The leader of the Salafist jihadist movement in Tunisia, Saif Allah bin Hussein, also known as Abu Iyad, threatened the government led by the Islamic Ennahda Movement with war similar in scope to the battles waged in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, following the Interior Ministry’s decision to ban dawa (preaching) meetings organized by the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia group because they lacked the necessary permits.
Abu Iyad, in a letter addressed to his followers, called on Salafist jihadists in Tunisia to “remain steadfast in their Islamic calling” and not relinquish what he called “the gains achieved by the Salafist movement” in Tunisia after the revolution. He continued, “Our youth — who bravely fought for Islam in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Somalia and the Levant — will not spare any sacrifice to protect their religion in the land of Kairouan (the Islamic cultural capital located in Tunisia).”
Abu Iyad felt that army and security agents were “committing follies that foretold their rush to go to battle” and stressed that “Salafist jihadist youth could not be beaten by any force on earth.”
This message by Abu Iyad, who is sought by Tunisian authorities for his role in the events that took place at the US embassy last September, is considered an escalation on the part of the jihadists in Tunisia. This is especially true in light of the tension that some regions have witnessed as a result of the Interior Ministry’s insistence to ban the preaching activities of Ansar al-Sharia (the largest Salafist organization in Tunisia). In particular, it has banned Ansar al-Sharia’s third annual meeting, scheduled to take place in Kairouan Province in the center of the country on May 19.
The Interior Ministry insists on banning Ansar al-Sharia’s conference in Kairouan due to the difficult security situation in the country, according to its estimation.
In the same context, Naji Jaloul, a scholar in the field of Islamic civilizations and jihadist movements, did not rule out the possibility that Abu Iyad’s message contained some sort of code for his Salafist followers to begin moving or escalating their stance against the government and state. In a statement to Al-Hayat, Jaloul attributed the escalatory rhetoric of the Salafist leader as being engendered “by the defeats suffered by jihadists in Mali, the strong measures taken against them in Algeria and the growing popular anger in Tunisia against them following the recent events in Jebel ech Chambi.” He added that Abu Iyad wants Tunisia to become a haven for jihadists, especially those returning from the war fronts.
It could be argued that the Ansar al-Sharia leader’s message in Tunisia cannot be completely taken out of the prevailing context, particularly the confrontations underway in the Jebel ech Chambi area adjacent to Algeria in the west of the country. Armed groups have entrenched themselves in this region, according to the interior and defense ministries. It is also related to the skirmishes that are occurring in some other provinces, which are believed to be intended to “distract” the efforts of the military and security forces that are closing in on the insurgents following their encirclement on Jebel ech Chambi.
The escalation in rhetoric by Salafist leaders and imams can also be viewed as being part of the same context, with one Salafist activist from the northern province of Bizerte warning against provoking Ansar al-Sharia and threatening that the banner of monotheism (Salafists call it the “banner of retribution”) would flutter above the Interior Ministry, as he put it. Salafist jihadist circles are also spreading the word that they are organizing an open-ended sit-in protest, on the occasion of the Kairouan conference on May 19, first and foremost to demand the “adoption of sharia Law in Tunisia.”
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