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How Ansar al-Sharia grew in post-revolutionary Tunisia

In Tunisia’s post-revolutionary political vacuum with increased freedom of religion and speech, in combination with weak security, the radical Salafist group Ansar al-Sharia could grow in influence without interference. A growth that has left an ongoing battle in parts of the country.

“Ansar al-Sharia is rejected here,” explains Mahmoud, “the majority don’t support what they are doing.” Mahmoud is a 50-year-old book shop owner on Douar Hicher’s main street, just a couple of blocks from the neighbourhood’s main mosque, which was one of many mosques that were taken under the control of Ansar al-Sharia after the revolution.

Douar Hicher is a low-income Tunis neighbourhood, which has become known for being home to a number radically minded jihadists. After the revolution Ansar al-Sharia grew strong here, which some of the neighbourhood’s residents blame on the socio-economic situation not only in this neighbourhood but in Tunisia as a whole.

The group is mostly targeting youth that feel hopeless, argues Mahmoud. “Personalities are fragile here,” he says, “They are an easy target.” According to him the group even approaches young people on drugs. Even though he is not against the promotion of Islam as such, he is against the use of violence. “This is not proper jihad,” he explains to the sound of Koran music in his store.

The rise of Ansar al-Sharia

Abu Ayadh al-Tunisi (also known as Saifallah Ben Hassine) is a well-known veteran jihadist who was sentenced to 43 years of prison during the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali but was, like many other jihadists, pardoned and released in 2011 by the amnesty that followed the revolution. According to Aaron Y. Zelin it was already in prison that the planning of the group’s establishment was taking place and connections were made between those who, once freed, would go on to become Ennahda politicians and others who would reject the moderate Islamism and chose the more radical path. Until today, the relationship between Ennahda and Ansar al-Sharia remains controversial.

Once freed, Abu Ayadh founded Ansar al-Sharia, “supporters of Islamic law.” On 27 April 2011, al-Qayrawan Media Foundation appeared online, followed by a Facebook page with the same name. Soon thereafter, on 15 May, a Facebook page named Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia popped up, at the same time as an announcement was made regarding a scheduled conference on 21 May.

The group quickly gained ground by focusing on humanitarian work across the country. The organization began with dawa (missionary work), which included providing humanitarian assistance to unprivileged parts of the country, while strategically using social media to promote its work. “Suddenly the group appeared a lot even in the media,” explained security researcher Habib M. Sayah. It became a successful outreach campaign, in which Abu Ayadh reportedly repeated that, “Tunisia is a land of dawa, not a land of jihad.”

However, the group’s activities turned more and more to hisba violence (used to enforce religious norms, most often vigilante assaults), including attacks on educational institutions like Manouba University for refusing to allow women to wear the niqab (full veil). The strategy became dawa at home, jihad abroad. Abu Ayadh and other leaders encouraged its members to go for jihad overseas, including joining the war against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, which to some extent can explain why the country is home to a large number of jihadists, according to some sources as many as 3000, outnumbering the reported numbers from both Turkey and Saudi Arabia.

State crackdown

The group operated for almost two years before the Tunisian state, in 2013, started a serious crack down, spurred by a number of incidents. One reason was the sequel conference to the 2012 National conference in Kairouan which saw several thousands participants and attracted both national and international Islamist speakers. The sequel was due to be held on 19 May 2013 but was banned by the state only days ahead and led to clashes between Ansar al-Sharia supporters and the security around the country. The event was the beginning of a tense relationship between the group and the state, which culminated after the country’s two political assassinations of leftist politician leaders Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi were both blamed on the salafist group. Furthermore, only days after the killing of Brahmi, a jihadist ambush killed 8 soldiers close to Chaambi Mountain, which brutality shocked the Tunisian people in the middle of the holy fasting month of Ramadan.

However, the group’s involvement in the incident remains disputed. Analysts doubt that the leadership of the group ordered the killing. Sayah doubts that the two political assassinations were committed by the group. “As an organization, no, I don’t think so.” But whether Ansar al-Sharia members or affiliates to the group were involved remains unclear.

Many Tunisians blamed the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, in power at the time, for not taking the threat of Ansar al-Sharia seriously, whereby the state designated the group a terrorist organization on 27 August 2013. Following the designation Ansar al-Sharia claimed independence from al-Qaeda, stating that it was “not tied to any outside group.” However, its ties to the international terrorist network remains unclear, yet what is known is that Abu Ayadh has close connections to some of the group’s leaders, which has become evident in the rise of the Islamic State (IS).

Al-Qaeda vs. the Islamic State

Ansar al-Sharia has been standing in front of a dilemma when it comes to picking a side between IS and Ansar al-Sharia, explained Sayah. “After the split between IS and al-Qaeda Ansar al-Sharia tried to remain neutral,” argues Sayah, which is largely due to Abu Ayadh’s close relationship to influential jihadi clerics who support al-Qaeda and reject IS. “Abu Ayadh couldn’t afford to contradict them by supporting IS, Abu Ayadh’s network is more close to al-Qaeda’s old guard than the Islamic State.”

However, some of the group’s youth have been lured by the IS PR-apparatus. “Ansar al-Sharia youth found the IS promise of an immediate caliphate more appealing,” explains Sayah and compares it to al-Qaeda’s more long-term strategy and adds, “I can imagine that Abu Ayadh’s neutral position has created some tensions, especially for some of the younger members of Ansar al-Sharia.”

The IS-al-Qaeda clash may keep the group occupied for now. In one of Abu Ayadh’s most recent audio messages the Tunisian situation wasn’t mentioned, instead focus was on Syria, calling for both IS and al-Qaeda leaders to find an amicable way to settle their disputes.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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