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Ansar al-Shari`a in Tunisia

Last weekend, thousands of Salafis filled the streets of Avenue Habib Bourguiba demonstrating in support of the Qur‘an. It was overshadowed though by the actions of some climbing the clock tower and confronting a theater group staging a separate event at the Municipal Theater nearby. Some news that went unnoticed though was the return of Tarek Maaroufi, a Tunisian who had recently been released from Belgian prison after serving for a number of terror charges, who arrived and also attended the Salafi show of force last Sunday.

According to Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (better know as Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi), who co-founded the Tunisian Combat Group (TCG) with Maaroufi in June 2000 and currently the leader of the salafi-jihadi group Ansar al-Shari‘ah in Tunisia (AST), in an interview this past Friday with the Tunisian Le Temps newspaper, Maaroufi’s stay would only last ten days. Though it is possible that Maaroufi may be visiting family, he lived his entire adult life in Brussels and was stripped of his Belgian citizenship while imprisoned in January 2009. Therefore, it is highly unlikely Maaroufi will be returning to Belgium. This raises two important questions: (1) does Maaroufi still believe in the global jihadi worldview and (2) where does he plan to go after his stay in Tunisia (if he even decides to leave)? Answering these two questions may help determine what his future course is and what it may mean for Tunisia.

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Yesterday, the salafi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia provided aid in a convoy to residents in the city of Haydrah (Haïdra) in West Central Tunisia who have been hit hard by extremely cold weather. This may give pause and alarm to the elites in Tunis. As Erik Churchill, based in Tunisia and an independent development consultant, pointed out to me: “The French speaking elites have been patting themselves on the back the last few weeks for their ability tomobilize aid to these regions. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s work shows that the elites (both secular and an-Nahdha) do not have a monopoly on this kind of social work.”

Over the previous few weeks, there has been a major cold front, which included sub-zero temperatures and snow in northwest and west central Tunisia in regions within the governorates of Jendouba and Kasserine. Due to the remoteness of some of the locations and coinciding with many strikes and protests by factory and distribution center workers, there has been a major shortage of essential goods to stay warm and replenish food supplies. According toTunisia-Live:

Despite the fact that the new interim president and members of the interim government have visited several regions of the country in the past week, no efficient measures were taken to deal with the scarcity of essential goods in the North West.

However, while the government has failed to provide an answer, Tunisian citizens have tried to create solutions. A group of Tunisians living in Germany started a volunteering company, using social networking to collect covers and clothes for those struggling with the cold in the deprived rural areas of the north-west. The group of Tunisian-Germans were looking for more volunteers within Tunisia to help them deliver covers and clothes to families in need.

Additionally, Qatar and UAE both sent airplane loads of supplies. There are also indigenous Tunisian groups that have attempted to assist, including El Kolna Twensa, Le PaCTE Tunisien, the Enfidha airport workers, and the Assabah/Le Temps newspaper group. Part of the issue is the lack of access due to roads being blocked by as many as 2.5 feet of snow in very rural areas. Although efforts were difficult, an-Nahdha did mobilize some of its supporters to help with relief efforts.

The secular-affiliated relief groups and organizations have targeted its aid more so to the governorate of Jendouba, since that region is viewed as more independent, moderate and socially liberal; whereas areas in the governorate of Kasserine are seen as more amenable to the message of a group like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia. Although the snow has receded in some of the areas, the temperatures remain cold and residents such as in the city of Haydrah, which is in the governorate of Kasserine and about an hour northwest of the city of Kasserine, are still struggling to survive the harsh conditions.

On Saturday February 18th, the non-violent jihadi group Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (that has connections to al-Qa’ida’s global jihadi online network) announced on its Facebook page that it was planning a convoy to take aid to suffering brethren to the town of Haydrah on Monday the 20th. Prior to driving from Kasserine in a convoy of trucks and vans, the spiritual leader of Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia Shaykh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi emphasized to his followers the wajib (obligation) of providing aid to those in need as an Islamic duty and that these services were an aspect of jihad fi sabil Allah (in the cause of God), which would hopefully lead eventually to the creation of an Islamic state or Caliphate. One can see a variety of pictures from Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia’s da’wah activities that assisted the residents in Haydrah below.

Interestingly, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia is filling the vacuum of the Tunisian government, which is dealing with issues related to the economy, writing the constitution, and maintaining order while also redressing many grievances workers have. This type of social work had been what brought popularity to groups such as the Muslim Brothers in Egypt (and to a lesser extent an-Nahda in Tunisia because although Ben Ali’s former regime was corrupted they provided services far better than the Egyptian government). Assisting in social work gave space to preach ones ideology. As a result, if Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia is able to continue with similar efforts along with protesting cultural policies (the niqab and appropriate levels of freedom of expression/speech), one may see its small movement gain wider popularity. This could be especially true in rural areas where many citizens are more conservative, religious, and extremely disillusioned with the governments lack of attention to it. Churchill concurs stating: “an-Nahdha is very concerned that their social bona fides could be usurped by more extreme elements.”

Although in differing contexts, one sees similar efforts to provide services and governance in Yemen by Ansar al-Shari’ah in Yemen as well as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin in Somalia. This differs from previous methods by jihadis, which did not emphasize providing social services and basic needs like the case of al-Qa’ida in Iraq or even al-Qa’ida Central to local populaces. From this, a potential pattern is emerging whereby jihadis have learned the valuable lesson of providing for locals to curry more support versus blindly just calling for jihad and rhetorically speaking about a future Islamic state. In short, they are actually (dare I say) on a minuscule level providing a positive good versus just wrecking havoc through audacious suicide attacks and bombings. Either way, not only should the secularists in Tunis be worried about the potentially rising popularity of anti-systemic pan-Islamists like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia, but an important aspect of an-Nahda’s raison d’être and credibility is being challenged in the same way an-Nahda did to the old regime.

Convoy on its way to the City of Haydrah from the City of Kasserine

Unloading Aid From the Trucks and Vans

Distribution of the Aid

‘Asr (Afternoon) Prayer Following the Delivery of Aid

Ansar al-Shari’ah’s Caravan of Aid Leaves Haydrah

al-Qayrawān Media Foundation (QMF) actually originally launched in late April 2011 when it also set up a new group in Tunisia named Anṣār al-Sharī’ah in Tunisia (AST). I have been researching these guys since they first came onto the scene last spring. For background on QMF/AST check out my articles for the CTC Sentinel and the Washington Institute. The below statement announces that QMF will officially start releasing content to the jihādī forums, specifically Shamūkh al-Islām, meaning that AST is officially in the AQ orbit. Nearly twelve months after Tunsians deposed the former regime, AQ has a group that believes in its worldview and is officially sanctioned to post its content to its online forums. It should be noted that that they are a marginal voice in Tunisia, yet it is definitely something to keep ones eyes on.

Click the following link for a safe PDF copy: al-Qayrawān Media Foundation — “Statement of its Official Launch”

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Source: http://www.shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=141296

Since last month’s free and fair elections in Tunisia, much of the focus has been on Ennahda’s victory, the formation of a new constitution-writing Constituent Assembly, and how to rebuild the shattered economy. Yet these important matters threaten to obscure another significant challenge to the country’s nascent democracy: Salafism. Although the extremist ideology has not yet taken root to the same degree as in Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states, the new openness in Tunisian society has allowed Salafi elements to widely propagate their message — one that undergirds the intellectual foundations of jihadism and, as such, poses a potential danger to the country’s stability. To counter this threat, Washington should consider engaging Tunisia’s new government on appropriate deradicalization and training efforts.

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia

One of the Salafi groups that has benefited from the country’s new openness is Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). Founded in late April, a few months after the fall of President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, the group is headed by spiritual leader Sheikh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi. It also takes religious advice from popular Tunisian Salafist Sheikh al-Khatib al-Idrisi, who was imprisoned for several years during the Ben Ali era. AST is especially active in the working-class Bab al-Khadra neighborhood of Tunis, with members attending al-Kambes and Malik bin Anas Mosques and becoming involved with the local mosque committee.

Similar to the youth revolutionaries who led the Tunisian uprising, one of the key aspects of AST’s dawa (Islamic propagation) activities has been its ability to bypass the mainstream press and harness social media to bring its message to the masses. AST runs a blog and also has two Facebook pages, one for the group proper and the second for its media apparatus, al-Qairawan Media Foundation (QMF). Since April, when AST announced its presence online, the number of its postings has grown each month, as has its number of “friends.”

AST’s largest advocacy project has been raising awareness of the plight of Muslim prisoners, most notably Tunisians who fought with al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) during its height in 2005-2007 and remain in Iraqi jails. The group has also demanded the release of Sheikh Omar Abdul Rahman, the blind religious leader of Egypt’s al-Gamaa al-Islamiyah who was convicted and imprisoned in the United States for his role in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, and Abu Qatadah al-Filastini, al-Qaeda’s European spiritual leader currently serving time in Britain. In addition to holding peaceful sit-ins outside the Iraqi embassy in Tunis, AST has demonstrated in front of the Tunisian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to call for the release of a handful of its “brothers.”

The group also reveres Yosri bin Fakher Trigui (a.k.a. Abu Qadamah al-Tunisi), who was captured in Iraq in 2006 and executed last month for his role in the bombing of the Shiite tombs at Marqad al-Imamain al-Hadi and al-Askari. In fact, AST’s media outlet portrays him as a martyr, creating Photoshopped images of him overlaid with symbols glorifying his death, including the logo of the “Islamic State of Iraq,” AQI’s successor group. Additionally, AST’s Facebook page posted a music video placing Trigui among two other illustrious “martyrs,” Usama bin Laden and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. And when his body was returned to Tunisia on November 23, the group played a prominent role in the funeral, which was attended by more than a thousand people, many of whom carried banners and placards with Islamic slogans. In a further indication of Trigui’s status, the premier online jihadist forum Shamukh al-Islam featured custom photos extolling his “martyrdom” on its front page for two weeks.

Against the Elections

Unlike the Salafi groups in Egypt that have decided to take part in elections, AST is far more doctrinal and purist in its interpretation of the Quran. As such, it opposes engaging in parliamentary politics and has not established a legal party. Indeed, in the lead-up to last month’s elections, it distributed literature warning Tunisians against voting, which it depicted as an infringement on God’s sovereignty. For example, one of the brochures, “The Idol of Democracy,” implicitly referred to engagement in democracy as a polytheistic act. And the day before the vote, AST wrote a stern warning to Islamists participating in the election, declaring that they would regret their actions on the Day of Resurrection.

In addition, the group tried to deter potential voters by reposting fatwas and videos from popular Salafi-jihadist sheikhs arguing against democracy. For example, it highlighted an edict by Sheikh Abu al-Mundher al-Shanqiti — a member of the sharia committee of Menbar al-Tawhid wa al-Jihad (The Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad), the premier online resource for Salafi-jihadist intellectual materials — proclaiming the un-Islamic character of democratic elections. It also highlighted Shanqiti’s fatwa against Ennahda, characterizing the Islamist party’s program as a violation of tawhid (monotheism), describing its secretary-general Rachid Ghannouchi and his “ilk” as heretics, and declaring that Ennahda’s positions on jihad, dhimmis (protected peoples e.g., Christians and Jews), kuffar (infidels), women, and music all “pollute” Islam.

Nonviolent Jihadists?

Although AST has not engaged in violence, it clearly sympathizes with al-Qaeda’s worldview. In addition to posting content from al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri and prominent online adherents such as Hani al-Sibai, the group has also explicitly promoted the terrorist network’s jihadist cause. For example, during last month’s Eid al-Adha holiday, AST released a statement congratulating the “mujahedin” of the Afghan Taliban, the Islamic State of Iraq, the Caucasus Emirate, the Islamic Maghreb Emirate, and “loved ones” in Somalia. The group also asked God “to grant victory to the mujahedin, raise the word of Islam, and bring together Muslims and rout the enemies of Islam, like the Jews, Christians, atheists, and apostates.”

Indeed, AST’s program is similar to those of al-Muhajiroun in Britain and Revolution Muslim in the United States, insofar as they promote a radical interpretation of Islam without explicitly endorsing violence. Yet actions such as attacking secular students and taking the dean of the University of Manouba hostage on November 28 for banning the veil suggest that Tunisia’s Salafis are becoming more brazen in their attempts to change the country. In the coming months, then, the new government will need to begin the process of containing Salafism alongside the tasks of writing the new constitution and reviving the economy. Left unchecked, Salafist trends could destabilize the nascent transition from authoritarianism to democracy.

For Washington, this challenge provides an opportunity to engage Tunis on security and deradicalization in the context of a democratic Arab state. It also provides a good barometer for determining the extent to which Ennahda is willing and able to transform into a truly moderate Islamic political party.

Ten months after an infuriated fruit vendor in Tunisia set himself aflame and provoked an uprising that tore President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali from power, the country’s citizens will go to the polls on Sunday to vote for a 217-seat Constituent Assembly. Tunisia’s election will be the first real electoral test of the Arab uprisings. Several major forces are vying for power in the newly democratic country.

The largest party is the Muslim Brotherhood–linked Ennahda, which enjoys the greatest amount of support and whose poll numbers stand between 25 and 30 percent. Secularist and liberal parties, such as the Parti Démocrate Progressiste (PDP) and Ettakatol, have been recently polling between 10 and 15 percent. The PDP has rejected any possible coalition with Ennahda, but Ettakatol has expressed a willingness to work with it. There is also a small but vocal Salafi movement, which some Tunisians fear might act as a spoiler in the election alongside Ben Ali’s security apparatus. But until recently, all indications pointed to a successful election in which Ennahda would win a plurality of the votes and enter into a coalition to draft Tunisia’s new constitution.

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In the aftermath of the “Arab Spring,” many analysts proclaimed that it was the death knell of al-Qa`ida and its ideology, while others warned that it would open space for al-Qa`ida to exploit and even potentially take over a government similar to the 1979 Iranian Revolution. These two narratives miss the point. Indeed, jihadist ideology has been marginalized and has opened space for other schools of thought to counterbalance it. Yet, at the same time, in societies such as Tunisia where religion has been suppressed at the hands of a dictatorial government, it has created new opportunities for individuals to organize at the local level, including non-violent political Salafists who sympathize with intellectual aspects of jihadist ideology.

One such Salafist group is known as Ansar al-Shari`a in Tunisia (AST), and its media outlet al-Qayrawan Media Foundation (QMF). It is not clear whether AST was organized prior to the fall of former Tunisian President Ben Ali’s regime, but if it existed beforehand it would have been highly covert due to the repressive environment under the previous government. Regardless, since April 2011 the group’s activities are increasingly public, holding rallies and even creating Facebook pages. AST has garnered the attention of online jihadists at Ansar al-Mujahidin and al-Jahad al-`Alami, two of the most popular Arabic-language jihadist forums.

This article chronicles the rise of AST, showing how the group is a product of the new openness in Tunisian society as well as the liberation of the “public square” in the Arab world as a whole. This new commons has featured a rise in Salafist movements, creating challenges for Western states that want to establish diplomatic relations with new actors in transitioning Arab societies.

To navigate the maze of new actors, it is crucial for Western governments to go beyond understanding the old Islamist parties linked to the Muslim Brotherhood (as well as the secular and liberal trends), but also the growing prominence and broader trend of Salafist movements in Tunisia and the Arab world.

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