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A gathering storm | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Radical Islamist movement Ansar al-Shariah supporters clash with Tunisian police officers after Tunisia’s Interior Ministry on Friday banned their annual conference supposed to be held in Kairouan, in Ettadhamen, near Tunis, Sunday May 19, 2013 (AP Photo/Nawfel)

Radical Islamist movement Ansar al-Shariah supporters clash with Tunisian police officers after Tunisia's Interior Ministry on Friday banned their annual conference supposed to be held in Kairouan, in Ettadhamen, near Tunis, Sunday May 19, 2013 (AP Photo/Nawfel)

Radical Islamist movement Ansar Al-Sharia supporters clash with Tunisian police officers after Tunisia’s Interior Ministry on Friday banned their annual conference supposed to be held in Kairouan, in Ettadhamen, near Tunis, on Sunday, May 19, 2013. (AP Photo/Nawfel)

Tunis, Asharq Al-Awsat—Since the downfall of Tunisia’s Zine El-Abidine ben Ali, the prospect of radical religious violence has been an unsettling undercurrent in Tunisian society and politics. While many point to the essential moderation and good sense of ordinary Tunisians as positive indicators of long-term stability, short-term trends are more worrying.

In particular, the clashes between the Salafist Ansar Al-Sharia and Tunisian security forces that took place around the Jebel ech Chambi mountain recently—and the government’s threats of force in confronting these extremists—are signs of imminent danger.

The ruling three-party coalition, backed by the more than 30 parties participating in the National Dialogue, want the authorities to take a zero-tolerance policy with these groups, and demand that they be placed on the terror watch list. For their part, the armed Salafist movements do not recognize the authority of the state and describe its rulers as “tyrants.”

For many years, there was talk about a type of Salafism that submitted to the law. The thousands of people who rejected this idea and chose to take up arms were placed behind bars. Tunisian human rights organizations counted more than three thousand young Tunisians who were arrested and imprisoned by the regime of former president Zine El-Abidine ben Ali because of their rejection of the rule of law. Many of them were released after the general amnesty issued on February 19, 2011. This amnesty provided the legal framework for the return of fighters and jihadists from conflict zones in the Arab and Islamic world and from Western countries to Tunisia, and the beginning of their public political activity.

More than two years after the revolution, it seems that extremist rhetoric has taken over political discourse. Some political leaders have accused the Ennahda Movement of practicing what is known in Tunisia as “Islam lite,” meaning that it is an Islamist party but does not use Shari’a law as the fundamental source of legislation. Some allege that this has pushed certain Tunisian youth to look elsewhere for spiritual guidance—and they turned to extremist movements, which provided them with social protection and prestige.

Mohamed Salah Hedri, president of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development, told Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Salafist movements exploited the Ennahda Movement’s hesitation to resolve many outstanding issues, including the identity of Tunisians in the first article of the constitution, and its indecisiveness in its relationships with secular parties. This indecisiveness prevented them from taking bold stances. Therefore, it distanced itself from adopting Shari’a as the source of legislation, and this is what led some Tunisian youth to abandon the Ennahda Movement and instead join the Salafist movements, which remained firm on their principles and did not change their positions.”

Some experts on Islamist groups estimate that around 4,000 people belong to jihadist movements in Tunisia, which suggests the reach of jihadist networks is extensive. Their numbers cannot be limited to the estimated 50 to 100 groups in the forests of Chambi in west-central Tunisia, where a number of landmines have been used to attack the security forces and the army. Tunisian security reports have shown that terrorist cells based in the difficult terrain around Jebel ech Chabmi, the highest mountain in Tunisia, have enough money, supplies and weapons to threaten Tunisia’s security, and perhaps the security of neighboring countries as well.

The Tunisia-based International Association for the Support of Political Prisoners analyzed the cases of 1,208 Tunisian Salafists arrested under the anti-terrorism law of 2003. According to the resulting report, those who join jihadist Salafi movements are young—generally between the ages of 25 and 30. Some are as young as 19 years old.

Mounira Rezgui, a Tunisian researcher and sociologist, told Asharq Al-Awsat that members of jihadist movements do not view the world the way others see it, and that they have a special logic with which they view different societies. She added that many of them have undergone brainwashing before entering the jihadist movements, both at home and abroad. She highlighted longer-term problems that get neglected while the security services and the army deal with a limited number of armed militants. These include young people adopting jihadist ideologies and the presence of thousands of so-called sleeper cells who were won over by this ideology and are ready to defend their beliefs by any means, including taking up weapons and challenging the state.

SHEIKH RACHED GHANNOUCHI, president of the Ennahda party, recently lashed out at the Salafist current. His words contrasted with his previous emphasis on the existence of peaceful Salafists, an apparent attempt to differentiate between two kinds of Salafism: academic Salafism, which does not endorse violence, and jihadist Salafism, which does not hesitate to use any means, including violence and coercion, to push society to implement strict Shari’a law.

In a recent press conference on the events of Jebel ech Chambi, Ghannouchi directed his anger at jihadist organizations and said that it is useless to engage in dialogue with extremists at the present time. This statement was interpreted as a green light to begin a major campaign against the extremist Salafist movements. Ghannouchi said that preserving social order and protecting the lives of Muslims are priorities that the Salafists need to respect, and that this was the difference between the different groups.

For his part, Abdelfattah Mourou, vice president of Ennahda, told Asharq Al-Awsat that radical Salafis are “invading” and that they are unable to live in peace with Tunisians. He said: “Everyone who takes up jihad against the state and fight against it is part of an invasion.” He further stated that “those who take this path will be led to hell by their false, erroneous beliefs.”

The Salafists leaders are divided over the issue of dealing with the reality of Tunisian politics after the revolution. The leaders of the takfiri jihadist movements think that society is formed by tyrants who must be fought by any means necessary. These “tyrants” include Ennahda, which this sort of Salafi leader considers mut’aslim (false Muslim). For instance, Abu Ayadh, the leader of Ansar Al-Sharia, has called for the overthrow of the current authorities.

On the other hand, some of the peaceful Salafist leaders, such as Bechir ben Hassen, do not agree with these calls for violence and rebellion. Ben Hassan has called on Muslims to follow the example of the Salaf (the early Muslims), focusing on kindness, compassion, and the love of good—a message far removed from provocation and violence. He said that warding off evil takes precedence over personal interests, and that those who have the ability to give advice and engage in dialogue should not fail to do so.

HADI YAHMED, an expert on jihadist groups, says that reports of Ansar Al-Sharia having 50,000 followers are exaggerated and inaccurate. He said that a more reasonable estimate is no more than 15,000 supporters, who make up the hardline base of this extremist Salafist movement. He says there could be more sympathizers of this movement, and that this number fluctuates with events such as what is now known as the “Battle of the American Embassy.” That attack, provoked by a film that insulted the Prophet and Islam, brought together both religious people and regular worshipers with no ties to extremist takfiri movements to defend their religion.

Yahmed said that the Tunisian interior ministry’s decision to block Ansar Al-Sharia’s conference in Kairouan, as well as its conference in the Tadamon neighborhood in the suburbs of Tunis, has placed Ansar Al-Sharia in a difficult situation. It showed that Ansar Al-Sharia was weak and unable to fight the state at this time.

Recently, there have been repeated, alarming calls for a parallel Salafism, with deviants, convicts and the unemployed joining Salafist movements, which, as it turns out, control important financial resources and can provide benefits to members including opportunities to engage in commerce in the city streets without interference from security forces.

In this regard, Ridha Belhaj, spokesperson for Hizb ut-Tahrir, a party that calls for the return of the caliphate system, told Asharq Al-Awsat that the Salafist movements are “compromised and non-homogenous. They have become a hotbed of infiltration by all adversaries.”

Belhaj said that some members of the Salafist movement had impersonated others in the events of Jebel ech Chambi. For example, Algeria confirmed that an suspect who claimed to be Algerian, was not a citizen of that country despite his claims. Belhaj emphasized that their goal was either to deface Islamist movements and attack them from within to serve some agenda, or to take advantage of Islamic charities and funds. He pointed out that some people had disguised themselves with synthetic beards and niqabs after committing crimes; to him, these practices are far from the ethics of the Salaf.

Dr. Souad Abderrahim, member of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly and the Ennahda Movement, told Asharq Al-Awsat that she does not doubt that some of the Islamist and Salafist movements have been infiltrated in this way. She pointed to some people with criminal records who “joined these movements to atone for their sins” and to receive personal benefits. She also said that the intermixing of these former criminals with the fundamentalists of these movements poses a threat to Tunisian society—one that could become detrimental to religious adherence at large, especially after the several violent incidents attributed to jihadist Salafists.

SALAFIST ORGANIZATIONS were not publicly active during the rule of the former president, and they reduced their movements and activity after the antiterrorism law that was issued on December 10, 2003. According to Liberty and Equity, an independent Tunisian human rights organization, more than 3000 Salafis were imprisoned after this law was enacted.

The Tunisian Revolution revived dormant sleeper cells, and jihadist leaders who were active abroad in places like Europe, Afghanistan and Iraq returned to the Tunisian political scene. They include leaders like Abu Ayadh, who formed a group of Tunisian jihadists in Jalalabad, Afghanistan, in 2000. According to experts on Islamist groups, Abu Ayadh was a student of Abu Qatada Al-Filistini, who is currently imprisoned in the UK.

The jihadist Salafists have a young leadership which includes figures such as Abu Ayyub Al-Tunisi and Sheikh Khatib Idrisi, who bring legitimacy to the movement. Sheikh Khatib Idrisi was imprisoned during Ben Ali’s rule, charged with issuing a fatwa that encouraged jihadi operations in what become known as the Soliman Case, in late 2006 and early 2007.

Ansar Al-Sharia held its first meeting in May 2011. It was attended by more than 15,000 supporters, mostly Tunisian jihadists. It was organized under the slogan, “Listen to us, not to the rumors about us.” The organization held its second conference in May 2012 in Kairouan. It was attended by about 5,000 people and included martial arts demonstrations with weapons like swords and staves, as well as hand-to-hand combat.

Security forces accuse Ansar Al-Sharia in Tunisia of being behind a large number of violent attacks and protests in the streets, and of threatening security. This includes the attack on the American embassy in the capital, Tunis, on February 14, 2012, to protest against a film insulting Islam that was uploaded onto the video-sharing website YouTube. The leadership of the Salafist movements say that the Tunisian authorities are currently holding 400 Salafists in prison in relation to this violence.

Regarding the relationship between the formerly banned Ennahda and the jihadist Salafist movements that surfaced after the Tunisian Revolution, Allani says that “the Ennahda movement, which announced that it is a civil group and chose the ballot box to come to power, is no longer able to postpone confronting the extremists. I think that serious, in-depth dialogue between the Islamist movements and the rest of the political movements is critical. This could take the form of a national conference about combating extremism and terrorism, and the means to get out of Tunisia’s current state of instability and tension.”

Allani pointed out the lack of a cultural revolution that would lead to a political and social revolution in Tunisia, and said that in his view, the lack of cultural groundwork or a vision for society is what led to the current political and social volatility and polarization.