Will Tunisia Become a Base for al-Qaeda?

Article Summary
Given the weak security situation, ongoing political crises and increasing Salafist activity, Tunisia could turn into a new base for al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.

The confrontations between armed groups and the army and security forces in various areas of Tunisia — the most recent ones being the search operations that have been ongoing for more than two weeks in Jebel ech Chambi and in the midwest — indicate that the armed wing of the Ansar al-Sharia organization has prepared logistical and organizational plans that enable it to wage an open confrontation with the state in multiple cities, as well as in the mountains, where gunmen are holed up and are polarizing the efforts of the special forces.

The clashes with the security forces, which have occurred in multiple locations, are exhausting security forces’ already limited capabilities. They are giving the impression that the Tunisian state is weak and that the country is vulnerable to the activities of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), through the Ansar al-Sharia organization, which began its confrontation with security forces in Kairouan and Tunis on the same day.

During his stay in Qatar, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh described [Ansar al-Sharia] as an “illegal, terrorist organization.” This indicates that the consensus that existed between the Salafists, their partners and the Ennahda movement may come to an end.

Ever since the emergence of the Islamist-led government in January 2012, Ansar al-Sharia’s supporters started training for continuous attacks against those who are not members of the Brotherhood. The Salafist jihadists were empowered by Ennahda, which dominated important state posts — particularly the Ministry of Interior under former Interior Minister and current Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh.

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Ennahda’s ideological and political leaders used various pretexts to justify the behavior of the militant groups. Their leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, understood the religious chaos and pitied those he referred to as “our sons and brothers — victims of the religious neglect experienced by Tunisia under [Habib] Bourguiba and Ben Ali.” He expressed regret at the religious disorder that prevailed following the closure of the Zaytoonah University, which used to graduate imams and represented a particular doctrinal reference.

As a result of this "neglect" and the absence of a clear reference, Tunisian youth had to learn Islam from satellite channels. Thus, one can only respond to Ghannouchi by reminding him that he, his generation and the generations that followed, studied in the schools that sprang up in the post-independence period and learned as much as possible from the Quran. They even learned languages, studied philosophy, mathematics and music, among other topics. Add to this that 99% of the Tunisians grew up in Muslim families and did not even need militant advocates or satellite channels.

The important thing now is that the entire country finds itself facing destructive chaos that may set the stage for AQIM and organized-crime networks, now that their bases have been attacked in northern Mali.

Ennahda’s cover

Ennahda leaders have provided, for more than a year and a half, political cover for the Salafist attacks on religious, security, educational, cultural and information institutions until the situation reached its current stage.

Following the departure of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, jihadists took control of more than 500 of the 5,000 mosques spread across the country, starting with mosques in the low-income neighborhoods of the capital (al-Tadamon, al-Intilaka) that are home to hundreds of thousands of people, and ending with mosques in Foussana, a town located in the midwest of the country facing the slopes of Jebel ech Chambi and with a population of 7,000.

Yet, takfiri rhetoric was not the preserve of the Salafist jihadists alone, as imams from the Ennahda movement and Hizb ut-Tahrir — which is dreaming of the imminent establishment of a new Islamic caliphate — have started outbidding each other, thus giving visitors the impression that Tunisia will witness another conquest.

The Salafists imposed their authority in the Fath Mosque, among others, in the center of the capital. A personal visit to this mosque has allowed me to conclude that the Salafists there do not comply with the rules of the administration and do not heed the demands of the imam appointed by the ministry, despite the fact that he does not object to their behavior. In the Jerusalem Mosque in the low-income suburb of Oued Ellil, Imam Abu Ayyub praises the qualities and great deeds of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden.

In broad daylight, a number of minarets call for jihad in Syria and hundreds of Tunisians were mobilized to engage in combat operations. The cost of a Tunisian "volunteer" reaches $2,000, an amount provided by networks that operate on Libyan soil.

Ennahda activists and the Salafists have targeted public and private media institutions and recruited the unemployed, some of whom do not belong to the Brotherhood and have fled from prison, in order to participate in sit-ins that lasted for 54 days in front of the doors of various TV studios. These sit-ins were funded by a scrap merchant affiliated with the Ennahda movement who works in the Bardo district. The businessman paid each of the 200 protesters 50 dinars ($30) for two months. For their part, Ennahda supporters and Salafists did not hesitate to target the faculty of arts in Manouba and the headquarters of the General Union of Tunisian Workers. Their activists established brigades that they called Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution. These act as militias targeting Ennahda’s opponents in the political arena, as well those in the trade union and cultural institutes.

A videotape released in March 2012 revealed tips offered by Ghannouchi to the leaders of the Salafist movement, urging them to slow down and get ready to change society. “Why are you in a hurry?” he asks. “Why don't you realize what has already been achieved? Open the Riyadh religious forum, the universities and television stations ... organize camps (training courses) and host preachers. No one is stopping you.” Then he calls into question the loyalty of the military institution and says: “Do you think that the army is trustworthy? Are the security forces trustworthy? The army, security, the economy and the media are in the hands of secularists.”

Ghannouchi called on the Salafist leaders to draw lessons from the Algerian experience, where secularists turned against Islamists in a country where “Islamists represented the majority, whereas Islamists in Tunisia are not the majority.”  

Ghannouchi did not deny what was on the tape. He only said that it was edited. The sentences remained understandable, despite the editing made, and the words reflected an aspect of the man's way of thinking.

Ghannouchi’s partners, especially the Western nations that support Tunisia, discovered the leader’s real intentions, which contradict his speeches made in conferences in Europe and the United States. Ghannouchi was isolated for a while, after Western diplomats who had previously flocked to Tunisia refrained from visiting him. Al-Hayat found out the names of some of those who refused to meet with Ghannouchi, despite the pleas of mediators. He might have made concessions in return for normalization of relations and reopening the doors of conferences in Europe and the United States in front of him, especially after he agreed to maintain the neutrality of the sovereign ministries and condemned the jihadist militants’ activities.

A premature warning

Many Tunisians and foreigners warned the government of [former] Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali and former Minister of Interior Ali Laarayedh about the risks of regression of the state and the decline of its role, not to mention the state’s leniency with takfiri groups and its objection to confrontations with those who perpetrate violence in the name of religion. Yet, the warnings were in vain. Eventually, the results of the Ministry of Interior’s lenient approach in dealing with the Salafist attack on the US Embassy on Sept. 14, 2012, appeared. This happened despite the US warnings and the reassurances given by Laarayedh and Jebali to the US ambassador, only three days after al-Qaeda’s attack on the US Embassy in Benghazi.

Abu Iyadh, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia and a former fighter in Afghanistan, organized the attack on the US Embassy. Disguised in a full face veil, he managed to escape from the Fath Mosque in the center of the capital, while hundreds of security men were surrounding it. Today, Abu Iyadh is leading the campaign against the government in Kairouan and Tunis’ suburbs, as well as the web campaign.   

The jihadist attack against the embassy was followed by a series of attacks on the secular components of society. Lotfi Naguedh, an activist in the opposition Nidaa Tunis Party, was assassinated in Tataouine (southeast of the country) by Ennahda militants and members of the Leagues for the Protection of the Revolution.

In the absence of a security deterrence and the crippling of the security body — due to the chaos of appointments of security staff and the politicization of the appointments in the cabinet and districts, as well as the absence of the political cover of the National Constituent Assembly’s parliamentary majority for the work of security units and the human rights activists’ defamation of security men, and the random accusations against many people — the security men found themselves targets of the public opinion of the Brotherhood, Salafist groups and thousands of criminals acquitted by President Marzouki, not to mention tens of thousands of former detainees who escaped from prison during the revolution.

As a result, security forces were less present in police stations, and Salafist jihadists were wandering the neighborhoods. Since October 2012, Salafists have deployed “vice squad patrols” in the Douar Hicher neighborhood, among other locations, that acted based on their own personal judgment. Security patrols cannot be organized and Salafists cannot be arrested, since security forces do not have political cover or orders to pursue the perpetrators. If a security patrol clashes with a rebel patrol, the latter cannot be arrested because the decision did not come from the Ministry of Interior. Consequently, security presence was limited to police stations, and security men were only protecting those stations. Security men could use force if Salafists attacked them in their stations. This is what happened during the aforementioned period when two of those who had attacked security officers were shot in Douar Hicher. The escalation and violence persisted in the speeches of extremist imams who attacked seculars and some opposition party leaders. The head of the Democratic Patriots’ Movement Chokri Belaid, a lawyer who defended several extremists roaming the streets of al-Tadamon neighborhood today, was assassinated in front of his house in early February 2013.

A land open to preachers

Tunisia seems like a land prone to violations, ever since the Islamists tightened their grip on the Ministry of Interior. It is visited by extremist Arab preachers who do not have any limitations. They fill the halls with their insults and cursing against seculars and “Occidentalists” who imported women’s rights, tourism and cultural ways from the West.

Despite the resolve shown by the security forces and the army in recent weeks following the appointment of the moderate judge Lotfi Ben Jeddou as minister of interior, and despite the systematic search operations led by special forces in some mountainous areas in search of militants sheltered there, and the regained confidence of security units, the harmony between the speeches of Salafists and prominent Ennahda leaders will undermine the effect of the attempts to recover the state’s dignity. In fact, since taking office, the Ennahda movement has managed to appoint its partisans in the various security and administrative institutions. The electoral interests may be one of the key elements that will favor the persisting alliance between Ennahda, the Salafists and jihadists. However, if the party breaks the alliance, it might risk triggering divisions within its ranks.

Extremists are benefiting from the state’s weakness and the dispersion of its security capacities in cities, villages and suburbs that might shelter militants who fled northern Mali because of the French army’s attacks.

President Francois Hollande said at the Donor Conference for Mali in Brussels in mid-May 2013 that “the gunmen fled from Mali to Tunisia, Libya and possibly to other areas.”

Moreover, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore explained the escape of the jihadists and extremists, saying that “they were seeking to find regions where the security is weak and the government is fragile.” This applies to some extent to the situation in Tunisia, and to a great extent to that in Libya. The delicate situation in Tunisia inspired the speech of the country’s representative at the conference, Hedi Ben Abbas, who said: “Tunisians discovered that the borders of their country are not far from Mali.” Abbas was referring to the fighters holed up weeks ago in Jebel ech Chambi. He stated that they might have been trained in Mali and returned to Tunisia in the midst of AQIM members fleeing the country. Tunisia may be, by virtue of its geographical location and especially the fragility of its political and security situation, al-Qaeda’s favorite place to build a logistic base to launch its operations in Tunisia, Algeria and elsewhere, having lost its bases in Mali.

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Found in: al-qaeda organization, violence, tunisia, terrorism, security, secular, salafist, islamists, ennahda, assassination, al-qaeda
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