In the wake of Tunisia’s popular uprising this past week, some are debating whether Twitter,WikiLeaks, or even George W. Bush might have played a role in enabling the historic protest movement. But one thing seems clear: The jihadist movement, which has long defined itself as Arab governments’ staunchest and most authentic opposition, had nothing to do with it. Jihadists’ non-involvement in organizing, encouraging, or even participating in the Tunisian protests suggests that the jihadist current has been largely irrelevant to Tunisia’s popular uprising. For as long as jihadists have been in business, one of their main goals has been to overrun an “apostate” Arab leader such as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But with the possible exception of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat’s 1981 assassination, they never came close. That Tunisia’s protesters succeeded where the jihadists so often fail, and appear not at all driven by anything close to jihadist ideology or even general religious grievances, has left members of the online jihadist community unsure how to respond. The uprising, after all, fulfills a top jihadist goal, but it also rebukes their belief that only violent and pious struggle can bring down a man like Ben Ali.
Two days before Ben Ali’s ousting, the amir (leader) of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abu Mus’ab ‘Abd al-Wadud, released a statement titled “In Support of the Intifadah of our People in Tunisia.” He appealed to Tunisians, selling AQIM as an ally in their protests. “I found it a fit chance to inform you, on behalf of my Mujahideen brothers in the Islamic Maghreb, our partisanship and consolation with you. And our stand alongside you in your problem and uprising, with advice, inspiration and affirmation,” he wrote. “Your battle you fight today isn’t alienated from the general battle the Muslim Ummah is engaged in against its external and domestic enemies. … And I encourage our people in Tunisia to be ready and prepare preparations and send their sons to us to train on weapons and gain military expertise. … My Muslim brothers in Tunisia: your Mujahideen brothers are with you, and your problem is our problem and your happening is ours, and the bereaved isn’t like the adopting.”
The statement, an effort to attach AQIM to the Tunisians’ cause, has had no appreciable effect. After all, AQIM’s jihadist ideology, which has never been very popular in Tunisia anyway, has next to nothing in common with the protest movement. What small role Tunsians have played in the jihadist movement, and that the movement has played in Tunisia, only underscores their irrelevance in the country. On September 9, 2001, two Tunisians working with al-Qaeda helped assassinate Ahmad Shah Massud, the leader of the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Between August 2006 and August 2007, thirty-three Tunisians, just 5.5 percent of the total foreign fighters, joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to the recordsrecovered by U.S. coalition forces. Earlier this month, a Tunisian member of AQIM threw an explosive at a French embassy building in Mali, “lightly injuring” two people. A U.K.-based terrorism researcher, who asked to remain anonymous because his work has not been publicly published, estimated that Tunisians only account for 1-2% of the members in AQIM, which he said has “very limited operational capacity that they could project into Tunisia.”
As the protests mounted, jihadist activists outside of Tunisia have tried, and failed, to assert a role in the historic uprising. In the days before Ben Ali fled, Abu Tariq al-Tumi, a member of the Arabic-language jihadist forum the Majahidin Electronic Network (MEN), urged the “brothers” to contact friends in Tunisia over Facebook and make them aware of the importance of implementing Shari’ah law once the Tunisian regime fell. A video produced by Sharia4Belgium called for establishing a Tunisian Caliphate. Once Ben Ali left, forum members such as Ashaq al-Hur al-Tunisi, ecstatic that longtime enemy Ben Ali was finally defeated, also argued that now is the time to organize a Caliphate in Tunisia. Others, such as al-Khalifa al-Qadim, expressed shock that non-jihadist Tunisians could and would topple the secular Ben Ali. Azaf al-Rasas, another MEN member, downplayed the protests’ importance, predicting that little would ultimately change in Tunisia. In one particularly disturbing message, member Ri’bal posted a video educating Tunisians on the weapons and tactics they could use against “apostates.” Abu al-Munthir al-Shanqiti produced a fatwa for the influential Minbar al-Tawhid wa’l-Jihad asserting that the Tunisian government’s “fight against Islam” was one of the main factors that led to the uprising.
At another prominent forum, the Ansar al-Mujahidin Arabic Forum, members have been overjoyed at President Ben Ali’s deposing and excited for what they see as an opportunity for the jihadist movement to make its mark on Tunisia. Khadijah al-Afghaniyyah urged Tunisians to “raise the banner of Islam” as seventh century Arab generals had in their “fatah” (conquests) of North Africa. Another member, Bint al-Sahabah, expressed hope that Tunisia would soon become the “Islamic Emirate of Kairouan,” named for the Tunisian city, founded by Arabs in 670 CE, which has become what some consider the fourth holiest city in Islam. One member asked whether mujahidin would step in to lead the uprising into a mass “jihad fi sabil illah” (jihad in the way of God) across North Africa and the Middle East. Another ominously warned that AQIM would be coming to Tunisia.
There’s not much credibility to these threats, though, as groups such as AQIM have little reach in Tunisia. But it’s telling that the members would be so eager to claim ownership over the protests, especially given how little involvement they actually have. Although jihadists have been passing around a YouTube videoextolling the creation of a Caliphate in Tunisia, scarcely any Tunisians, and no significant Tunisian organizations, have shown any real interest in replacing Ben Ali with such a government. Reading the jihadist forums, one often gets the sense that its memberships live in denial, believing that the righteous mujahidin are always one campaign away from toppling secular Arab dictators like Tunisia’s Ben Ali. As the jihadists watched a non-religious uprising finally succeed where they had failed for so long, it’s unsurprising they would retreat even further into visions of grandeur. In Tunisia at least, the jihadist call to arms has rarely seemed less relevant.