IS ‘caliphate’ a dream come true for Tunisian jihadists

While some Tunisian jihadist movements see the announcement of the Islamic caliphate as an opportunity to expand, officials are warning against the threat of terrorism and calling for immediate action.

al-monitor A riot police officer fires tear gas during clashes with supporters of Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia at Hai al Tadamon in Tunis, May 19, 2013. Photo by REUTERS/Anis Mili.

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tunisia, terrorism, jihadists, islamic state, ansar al-sharia

Tem 8, 2014

The fantasy of restoring the Islamic caliphate has never been so real. The Islamic State (IS), formerly the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), wants to reshape the boundaries of the Muslim world, including Tunisia, while the longing for a golden age where Muslims had power is driving the war. With the announcement of a new caliphate, on June 29, the most violent jihadist movement, which has control over a majority of Syria and nearly two-thirds of northern Iraq, does not intend to stop there.

The caliphate has a new face. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, self-proclaimed caliph and imam of Muslims around the world, is at the head of IS. The one nicknamed "Atilla of the Levant” has the title of successor to the Prophet Muhammad. This distinction had disappeared in 1923 with the Ottoman empire.

In a message delivered on the eve of the holy month of Ramadan to all mujahedeen and the Islamic ummah, Baghdadi called on his supporters to take revenge for the harm caused to Muslims around the world. In the message, he mentioned Tunisia where "a war is being waged against chastity and hijab," and where "infidelity, prostitution and adultery" are widely practiced.

“The Islamic ummah is looking at your jihad with hope. Your fellows in many parts of the world are inflicted the worst forms of torture. Their honor is violated and their blood is shed. Prisoners moan and scream for help. Orphans and widows complain about their fate. Women cry for the loss of their children. The mosques are desecrated and the shrines are violated. The rights of Muslims are seized by force in China, India, Palestine, Somalia, Arabian Peninsula, Caucasus, Sham (the Levant), Egypt, Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, Philippines, Iran, Pakistan, Tunisia, Libya, Algeria and Morocco; in the East and the West," Baghdadi said in his speech.

Baghdadi is known for being a visionary. The one who created the dream of Osama bin Laden is not luring his disciples with Paradise and virgins, but with spoils of war and conquered lands. In his speech on June 29, he announced that his group would now be called the Islamic State — without any geographical limitation, to fulfill its ambition of expanding to the whole world, beyond any border. Many disciples are joining the group every day.

In Tunisia, the speech does not seem to have fallen on deaf ears. Indeed, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said that nearly 2,400 Tunisian jihadists were fighting alongside the Syrian rebels, and 80% of them were members of IS. The Tunisian Institute for Strategic Studies also said that 14 Tunisians were involved in suicide attacks in Iraq in March and April 2014.

In a statement given to the German news agency DW on June 27, the head of the Tunisian Center for Global Security Studies, Nasr Ben Soltana, said the fears of ISIS contaminating the Maghreb, and therefore Tunisia, were relevant. Local jihadist movements and their Iraqi counterpart were brought together for the common cause of establishing the Islamic caliphate, where they support each other and coordinate their efforts. In addition, many Tunisian jihadists are active abroad, for instance in Iraq or Afghanistan, and most recently in Syria.

This means that the greatest danger does not come from abroad. The post-revolutionary Tunisia, which was rocked by insecurity and political instability, is ideal to host this jihadist movement and its fantasy project.

Indeed, Soltana explains that the Tunisian state’s laxity toward certain activities of fundamentalist groups, the takeover of mosques and the presidential amnesty that resulted in the release of several prisoners, including fundamentalists, were also behind this wide open gateway for terrorism. Add to this the profuse weapons coming from Libya, the indoctrination networks of youth into jihad in Syria aided by the ease of launching propaganda on the Internet and fuelled by political rhetoric of some leaders openly calling for jihad.

Today, the list of armed jihadist groups officially pledging their allegiance to ISIS is growing by the hour. On June 26, 2014, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was added to this list. This group, which includes the Tunisian terrorist network Ansar al-Sharia, published an audio message on YouTube in which it openly criticized al-Qaeda. Algerian AQIM leader Abu Abdullah Othman el-Assimi affirmed in this recording that AQIM recognizes that ISIS is on the right track since the latter “is placing the word of Allah above all and is ignoring the boundaries imposed by the Taghout (tyrants),” three days before Baghdadi’s announcement.

Baghdadi had already defected from al-Qaeda in 2013 by ending his alliance of convenience with the organization. While Baghdadi’s movement — which is al-Qaeda’s offshoot — emerged in 2007 under the name of the Islamic State in Iraq, it wasn’t until 2011 that this movement started recovering. Indeed, the departure of US troops from Iraq, the sectarian politics of Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the revolution which broke out in Syria constituted the foundations for ISIS.

Taking advantage of the porous borders between the two neighboring countries, Iraqi jihadists went to Syria to fight alongside the Free Syrian Army, along with jihadists from around the world, including from Tunisia. After supporting the Syrian movement [of al-Qaeda], Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic State in Iraq continued to send men to northern Syria under the banner of ISIS. The movement has emerged as the most violent jihadist movement. Even the Syrian rebels do not want them and reject them, while accusing them of stealing their revolution. After its return in force in Iraq in 2013, ISIS appropriated, in 2014, the majority of Syrian territories and nearly two-thirds of northern Iraqi territories, thus entering a new phase. ISIS indeed claims to be the figurehead of global jihadism in place of the parent organization, al-Qaeda.

Following the official announcement of an Islamic caliphate, some radical circles in Tunisia rejoiced at the idea of ​​seeing this dream finally take shape. Other parties that advocate the caliphate as the ultimate goal, like Hizb ut-Tahrir, are skeptical, noting: “Any movement wishing to establish the caliphate should follow the path of Prophet Muhammad. … This announcement is mere talk and does not, in any way, move forward toward the establishment of the caliphate. It is an armed organization that has no real power over Syria and Iraq.”

However, this announcement was also a message from the Islamic State to all leaders of Muslim countries. In Tunisia, opinions differ on the importance that should be attributed to terrorism. Many attacks are carried out in the country, including the infamous mine explosions in Jebel Chambi, Selloum and Ouergha, causing dozens of deaths in the ranks of the army and the National Guard and also claiming the lives of Tunisian citizens.

Yet, even today, the absence of a real global strategy against terrorism remains deplorable. Beyond sweetened and circumstantial political speeches, the authorities still lack a clear vision of how to deal with this threat.

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