An Escalation in Tunisia: How the State Went to War with Ansar al-Sharia


Since the fall of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in January 2011, the country has been challenged by the aggressive growth of a domestic salafi jihadist movement. The most significant organization in this movement is Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), which has now been designated a terrorist group by the governments of Tunisia and the United States, and against which the Tunisian state has launched a vigorous crackdown.

Though it’s hard to pinpoint a definitive beginning of the escalation between AST and the state, the most persuasive inflection point is December 2012, when militants shot and killed an adjutant in the Tunisian National Guard. Thereafter, a progression of actions and reactions by the state and AST ratcheted up the conflict.

Prior to the ban against AST, the group had taken advantage of Tunisia’s newly won freedoms to propagate its ideology. Its dawa (evangelism) efforts employed some traditional methods, such as dawa events at markets and public protests, but AST also had innovative approaches. These included provision of social services—although militant groups like Hizballah and Hamas have also employed this technique, AST was an early adopter among Arab salafi jihadists—and use of social media, which served as a force multiplier for AST’s efforts.

Though AST was primarily focused on dawa before the escalation, it also engaged in violence that can be categorized as hisba­—enforcement of norms in the Muslim community, often manifested as vigilante violence. It should be noted that while there was a large amount of salafi hisba violence, AST’s opaque organizational structure largely masked which acts were specifically attributable to it. Targets of the general hisba violence included women, artists (including an anti-Islamist film director and a TV station that broadcast the controversial animated film Persepolis), and educators who refused to allow female students to wear the niqab (face covering) in their institutions. Hisba was, among other things, a means of challenging the state short of revolution, possessing both religious and strategic value.

But now AST no longer enjoys the same freedom to operate, and its members are being pursued by the state. This article traces the escalating conflict.

Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi and Violence Against Security Forces

Understanding the escalation between AST and the state requires some background on Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi, a shadowy militant group active at the Tunisia-Algeria border that connects AST operationally to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). That AST would have operational connections to al-Qaeda is no surprise. Its leadership had longstanding al-Qaeda ties, including AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi, a veteran jihadist who moved from the 1990s “Londonistan” scene to Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, where he founded the Tunisian Combatant Group. That organization’s violent acts included facilitating the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud just before al-Qaeda executed the 9/11 attacks.

The first incidents that elevated Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi in importance occurred after Tunisian authorities stepped up interdiction efforts at the border with Algeria, following a December 8, 2012, police raid in Jendouba that turned up guns and explosives. Two days later, Tunisian National Guardsmen patrolling at the border were alerted to a group of about four militants who entered Tunisian territory and were in the forest near the village of Derneya. A small detachment of guardsmen entered the forest and ended up in a firefight with militants. An adjutant, Anis Jelassi, was shot and killed.

Jelassi’s killing prompted intensified police operations, and officials publicly named Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi for the first time at a press conference. Interior minister Ali Laarayedh said that Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi was part of AQIM emir Abu Musab Abdel Wadoud’s militant network. Tunisian authorities alleged that the Katibat was engaged in smuggling activity between Tunisia and Algeria, and that it used Jebel el-Chaambi, Tunisia’s highest mountain and also a major national park, to conduct militant training.

Subsequent sweeps by the Tunisian army and National Guard at the Algerian border discovered caches of weapons and ammunition, and Tunisian authorities occasionally got into firefights with militants. Then, in early May of 2013, sixteen members of the security forces were wounded in four separate landmine attacks.

On May 7, following these incidents, Tunisian authorities held a press conference where they said that both AQIM and AST were connected to the Jebel el-Chaambi violence. The government then decided to forbid the annual conference that AST planned to hold in Kairouan, a move that further exacerbated tensions.

Cancellation of the Kairouan Conference

For the first couple of years of AST’s existence, one of the most visible spectacles to draw its members, supporters, and fellow travelers was an annual event in Kairouan. The second Kairouan conference in May 2012 drew between 3,000 and 10,000 attendees, and attracted a star-studded line-up of jihadist speakers. AST’s 2013 conference was scheduled to begin on May 19, but days before the conference was to begin, on May 15, the government banned the meeting, explaining that AST failed to submit the necessary paperwork.

On May 19, AST advised its domestic supporters, through a Facebook post, to gather in the city of Ettadhamen, near Tunis. This was an attempt to circumvent the ban: AST wanted to flout the state’s authority by holding the conference in another location. That evening, clashes erupted between police and salafists in Ettadhamen. According to official statistics, one person was killed and 18 wounded, including fifteen police officers, in the first night of clashes. Confrontations also occurred in Kairouan.

On June 6, Tunisian police raided AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi’s home, though they did not find him. The same day, two security officers driving in Jebel el-Chaambi died in a landmine explosion. About fifty Chaambi residents held a public protest calling for the government to take a stronger stance, even saying that authorities should set the mountain on fire if necessary. This illustrates how the escalation in violence generated pressure for the government to show resolve in the face of the jihadist threat.

At the end of July, two major incidents occurred within five days of each other that would substantially reshape the relationship between AST and the government. The first was a political assassination.

Assassinations Attributed to AST

The Tunisian government blamed AST for two assassinations in 2013. The first occurred on February 6, 2013, when gunmen killed secularist politician Chokri Belaïd outside his Tunis home. Immediately after, a million outraged Tunisians took to the streets, protesting in what has been called “one of the largest outpourings of grief in Tunisian history.” The Ennahda Party, Tunisia’s ruling Islamist faction, was a particular object of rage, as protestors torched its building in Mezzouna and ransacked its office in Gafsa. They believed the party was too lax in its efforts to curb violent religious extremism.

Six months after Belaïd’s murder, on July 25, another secularist politician, Mohammed Brahmi, was gunned down outside his Tunis home. The gunmen reportedly fired eleven shots into him, then fled on a motorbike. The assassination spun Tunisia into new chaos. Protests again erupted, and police fired tear gas at crowds that stormed government offices and attacked Ennahda’s headquarters.

Interior minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou held a press conference in which he claimed that forensic ballistics determined that Belaïd and Brahmi were killed by the same gun. Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh described the gun as providing proof of AST’s responsibility for the two assassinations. (There are, however, questions about whether AST’s leadership actually ordered the killings.)

Brahmi’s killing had already placed the relationship between AST and the state on the brink. But just five days later (July 29), a jihadist ambush in Jebel el-Chaambi left “eight soldiers dead—five with slit throats.” This was the bloodiest day that Tunisian security forces had ever experienced. The slitting of their throats was repulsive, and also known in the region as a jihadist signature. The Jebel el-Chaambi incident pushed the conflict between AST and the state over the edge. Ennahda designated AST a terrorist organization and banned it on August 27, stating that AST was responsible for both political assassinations as well as the Jebel el-Chaambi attacks.

Regardless of questions about the role of AST’s leadership, the Tunisian government chose to designate AST a terrorist organization and ban it for strategic and political reasons. Tunisia understood that AST was not going away as a problem, and that  its numbers were growing even while its members engaged in an increasing amount of violence. The state also understood that the uncertainties it faced in trying to determine the role of AST’s leadership existed by design: they reflected an opaque organizational structure that allowed the group to engage in violence while denying any involvement. At the same time, the government faced tremendous political pressure.

Thus, the government likely felt that the precise role of AST’s leadership in the recent violence was not the most important question. The state decided on a vigorous response.

AST’s Alleged Targeting of Tourists

As the state escalated, so did Tunisian salafists. Tourism is an important part of Tunisia’s economy, and terrorist attacks have started to focus on tourist targets.

The first of these incidents occurred on October 30, 2013, when, just before 10:00 a.m., a man carrying a bulky suitcase tried to enter Sousse’s four-star Riadh Palms Hotel. After guards questioned him, he rushed toward the beach with security on his tail. A loud explosion disrupted the morning’s tranquility, but fortunately nobody but the attacker died. Explosives experts later discovered that the bomb had been detonated remotely with a cell phone, a technique terrorist groups sometimes employ when the attacker is a new member.

Almost simultaneously, authorities arrested an eighteen-year-old named Aymen Sâadi Berchid outside the Monastir-based mausoleum of Habib Bourguiba, the country’s secular-minded first president. Though Bourguiba is respected by most Tunisians for his role in bringing Tunisia its independence, his secularism makes him a bête noire of religious conservatives. The intentions of the young man were clear from the fact that his backpack was jammed full of explosives. Tunisia’s interior ministry claimed that both attackers belonged to AST.

As with past security incidents, Tunisian police sprang into action immediately after the attempted attacks. The interior ministry announced the arrest of five individuals “with direct links to the assailants” in Sousse and Monastir, and found a large quantity of explosives in one of the houses they searched in Monastir. The individuals arrested in the sweep allegedly confessed to a plot to bomb the headquarters of the Tunisian National Union of Security Forces Syndicates, police posts, and supermarkets that sold alcohol.

Tunisian authorities thwarted another planned attack that similarly targeted tourists on December 9, when they arrested six members of a cell. Though the intended target was unclear, according to reports the most serious threat was against the island of Djerba, a popular destination for visitors. Interior ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Aroui suggested that the attack may have been intended to coincide with New Year’s Eve celebrations.

The Future of the Conflict

Multiple incidents, beginning with the killing of Anis Jelassi, ultimately produced this open war between AST and the state. After Jelassi’s death, actions and reactions by AST members and the state fed off each other. Policing operations put more forces in harm’s way, and when they struck landmines or got into firefights, those incidents generated more political pressure. When Mohammed Brahmi and eight members of the security forces were killed within five days of each other at the end of July 2013, there could be no turning back. The state had to take decisive action, and did.

Thus far, the Tunisian state’s crackdown seems to be going well. Though there have been attempted attacks against the tourist sector, none have caused fatalities (though the Sousse attack arguably achieved one of its objectives by depressing tourism). In addition, Tunisia finalized its constitution in January 2014, a significant step that may reduce frustrations with the political system that have bolstered AST.

There are no signs so far that Tunisia’s war with AST will wreck its progress, though it’s possible that a dramatic event will change the situation. What if militants kidnap and kill European tourists? What if they launch a successful suicide bombing at a major resort, or another prominent destination like Tunis’s Africa Hotel? These possibilities could have a major impact on the country—and it is possible they could yield an unexpected result. When Egypt’s Gama’a al-Islamiyya slaughtered 58 people in Luxor in 1997, the militant group likely hoped to devastate the country’s tourist industry. Instead, Gama’a overplayed its hand, and turned Egypt’s citizenry against it. The result is that Gama’a got eviscerated by the state. (This example also illustrates that militant groups may become more violent, or strike at higher profile targets, when they are under pressure, as Gama’a was in 1997. The tremendous pressure on AST at present may make the group’s leadership, or a faction within it, more likely to strike in a new and deadlier way.)

The story of the conflict between AST and Tunisia is far from its final chapter, and three major questions are likely to determine its future. The first is how resilient AST will be in the face of Tunisia’s crackdown. One reason al-Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan has proven stubbornly difficult to kill over the past dozen years is because of its clandestine cellular structure. Groups with this structure are clandestine in that they are designed to be out of sight, and cellular in that they are compartmentalized to minimize damage when the enemy neutralizes some portion of the network. While this structure has helped al-Qaeda’s leadership survive, it may not prove as successful for AST. Al-Qaeda has a deep bench of jihadists to draw from, while AST enjoys a shallower pool of talent. It is possible that Tunisia will simply overwhelm AST’s ability to be resilient in the face of attrition.

A second question is whether AQIM will send fighters into Tunisia to enhance AST’s capabilities. In addition to AQIM being close to AST, AQIM’s rhetoric toward the Tunisian state became sharper as the conflict escalated, which raises the possibility of an increase in AQIM-related violence in Tunisia. If AQIM devotes significant resources to the conflict in Tunisia, that could alter dynamics on the ground. The most dangerous thing AQIM could do, from Tunisia’s perspective, would be to send small, highly trained teams into the country to strike at critical targets, such as the tourist sector or symbolic sites. This could have a larger impact on the ground than simply sending more fighters as reinforcements.

The third question is whether abuses or lack of professionalism in the Tunisian security services will create greater public sympathy for AST. Recent field research in Tunisia reveals that analysts and journalists working in the region have diametrically opposed views about the competence and professionalism of the security forces, but one sign of danger can be seen in a New York Times report about Raoued, where a raid occurred on February 3. The report noted that residents had “little sympathy for terrorists, but also little confidence in the police who, despite new training and equipment, are still tarnished by a reputation for cruelty and injustice from the years of dictatorship.”

Public confidence in the Tunisian security services may have an impact on the conflict between AST and the state. To be sure, security forces were also excessive during their crackdowns on Islamist groups in the 1980s, and managed to avoid  sparking a wider conflagration, but the present situation is different. The 1980s-era Islamist movement did not come close to AST’s levels of violence, and Tunisia did not enjoy a free press in the 1980s as it does today. The difference between the Tunisian media of that era and today makes it far more likely that police abuses or missteps will be widely reported.

Western countries have a stake in the outcome of the conflict between AST and the Tunisian state. They should be willing to assist the government in its struggle with jihadists, including by providing training of Tunisia’s security forces that can produce a better human rights record, better intelligence gathering, more effective counterterrorism operations, and a renewed confidence in the country’s security services.


Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. Bridget Moreng is a research assistant at FDD. This article is adapted from their monograph Raising the Stakes: Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s Shift to Jihad, co-authored with Kathleen Soucy and published in February 2014 by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism – The Hague.


Photo credit: Magharebia