
Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST) is the most prominent jihadist organisation in Tunisia, sharing al-Qaeda’s worldview, and yet its strategy is currently more focused on dawa (missionary work) than on carrying out violent acts. It appears likely that the group will eventually shift to a more overtly violent strategy, and indeed it has already been connected – in some cases more concretely than others – to violence, both within Tunisia and abroad. When considering the question of AST and a turn toward violence, one important dynamic is AST’s considerable international connections, which are worth understanding now.
The group’s contacts abroad begin with UK-based jihadists, in particular Abu Qatada al-Filastini, who is currently fighting attempts to deport him to Jordan. This is a natural set of connections to start with due to AST leader Abu Iyad al-Tunisi’s history: as he has explained, he spent time in Britain, and associated with Abu Qatada there, before going on to fight in Afghanistan. (Some jihadist forums have described him as Abu Qatada’s “disciple”.)
The BBC’s monitoring service has also noted Abu Iyad’s connection during his time in Britain to prominent Egypt-born salafi jihadist scholar Hani al-Siba’i, who heads what he calls the “Al-Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies”. Al-Siba’i has maintained his loyalty to Abu Iyad over the years, delivering a March 2012 video address that was sponsored by AST to a Tunisian salafi audience: his sermon attacked Muslim scholars who he said misled the umma (body of believers) into serving as tools of Western powers. When AST’s second annual conference was held in Kairouan from May 20-23, 2012, al-Siba’i was one of several foreign scholars to address the audience by video. He attacked the ruling government as “unbelievers and servants of France” in his message.
Several of the other scholars to address the Kairouan conference were, like al-Siba’i, born in Egypt. Ahmad Ashush issued a written statement expressing his “endorsement and support” of AST, hoping that the group would bring rule based on sharia to Tunisia. The Egyptian salafi jihadist cleric Marjan Salim issued a video address warning against discord amongst Muslims, pointing to the disaster that befell the “Islamic state” that the Taliban had erected in Afghanistan.
Major salafi jihadist figures from several other countries also used the Kairouan conference as an opportunity to express their support. Moroccan clerics Umar al-Haddushi and Hasan al-Kattani travelled to Tunisia to attend, only to find themselves turned away when they tried to enter the country: the Tunisian government had placed them on a blacklist due to their involvement in terrorist attacks in Morocco. Jordanian cleric Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi, who has been involved in spurring jihadists to enter the Syrian war, also contributed a video address. In it, he quoted bin Laden and urged a future revolution to spur a salafi takeover in place of the democratic system that is “the fetish of the modern era”.
AST has also won the praise and endorsement of highly influential online salafi jihadist clerics. Abu Sa’d al-Amili has referred to Tunisia in several articles and messages. One 2012 article presented a roadmap for spreading salafi jihadist ideology in Tunisia. Though the article did not specifically mention AST, it is the most prominent group engaged in such work. Near the end of the year, al-Amili issued a statement through AST’s media arm, Al-Bayariq Media Establishment, that attacked Ennahda’s embrace of democracy and told AST members to be prepared to fight with “sword and pen”. (This represented a bit of a reversal from al-Amili’s previous statements encouraging Tunisian salafi jihadists to refrain from violence.) And in January 2013, he wrote an editorial in the Global Islamic Media Front’s magazine Sada al-Jihad (Echo of Jihad) praising the challenge AST posed to Tunisia’s “false” government.
The influential sheikh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, who is believed to be Mauritanian, posted an article to the website Minbar al-Tawhid wal-Jihad on May 29, 2012, entitled “We Are Ansar al Sharia”. It encouraged jihadists in Egypt, Jordan, and Libya to operate under the Ansar al Sharia brand, and to vigorously undertake dawa in those countries. Less than two weeks later, in early June 2012, al-Shinqiti issued a fatwa that posted to Minbar al-Tawhid wal-Jihad describing AST as “an exemplary model”, and stating that joining the group “should be almost compulsory”.
But most significant among major salafi jihadist figures who have weighed in on Tunisia is Ayman al Zawahiri, who issued a message in June 2012 blasting Ennahda, and accusing it of creating a new practice of Islam designed to please the United States and serve American interests. BBC’s monitoring service noted that this message “could be interpreted as an appeal to the Tunisian people to support the Ansar al-Sharia alliance which has been campaigning for the imposition of Islamic law in the country”.
The connection that is murkiest – and, potentially, the deepest connection with a jihadist group that is currently operational – is AST’s ties to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The most prominent AQIM statement that connects to AST’s situation was released in October 2012, following the AST-led assault on the US embassy in Tunis and subsequent government clampdown on hardline salafists. AST was not mentioned in the statement, but much of the government crackdown has focused on its members. Though AQIM’s statement adopted a conciliatory tone, stressing the need for all Tunisian Islamists to cooperate against a common, external enemy, the BBC’s monitoring service noted that “it might be interpreted as a tacit warning to the Tunisian authorities”.
But there also have been suggestions that AST may be even more deeply tied to AQIM. These allegations have come at both a leadership level and also a level focused on individuals. With respect to the leadership level, a September 19, 2012 report in Algeria’s El Khabar claimed that AQIM leader Abdelmalek Droukdel had sent a representative to a meeting in northern Mali that was designed to establish a shura council between a variety of regional jihadist groups, including AQIM, AST, and the Ansar al Sharia groups in Benghazi and Derna. Many regional analysts of jihadist networks are sceptical of the Algerian press due to concerns that its closeness with the country’s security services can result in false information being disseminated with ulterior purposes behind it; although the other side of this relationship is that Algeria’s media sometimes gets amazing scoops. Information about the intended shura council thus appears possible yet unproven, as it is yet to be reported outside of the Algerian media.
Far more likely, however, is another report from the Algerian media. When a reporter for Echourouk El-Youmi visited northern Mali while it was under hardline Islamist control, he interacted with a number of foreigners whom he reported “talked about themselves and their experiences” with a number of regional jihadist groups, including AST. There are a few reasons this report appears likely despite analysts’ scepticism of the Algerian press. First, the reporter spoke with these jihadists while he was on the ground, rather than learning about them through intelligence sources. Second, Tunisian salafi jihadists are known to have considerable connections to other regional militant networks. The Tunisian Combatant Group has been associated with AQIM; Tunisians previously detained at Guantanamo Bay attended AST’s second Kairouan conference (including being featured as speakers); and Tunisians have been well represented both amongst suicide bombers in the Iraq war and foreign fighters in the Syrian conflict. These connections make it likely that Tunisians affiliated with AST would end up in northern Mali.
Overall, AST’s connections to transnational jihadism are considerable. These connections may take on increasing significance when AST makes the transition from a strategy primarily focused on dawa to one that actively embraces jihad.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a Associate Fellow at ICCT and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. . While here, he is working on a major project examining the security implications of the change in regime in Tunisia.