Tunisia’s War with Ansar al-Sharia: New Revelations about Al-Qaeda’s North African Network
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Ever since August 27th, when Tunisia designated the Salafi jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) a terrorist organization and issued a ban against it, the state’s war has escalated. In some of the most recent incidents, Islamist gunmen killed two police officers in the city of Goubellat, and both the president and prime minister were subsequently chased from the memorial by angry members of the security services who felt that too few resources supported their efforts.
One aspect of Tunisia’s fight against AST that deserves particular attention from Western observers centers on allegations that the Tunisian government has made about AST. There are two separate, but related, sets of allegations: that AST is part of al-Qaeda’s North African network, and that it has been deeply involved in political violence. Since the onset of the Arab Uprisings, U.S. analysts have tended to view the jihadist movement as increasingly diffuse, and to see North African groups like AST or Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia as largely disconnected from al-Qaeda and other jihadist organizations. But if Tunisia’s allegations are correct, they should prompt American analysts to seriously reconsider their assumptions about the shape of jihadism in the region. This article examines two major claims that the Tunisian government has made about AST.
Claim 1: AST is Closely Aligned with al-Qaeda
When Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh announced AST’s designation on August 27th, he accused the group of “liaising” with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Tunisia’s proof of AST’s connection to AQIM specifically, and the al-Qaeda network more broadly, can be divided into four categories: leadership ties, operational links, financial support, and intentions.
Allegations of leadership ties between AST and AQIM are based primarily on documentary evidence, a handwritten “Allegiance Act” between AST emir Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi and AQIM leader Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud. Part of the Allegiance Act holds that whoever swears allegiance (bayat) to Abu Iyadh and “then disobeys his orders may be subject to physical extermination.” Though reporting on the Allegiance Act has been sparse, it may be the source of another claim that has recently surfaced in the Tunisian press: in Essahafa, Mohamed Salah Hadri claimed that Abu Iyadh “swore an oath of allegiance to an Algerian emir.” If this claim is correct, Abdel Wadoud is the likeliest figure to whom Abu Iyadh may have taken bayat.
When the Tunisian government sought to arrest Abu Iyadh, he fled to Libya. Essahafa hypothesizes that, while there, he may have met with Mokhtar Belmokhtar, the emir of the notorious jihadist group Signatories in Blood, which most prominently executed the January attack at the Tigantourine gas plant near In Amenas, Algeria. Another connection that Abu Iyadh seems to have made during his recent time in exile is with Libyan political figure Abdelhakim Belhadj, a former Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG) commander. Tunisian attorney and investigator Taieb Laguili has alleged that Belhadj is now providing Abu Iyadh with shelter from authorities.
A second layer of links between AST and AQIM outlined by Tunisia is operational. A large part of these operational ties are focused on Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi, with Interior Minister Lofti Ben Jeddou referring to “established links” between AST and AQIM through the militant outfit that Tunisian security forces have been fighting around the Chambi Mountain. More generally, Mustapha Ben Amor, Tunisia’s director general of national security, described AST as a member of “the parent terrorist al-Qaeda,” and said that AST members receive training in Libya and Syria.
The third categorical layer through which Tunisia demonstrated a connection between AST and AQIM is financial. Ben Amor has also said that government investigations found that AST’s financing comes from “external and internal sources,” with the external sources being located in countries such as Yemen, Libya, and Mali. All three of these countries are known to have a significant al-Qaeda presence. If the funding allegation is true, it may mean that AST has tapped into al-Qaeda donor networks, and may even be receiving financial support from the jihadist group’s affiliates, like Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.
And a fourth layer of connections lies in both AST and al-Qaeda’s intentions. The Tunisian press has reported that sources in the Tunisian Security Services Union are now claiming that the country is more important to al-Qaeda than previously thought. They say that al-Qaeda is looking to establish a permanent foothold in Tunisia, rather than viewing it only as a passageway for arms and personnel. Ben Amor said that AST shares these aspirations, seeking to “create a security vacuum through assassinations, before seizing power and establishing the first Islamic emirate in North Africa.”
Claim 2: AST’s Involvement in Political Violence
AST’s likely involvement in the political assassinations of Chokri Belaïd and Mohamed Brahmi, is by this time well known. These two killings prompted the Tunisian government to ban AST and mount a subsequent crackdown on the group. Tunisia’s government has said that Belaïd and Brahmi were both killed by the same gun, which was subsequently confiscated in a raid in Tunis’s Wardieh neighborhood. Larayedh has described the gun as providing “proof that the Ansar group is responsible” for the two assassinations.
In addition to the assassinations, the government has linked AST to a number of past attacks, and claims that the group has planned further attacks as well. To facilitate such operations, the government claims that AST has a covert military wing, the leadership of which includes a “preparatory operations group” with six members, a “support and implementation group” with eight members, and a “mobilization and armament group” with two members.
Some of the major attacks that AST has been blamed for include:
- The September 14, 2012 attack on the U.S. embassy in Tunis. Though this incident began as a protest, the crowd ended up overrunning security and ransacking both the embassy and a nearby American school. AST openly worked to organize the demonstration, using its Facebook page to encourage Tunisians to attend. A number of AST members, including Abu Iyadh, were seen at the demonstration, and local eyewitnesses believe that AST initiated the clashes with security.
- The violence at Chambi Mountain. The ongoing skirmishes include a horrific late July incident in which eight Tunisian soldiers were ambushed; their throats were slit after they were shot.
- The July 2013 bombing of a National Guard car in Goulette. The government subsequently raided a house in Mornaguia, which it said was connected to the bombing, and the raid turned up “hand-made bombs, TNT explosives and tasers.”
- Ongoing attacks on security forces. For example, around the same time that militants killed two police officers in Goubellat, Islamist gunmen also attacked a Ghar Dimaou police station. These kinds of incidents have been increasing in Tunisia.
The government has also pointed to a number of planned attacks by AST that were either discovered or thwarted. Most chillingly, Interior Minister Lofti Ben Jeddou claims that his ministry found “an assassination list” which contains the names of a wide array of “politicians and anti-Islamist media figures.” These figures include writers, academics, and a film director.
Some Western analysts view all of the Tunisian government’s claims about AST’s connections to al-Qaeda with skepticism. This is understandable to some extent: there is a difference between claims the government makes and those facts that have been definitively proven true. However, most of the U.S.’s factual claims about the al-Qaeda network that surface in the Western press are similarly not accompanied by evidence to back them up—analysts take them seriously because they trust the U.S. government to have a higher standard of accuracy and reliability than Tunisia. But particularly when Tunisia cites documentary evidence, as is the case with the Allegiance Act between Abu Iyadh and Abdel Wadoud, it is worth looking further into the claim rather than dismissing it out of hand.
Further, AST has done very little to deny the government’s charges. After being accused of being part of the al-Qaeda network, the group confirmed its “loyalty” to al-Qaeda, but said that it had “organizational independence” and was “not tied to any group outside.”
This means that the primary skeptics of the Tunisian government’s claims are Western and local experts who have little visibility on the clandestine links that may or may not exist between AST and AQIM. It is worth noting, too, that even before the latest round of Tunisian allegations, connections between AST and other international jihadist groups could be discerned from open-source reporting.
The government’s claims are worth being aware of and exploring. If these claims prove to be correct, many assumptions that Western observers have made about the shape of jihadism in North Africa could in turn be largely inaccurate.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a regular War on the Rocks contributor. Bridget Moreng, a University of Colorado at Boulder graduate, is currently interning for Mr. Gartenstein-Ross at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where her work focuses on al-Qaeda and associated movements.
Photo credit: Nicolas Raymond