My new report focuses on Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST), which is Tunisia’s largest salafi jihadist group. AST has featured prominently in the country’s news recently, following clashes between the group and the government. These clashes followed clashes at the Algerian border between Tunisian security forces and a jihadist group known as Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi, after which the Tunisian state began to turn inward, clamping down on AST. The government’s crackdown began with the interruption of public lectures and other AST dawa (missionary) activities, and culminated in the state announcing the cancellation of the group’s annual conference, which is held in Kairouan.
AST is unlikely to recede as a political issue within Tunisia, and in fact will almost certainly continue to grow in importance. In assessing the likelihood of an escalating conflict, it is worth noting an intriguing tension: while the group’s ideology (which is unapologetically aligned with that of al-Qaeda) is progressively pushing it toward conflict with the state, entering into open conflict in the short term would hurt its strategic interests, undermining a strategy that it carefully cultivated in the wake of Ben Ali’s fall.
AST’s organisational structure is intricately connected to its strategy. This structure is filled with ambiguity. The salafi jihadist group has frequently been described as “decentralised,” and to external observers it is unclear which actions taken by AST members – if any – are dictated or sanctioned by such senior leaders as the group’s emir, Abu Iyad al-Tunisi. These uncertainties about which actions could be attributed to the organization have existed from the time of the AST’s inception. Though the empowerment of local leaders creates some problems for AST’s implementation of strategy, it is perhaps more important to understand the advantages that AST derives from this structure. These advantages can be understood through their relationship to AST’s strategy, which is based around dawa, hisba (a concept denoting “forbidding wrong,” which for AST entails the enforcement of religious norms within the Tunisian Muslim community), and jihad. Of these, dawa (its missionary work) is overt, and AST benefits from being able to undertake it legally and openly – a dramatic change from life under Ben Ali. In contrast, AST’s violence is not meant to be connected to the organization, because such involvement could jeopardise the group’s ability to engage in dawa openly. A structure that disguises the leadership’s role allows the group to engage in violence while simultaneously denying that it is doing so.
The vast majority of violence that AST has undertaken within Tunisia can be categorised as hisba, directed at other Tunisians who are seen as opposing the movement’s ideals or mores. Targets have included liberals, secularists, and civic activists; educators; and security officers. The group’s violence that can be categorised as jihad – warfare against enemies, rather than internal cleansing of the Muslim community – has generally been directed abroad, including large numbers of Tunisian fighters who have taken part in the raging conflicts in Syria and (to a lesser extent) Mali. Tunisians also played a role in the January 2013 assault on Algeria’s In Amenas gas plant, and the September 2012 attack on the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens. At least one AST-orchestrated act of violence within Tunisia – an attack on the US embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012 – can be best categorised as jihad. And a further aspect of AST’s relationship to jihad violence can be seen in its preparatory work for future confrontation, such as its likely stockpiling of weapons.
There have been two constraints, so far, on AST’s use of violence. First, the organization has tried to keep its levels of violence within what we might term “acceptable bounds”: at a level that will not trigger a major crackdown by the state. AST has seemingly been attempting, over time, to ratchet up the amount of violence that might occur without the state cracking down. Second, the organisation is trying to undertake violence without alienating the population to which it is trying to appeal. In other words, independent of the state security apparatus, AST is wary that its hisba or jihad activities may interfere with its dawa.
Though salafi jihadists are an extremely small minority within Tunisia, they are a movement on the rise – and AST should be seen as an organisation on the rise – for two reasons. First, salafi jihadism enjoys influence beyond its numbers. AST has been very effective at maintaining visibility, a tactic that has been enhanced by its provision of social services to neglected areas, as well as the willingness of salafi jihadists to engage in violence. The second reason salafi jihadism should be viewed as on the rise is that it has very effectively positioned itself as an anti-system movement, standing opposed to a system that is not meeting the most fundamental needs of Tunisians. Thus, the movement’s numbers are growing, as are AST’s. In short, the dawa strategy is, to a certain extent, working.
At some point, AST is likely to transition from its focus on dawa to a greater emphasis on jihad. Many observers believe that this change is imminent, given the escalating tensions between AST and the Tunisian state. But both AST and also the state see themselves as having a great deal to lose from a short-term confrontation. Thus, they are engaged in a delicate dance as they enter uncharted territory in their dealings with each other.
For a fuller discussion, see https://icct.nl/publications/icct-papers/ansar-al-sharia-tunisias-long-game-dawa-hisba-and-jihad.