Radical Islamist groups in Tunisia

Tunisian-style jihad

The recent high-profile attack on the Bardo National Museum in Tunis shines a spotlight on the radical Islamist network that has emerged in Tunisia since the fall of the Ben Ali regime. An analysis by Hanspeter Mattes of the GIGA Institute for Middle East Studies

The composition of Tunisia's radical Islamist groups is partly structured and partly amorphous, which means that even the reconnaissance of terrorism and weapons-smuggling networks by customs authorities, anti-terrorism police and the military cannot convey an exact picture of the situation. Among the better-known groups, as far as structure, objectives and approaches are concerned, are first and foremost the Tunisian off-shoots of "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM) and the "Ansar al-Sharia".

"Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" (AQIM)

"Al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" was founded in 2007 as the successor organisation to the Algerian "Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat" (GSPC) and extended its ambition to establish an Islamic state beyond Algeria to the entire Maghreb region. The current emir of AQIM is the Algerian national Abdelmalek Droukdel. Main contingents of the AQIM brigades are fighting in northern Algeria, but some are also present in southern Algeria/northern Mali and in the Algerian-Tunisian border region in the mountainous area of Jebal Chaambi, to the east of Tebessa.

As to the actual number of AQIM fighters, estimates vary from several hundred to several thousand. AQIM, which finances itself primarily through the abduction of Algerian businessmen, is responsible for numerous attacks on security forces: the first operation in Tunisia for which AQIM claimed responsibility was the attack on security forces in the western Tunisian town of Jendouba on 16 February 2014.

The best-known AQIM combat unit is the "Uqba ibn Nafi'-Brigade", which operates in western Tunisia and which also carried out the Bardo Museum attack. Interior Minister Mohamed Gharsalli said on 26 March that a terror cell from the brigade had planned and conducted the attack under the command of Lokman Abu Sakhr. He said the cell was clearly affiliated to AQIM, and that consequently, a claim of responsibility from "Islamic State", which said that the attack had been carried out by "the martyrs Abu Zakaria al-Tounsi and Abu Anas al-Tounsi" was incorrect.

Still from a video released by "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" showing militants on the streets of Gao, Mali, June 2012 (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
Cross-border Islamist terrorism: a still from a video released by "al-Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb" showing militants on the streets of Gao, Mali, in June 2012. "The best-known AQIM combat unit is the 'Uqba ibn Nafi'-Brigade', which operates in western Tunisia and which also carried out the Bardo Museum attack," writes Hanspeter Mattes

"Al-Jazara Group"

The "Al-Jazara Group", which should be viewed as an AQIM splinter group, formed in early 2011 and has – as the name suggests – close links with jihadi groups in Algeria. Tunisian security authorities say it was to blame for the attacks in Rouhia in May 2011, Bir Ali Ben Khalifa in February 2012 and Firnana in December 2012, and has since then also been involved in fighting in the Jebel Chaambi region.

"Ansar al-Sharia"

The group "Ansar al-Sharia" ("Partisans of Islamic Law") was founded in April 2011 in the context of the power changeover of January 2011, by Seif Allah Ibn Hussein, better known by his nom de guerre Abu Iyadh, to fight for the introduction of Sharia law in Tunisia. Seifeddine Raies served as a prominent spokesperson for the group.

Smaller off-shoots of "Ansar al-Scharia" have been forming since 2012 and – like the group led by Salim Fandari, alias Abou-Ayoub, or the group Abou-Ishaq – have founded their own combat units. In addition to their extensive missionary and charitable activities, "Ansar al-Sharia" – which has links with al-Qaida and AQIM – has also manifested itself with militant activities, the most high-profile of these being the attack on the US embassy in Tunis in September 2012. The politically motivated murders of left-wing politicians Chokri Belaid (February 2013) and Mohamed Brahmi (July 2013) have also been blamed on "Ansar al-Sharia". The jihadist thought to have masterminded these attacks, Ahmad Rouissi, was killed in March 2015 in the Libyan city of Sirte, where he had been fighting with "Islamic State" (IS).

As a consequence of these acts of violence, the Interior Ministry declared "Ansar al-Sharia" to be a terrorist organisation in August 2013. In February 2014, the ministry said that the goal of "Ansar al-Sharia" and other groups was to establish local emirates in southern, central and northern Tunisia. Early in July 2014, the group declared its solidarity with the caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of IS in Syria and Iraq.

A radical Islamist in Syria (photo: Reuters)
The Syrian civil war as a hub of global Islamist terrorism: "According to Interior Ministry information from the beginning of 2015, it is thought that up to 3,800 Tunisians are currently fighting in Syria. […] Some 9,000 Tunisians have been prevented from travelling to Syria by Tunisian security forces; it is thought that some 600 Tunisians have so far died in the fighting there, with more than 40 detained in Syrian prisons," says Mattes

Jihadi combat groups and Tunisian jihadists in Syria

Thus far, there has been no exact empirical record made of the jihadi combat groups operating in Jebal Chaambi, in southern Tunisia, but also in urban zones near the coast. With the exception of the "Uqba Ibn Nafi'-Brigade", little is known about their exact area of operation, their combat strength or the nationalities represented by their members. Apart from their nebulous advocacy of an Islamic state, just as little is known about their concrete objectives. Some of the cells operate autonomously, others have links with AQIM or direct associations with al-Qaida. Since July 2014, a number of individual cells have thrown their weight behind the IS cause.

Regarding combat strength, it can be assumed that several hundred people are involved. It can be verified that Algerian and Moroccan jihadists are present in Jebal Chaambi, and some of the Tunisian jihadists have gained combat experience in northern Mali. Since early 2015, there have also been increasingly frequent reports that Tunisian jihadists specially trained in the Libyan Islamic strongholds of Benghazi and Derna are returning to Tunisia, where they are founding new terror cells or joining existing ones, thereby "professionalising" these with their experience.

The number of Tunisians joining the Syrian civil war on the side of Islamist groups has been rising continually since spring 2011. According to Interior Ministry information from the beginning of 2015, it is thought that up to 3,800 Tunisians are currently fighting in Syria. Their illegal emigration, organised by smuggling networks, is thought to be mainly financed by Qataris.

Some 9,000 Tunisians have been prevented from travelling to Syria by Tunisian security forces; it is thought that some 600 Tunisians have so far died in the fighting there, with more than 40 detained in Syrian prisons. According to the Interior Ministry, some 500 jihadists had returned to Tunisia by early 2015, where they are viewed as posing a threat to domestic security and are, therefore, under surveillance. This surveillance does not, however, prevent them from going underground.

Salafists in Tunisia (photo: Taieb Kadri)
Tunisia's Salafists (pictured here) want to pave the way for an Islamic state in Tunisia: according to Mattes, although most Salafi preachers and imams in Tunisia currently reject open violence and party political activities, "they are trying to prepare the ground for an Islamic state by preaching to the grass roots"

Coalitions of Salafi preachers

For an assessment of the radical Islamist threat in Tunisia, it is not only the jihadi groups themselves that are of significance, but also the Islamist associations and coalitions of Salafi preachers that are preparing the ground for the recruitment of extremists.

The Salafi preachers or imams are distinguished from one another by Tunisian sociologists of religion in particular according to their theological alignment with the teachings of individual prominent foreign preachers: the Jamiyun (reference: Sheikh Muhammad al-Jami from Eritrea), the Madkhaliyun (reference: Rabi al-Madkhali), the Ilmiyun (reference: Saudi theologians) as well as the reform group of Islahiyun or Sururiyun (reference: Surur Zain al-Abidin from Syria).

Although most of these associations and alliances currently reject open violence and party political activities, they are trying to prepare the ground for an Islamic state by preaching to the grass roots. There are, however, exceptions: since the summer of 2014, the preacher Saifeddine Raies has repeatedly called for Tunisian jihadists to return to Tunisia to participate in the "liberation of the country". So far, the police have taken no action against him.

Some 17,000 associations currently exist in Tunisia. The overwhelming majority of these are religious in character. Until the toppling of the Ben Ali regime, these religious associations were tolerated and were used by the country's leadership as a way of rebutting Islamist criticism of the state's secular character.

Following the power changeover of 2011, the associations altered their character. Often under the new leadership of conservative or radical Imams, they are now trying to play a supportive role in the realisation of the Islamist social project through their involvement in the social and education sectors.

Since June 2014, security authorities have identified some 150 Islamist associations alleged to be directly involved in the financing of terrorism (by collecting money for jihadists). However, the former transitional government led by Prime Minster Mehdi Jomaa did not take active steps against them because he wanted to avoid an open confrontation with the Islamist Ennahda party. Only the new government led by Prime Minister Habib Essid has declared plans to take a tougher stance, particularly in the wake of the Bardo attack. This approach will also apply to the 187 mosques which the Interior Ministry claimed on 24 March 2015 were "outside state control".

Hanspeter Mattes

© Qantara.de 2015

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

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