A Jihadist Comes Home And Tunisia Cracks Down

Tunisian authorities had seemed to tolerate Abu Iyad, a native Salafist jihadist, but then came the deadly riots at the US Embassy. Synda Tajine reports on the government's new attitude, with a look at Iyad's jihadist credentials and ties to al-Qaeda.

al-monitor Protesters shout slogans during a demonstration against security forces seeking to arrest Tunisian Salafist leader Saif-Allah Benahssine, who heads the hard-line group Ansar al-Sharia, over clashes at the U.S. Embassy last week, at the al-Fatah mosque in Tunis, Sept. 17, 2012. Photo by REUTERS/Zoubeir Souissi.

Topics covered

tunisia, salafist, salafi-jihadi groups, jihadists, islamists, ennahda

Sep 20, 2012

The fiery sermon given yesterday [Sept. 17] by Salafist jihadist leader Abu Iyad, and the way in which he slipped from the hands of hundreds Interior Ministry agents have become major headlines. Accused of instigating the violent riots that set fire to the US embassy last Friday, Abu Iyad seems to be taunting everyone.

But why is everybody suddenly so interested in him and why does he seem to scare so many people? An opponent of the Islamists in power, with whom his relations have long been ambiguous, the mysterious and controversial Abu Iyad is making everybody anxious.

He was accused of calling on his supporters to take part in the anti-American demonstrations on Sept. 14, which resulted in four deaths and dozens of injured protesters. Abu Iyad asked: “All of society rose up against this movie, which is offensive to the Prophet, and demonstrated in front of the US embassy. So why are all the accusations directed toward a single party [the Salafist Jihadists]?”

Abu Iyad asserts that his call for protests on that day did not call for violence. The leader of the Tahrir Party, Rida Belhaj, claims to have seen him at the riots. But other sources say that he gave all his instructions to his followers by telephone.

On the evening of the protests, the police raided his home but did not find him. He made an appearance the next day at al-Jellaz cemetery in Tunis to attend the funeral of the protesters who had been killed. However, the police deny this.

Regardless of whether or not he was present at the funeral, Abu Iyad had once again defied the police and easily escaped from the security apparatus deployed yesterday [Sept. 17] at al-Fath Mosque, where he delivered a speech in front of hundreds of worshipers. His appearance at the mosque was announced on social networking sites on the morning of that day.

Inside the mosque, he called for the resignation of Interior Minister Ali Laarayedh, and held him responsible for the excesses that took place at the demonstration outside the embassy. According to Abu Iyad, “all of that had been planned.”

“We refuse to be their scapegoat and we will not be playing cards in their political calculations,” said Abu Iyad before leaving the mosque, untouched, and escorted by his family. This was despite the large police cordon deployed outside. And so, the 47-year-old Salafist jihadist with a long beard continues to taunt the authorities.

During the eight years he spent in jail, Abu Iyad — whose real name is Seif Allah Ibn Hussein — was able to build up his image as that of a Salafi jihadist spiritual guide. He had many followers who were thirsty to hear his teachings and his international jihad experience. A disciple of the famous but controversial [Jordanian cleric] Abu Qatada, Abu Iyad has traveled the world while staying close to radical Islamist circles.

He left Tunisia in 1991 and was pursued by the Ben Ali regime during the anti-Islamist purge. He moved to Morocco where he studied law. The Tunisian authorities caught up with him in 1994 so he took refuge in England, which refused to grant him political asylum and eventually considered him persona non grata because of his many sermons accusing the British government of being “the main cause behind the Muslim defeat.”

After leaving England, Abu Iyad fought against the Americans in Afghanistan and traveled to many countries, seduced by the calls for holy war. He was arrested in Turkey in 2003 and extradited to Tunisia where he was sentenced to more than 68 years in prison under the 2003 anti-terrorism law. He was accused of “high treason and of belonging to fundamentalist terrorist organizations, including al-Qaeda.”

Abu Iyad does not deny his relationship with al-Qaeda. He admits to have been close to Bin Laden, whom he met in 2000 in Kandahar. He certainly supports al-Qaeda but he never said that he belongs to the organization. The Tunisia Fighting Group (GCT), which he co-founded in prison with [infamous Tunisian jihadist] Tarek Maaroufi in 2000, is also known to be linked to al-Qaeda.

In 2011, the general amnesty law released him and many members of his network. Abu Iyad gathered his followers and former cellmates in a group known as Ansar al-Sharia, which calls for the defense of Islamic law and protests against the government.

However, according to interviews he has given since his release, the group does this without advocating violence against Tunisian citizens.

“Tunisia is not a land of jihad. We have not taken up arms against the people and our radical speeches are directed against the government, which does not govern according to God’s law,” [Abu Iyad says].

Even though he maintains a special relationship with some senior Ennahda members — among them [Prime Minister] Rachid Ghannouchi and Sadok Chouroue [an MP and former president of the Ennahda party] — the jihadists do not recognize the current government nor its “pro-American” relations.

According to Abu Iyad, the government is using the Salafist scarecrow to set up a new dictatorship. The jihadist leader condemns many incidents that were “wrongly attributed to his followers” and calls them “wrong.” These include the events of the “emirate” of Sejnane, the murder of the Polish clergyman, the Rouhia affair, the violence in Hergla, Mahdia, and Ben Guerdane, and the recent US embassy riots.

The jihadist leader claims that his followers “do not break the law and prefer to work openly through charitable actions and by preaching violence [sic] … Even if the Jebali government would give us our rights and let us work, the US Embassy would not allow it because it is they who rule the country and pull the strings of the party in power.”

The latest violence harmed Tunisian-American relations and seemed to have marked the end of the “undeclared truce” between Ennahda and the Salafist jihadists. In his sermon yesterday at el-Fath mosque, Abu Iyad openly expressed his hostility to the Interior Ministry and called for Laarayedh’s resignation for “no longer being able to ensure the citizens’ safety.”

Having become a nuisance, Abu Iyad seems to now be the new target of the Interior Ministry, which is unsure on how to deal with the Salafist leader given the ambiguous relationship between the two sides.

The recent events have raised questions among observers. Has US diplomatic pressure and Tunisian public opinion forced the government — against its will — to launch a campaign against Abu Iyad? Why did the Islamist government turn against one of its winning cards in the political game?

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