Meeting Report: Jihad in Tunisia?

Date: Thursday 20 February, 18:00 – 20:30

Venue: International Press Centre Nieuwspoort, Lange Poten 10 in The Hague

On Thursday 20 February, ICCT convened the seminar “Ansar al-Sharia’s War with Tunisia: An Escalating Conflict in Context” in Nieuwspoort, The Hague. During this seminar ICCT Visiting Research Fellow Daveed Gartenstein-Ross presented the findings of his latest Research Paper on Ansar al Sharia Tunisia (AST) and described Tunisia’s descent into an internal war. In May 2013, Gartenstein-Ross noted that there might be “a short-term escalation in violence between the Tunisian state and AST”. Though this possibility was not being considered by most analysts at the time, by August the Tunisian government had declared AST a terrorist group and banned it. By the end of 2013 Tunisia had experienced both the bloodiest day in its security forces’ history and also three attempted suicide bombings. This presentation touched upon numerous questions: What are the implications of this war for Tunisia’s future? Is the conflict likely to spread to surrounding states, or to Europe? And, how should the West respond?

Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a visiting research fellow at ICCT, and a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. Responding to the presentation is Dr. Hatem Ben Salem, Professor of International Law and Geopolitics, former Ambassador to the United Nations, Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and Minister of Education under former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

ICCT’s Director Peter Knoope chaired the seminar and opened by noting that although Tunisia is not commonly in the headlines, there is no reason for lack of concern – Gartenstein-Ross’ paper very persuasively argues that AST is gaining ground.

Gartenstein-Ross began by explaining that AST’s mission first consisted of dawa (missionary activities), which they highly publicise through social media. However, in contrast to this, their organisational structure – just like that of many other terrorist organisations – is extremely opaque. The benefit of the latter is that it is hard to prove and assign blame to AST for any wrongdoing and it leaves the leadership of AST open to impunity. Gartenstein-Ross argued that the opacity was a deliberate decision on the part of the leadership.

He also went on to explain how the Tunisian government has reacted to AST. After the banning of their annual conference at Kairoun, there was a noticeable increase in security and the government began to greatly crack down on the group. This increase in security, which has been noticeable in just the last ten months, has had a positive effect with at least one bombing having been averted. While it is important to note that due to their opacity it is difficult to attribute clear blame to AST, the group is at the very least creating a permissive environment for violence.

Gartenstein-Ross maintained furthermore that AST is an unacknowledged al Qaeda affiliate. He also estimates that the constituency of AST’s followers is bigger than estimated. AST is generating a lot of enthusiasm among youth, but Gartenstein-Ross thinks that this is probably only a superficial affiliation.  Now that the crackdown has been enforced, those superficial supporters have a lot to lose, and so, he argues, it is likely their support will dim.

In terms of the future, a serious question is if Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) will intervene, what will happen if/when foreign fighters return, or what would happen in the event of a large-scale attack. All of these three things would affect the situation and are hard to predict.

Dr. Ben Salem began his response by asking for more studies on this subject that will increasingly affect Europe and the rest of the world. Ben Salem disagreed with Daveed devoting his paper to AST, as there are other organisations active in Tunisia, but he did acknowledge that these others are less well organised and not as prolific with social media. He argued that the problems related to extremism in Tunisia are particularly linked with the Tunisian Salafis, and their main aim is global jihad and to eradicate secular states. This is not just a Tunisian problem but an international one. Ben Salem further argued that there are at least 4,000 Tunisians fighting in Syria. He remarked that there are thousands of Salafis in Tunisia, and Tunisia is unfortunately at war with them and their brand of terrorism.

Ben Salem worried greatly about future global developments including the pull-out of US forces in Afghanistan and a potential (eventual) stabilisation in Syria which will prompt foreign fighters to return or migrate to new areas. He feared that we may be gearing up to a “clash of civilisations”: a conflict between secularists and jihadists. Tunisia, in Ben Salem’s opinion, is not set up to deal with this. He agreed with Gartenstein-Ross saying that the security forces are not prepared for this problem and there is no historical precedent for dealing with this threat. He hoped that Europe will support and stand next to Tunisia to help. A response to these developments should be unified and global.

The floor was then opened up to discussion with one participant asking what the response of the Tunisian government is to counter AST’s advertising and publicity machine. Gartenstein-Ross acknowledged that there has not been much of a response from the Tunisian government, as they are not prepared to deal with this yet. Ben Salem agreed and argued that one of the most important debates is about the role of the mass media. One of the benefits of the revolution was the opening of the freedom of speech, before the revolution even the ministers were not allowed to talk freely. He argued that civil society and the media will play an important role. But the country is still in transition, there is not an adequate professional level yet. Even journalists are not yet used to the level of openness in the country.

Another participant asked how important the role of the political transition is and of those who were in the President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali government being integrated into the new government? Ben Salem argued that Tunisia is now closing that chapter. The task of the current government is to stabilise Tunisia and to organise the next elections. The meeting closed with an informal drinks reception.

Agenda
17:45 – 18:00     Doors open, coffee and tea served
18:00 – 18:10     Welcome by Peter Knoope (Director, ICCT)
18:10 – 18:40     Ansar al-Sharia’s War with Tunisia by Daveed Gartenstein-Ross (Visiting Fellow, ICCT)
18:40 – 19:00     Response by Dr. Hatem Ben Salem
19:00 – 19:30     Panel Discussion
19:30 – 20:00     Drinks reception

Download the Research Paper “Raising the Stakes: Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s Shift to Jihad” (February 2014) here.

You can read Mr. Gartenstein-Ross’ 2013 Paper “Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia’s Long Game: Dawa, Hisba and Jihad” (May 2013) here.