Expert Meeting: Salafi Jihadism in Tunisia

On Friday, 19 April 2013, ICCT hosted the Expert Meeting “Salafi Jihadism in Tunisia: When Will the Violence Begin, and Who Will Feel the Impact?” at the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Brussels. At this seminar, ICCT Visiting Research Fellow Daveed Gartenstein-Ross presented the findings of his research on Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST) and its potential for violence in post-Arab Spring Tunisia.

AST is relevant  both for its significant connections to well-established international jihadist figures – including those from Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, and beyond – and also the strategy it has implemented. The group sees a tremendous opportunity to spread its message in Tunisia, and has been very active in undertaking dawa efforts (missionary work), and even providing social services, while keeping its violent activities at a low enough level so as not to trigger a government clampdown. At the same time, it has used violence, both at home and abroad (including spearheading the September 2012 assault on the US embassy in Tunis, sending AST fighters to Syria, and attacking domestic opponents), and is actively testing ¬– and pushing – the limits of what might be considered acceptable levels of violence.

Gartenstein-Ross argued that AST’s adherence to al-Qaeda’s worldview can be discerned through its social media presence, the statements of its leaders, and its international connections. While al Qaeda were largely absent during the first months of the Arab Spring in 2011, the instability in north Africa following the unrest has provided AST an opportunity to fill the vacuum. AST has also largely adhered to the basic framework that salafi jihadist thinkers outlined in the wake of the revolutionary changes in the region: broadly dawa, hisba (the enforcement of norms in the Tunisian Muslim community), and jihad. At some point, Gartenstein-Ross argued, AST will transition from its focus on dawa to a greater emphasis on jihad and it will likely engage in increasingly disruptive attacks. The September 2012 attack on the US embassy in Tunis should be understood as disruptive in this sense, though AST can easily undertake far more disruptive acts of violence. Thus, part of the response to AST – for both the Tunisian government and also nation-states attempting to help Tunisia transition to a thriving democracy – he continued,  should be preparing to absorb these disruptive acts.

Ultimately, Gartenstein-Ross concluded, AST should be understood as posing a longer term challenge. Economic inequality, corruption, lack of transparency, and the feeling that counter-terrorism laws are unjust, or not serving the Tunisian people’s interest, will all play into its hand. Thus, building the right kind of institutions should be seen as a vital part of counter-terrorism efforts in the country, along with more traditional aspects of the counter-terrorism toolbox, such as partner-nation assistance in building Tunisia’s CT capabilities. As such, helping to develop the right institutions and capabilities in Tunisia is very important, and should be seen as inherently linked to enhancing the security of Western countries.

EU Counter-Terrorism Coordinator, Mr. Gilles de Kerchove, provided a reaction to Gartenstein-Ross’ presentation. Agreeing with the potential long-term threat that AST poses, he argued that the chief priority for those helping re-build and re-organise Tunisia is to finalise the constitution. When complete, he argued, the document can provide clear guidelines and divisions of roles for all areas of governance, including the legislator, the judiciary and security services. Another source of concern is protection of the historical archives. De Kerchove argued that mechanisms should be set up to ensure that, while they should be protected, they should also not be misused for political means. Here, Tunisian authorities can learn lessons from Europe during its reconstruction after World War II and, more recently, the former Yugoslavia. In this respect, he mentioned the Global Counter-Terrorism Forum initiative to establish the International Institute for Justice and the Rule of Law in Tunis as a potentially important contribution to state-building.

During the discussion, the question was raised as to whether AST were a franchise, or even an al Qaeda “re-brand”. Gartenstein-Ross thinks that this is possible, there are certainly ideological similarities and Bin Laden himself had written about the possibilities of a name change to reinvigorate the group. In response to the question “why wouldn’t these people just join al Qaeda itself?”, Gartenstein-Ross elaborated on the challenges that the al Qaeda brand actually entails. He argued that the AST moniker  enables the group to operate freely and openly in Tunisia and are not subject to any of al Qaeda’s sanctions. In terms of AST’s relationship to the current Tunisian government, Gartenstein-Ross thinks that it is, at best, strained. AST do not have a cosy relationship with Ennahda – Tunisia’s biggest political party – despite their platform for a greater role for Islam in society. Gartenstein-Ross estimates that AST view Ennahda more as sell-outs than anything else. Conversely, he argued, the political party views AST as romantic revolutionaries, with some empathy and they certainly under-estimate their capabilities.

ICCT Research Fellow Prof. Dr. Edwin Bakker closed the meeting praising Gartenstein-Ross’ work at ICCT for the past two months. On behalf of ICCT, Bakker also thanked the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Brussels for their kindness in hosting the event.

Implementing feedback from this Expert Meeting, Gartenstein-Ross will produce a Research Paper which will be published on ICCT’s website in May 2013.