I walk through a Tunisian market around midday, at the entrance to the fortress of Sousse, a town about 90 minutes southeast of the capital Tunis on the coast. A man is selling Salafi books and copies of the Quran from a maple wood table, 12 feet long, in front of a small masjid inside the old fortress walls, which were built in the ninth century by the Aghlabid caliph Ziyadat Allah I.
Two men are sitting nearby, at the edge of a dry, broken-down fountain, enjoying the sunny and mild weather. I approach them, along with three Tunisian friends, to ask for an interview. One dismisses me outright, gets up and leaves. He thinks I am in the American mukhabarat(intelligence). The other accepts. I sit next to him, shake his hand, and we both exchange salam alaykum pleasantries.
“Are You Muslim or a non-Muslim?” he asks.
This was the start of my conversation with Ramzi, a Salafi, who takes issue with the term since he sees himself as a Muslim. Based on the description of the activities he has been involved in, it is possible he is a member of Ansar al-Sharia in Sousse (AST), but he would not confirm. Ramzi has a traditional Salafi look, sporting a marine green thawb, black skullcap, and a fully-grown beard, but with a well-trimmed mustache. By his own account, he had spent six years in exile in Morocco before returning to Tunisia following the ouster of former President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
“Bidun sura aw fidiyo” are his conditions for an interview — no pictures or video. A couple of weeks prior, Ramzi had talked with the France 2 series Envoyé Spécial, which did an exposé titled “La Tunisie sous la menace salafiste” (“Tunisia, under Salafist Threat). He told them his name was Nasim. Ramzi promises only five minutes, though the conversation lasts 15.
Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia is an organization that believes in al Qaeda’s worldview, but primarily at this juncture only focuses on local recruitment and missionary activities. AST typically sets up lectures from prominent Tunisian Salafi clerics, passes out mainstream Salafi literature at weekly markets, provides food, medicine, and clothing in charitable convoys, and publishes about its activities on Facebook as well as highlights key news events and new releases relating to the global jihadi world.
Unlike al Qaeda and its like-minded groups around the greater Middle East and North Africa, on the whole, AST has been a non-violent organization — besides alleged involvement in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis in September 2012. Its main focus has been on dawa (missionary work). This is an under studied aspect of many current jihadi organizations. Much of this has come about as a consequence of the excesses of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al Qaeda in Iraq last decade.
Groups like AST largely follow the ideas of Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who has attempted to steer the community toward a more “pure” jihad. Maqdisi emphasizes the importance of consolidating power through education and dawa rather than focusing on fighting to damage the enemy. The groups working to change the emphasis on their actions, fostering the possibility of gaining a constituency in the same manner that ideologically different Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas, and Hezbollah have been doing for years. That being said, because AST believes in al Qaeda’s ideology, it could be susceptible to engaging in violence in addition to dawa activities in the future if it sees it fit. It is difficult to predict if and when this might happen, but it should not be ruled out.
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