Salafi jihadi organizations, and individuals whose views reflect those of al-Qaeda, have grown in prominence in Tunisia in an unprecedented manner.
Salafi groups are attempting to impose religious practices as well as a new lifestyle on the Tunisians. This ‘Salafi rebellion’ has been manifested through Salafi jihadi movements, particularly by the radical Islamist Ansar al-Sharia movement led by Abou Iyadh. The latter movement does not hide its organizational and intellectual links to al-Qaeda, and it has exploited the fragile security situation and power struggles in Tunisia to gain prominence.
The question is: Will the current sociopolitical and security atmosphere transform Tunisia from a modern country into a hub for terrorist or Salafi jihadi activity? And what are the state’s options in confronting ‘religious terrorism’ under a government with an Islamic background?
After the revolution, Salafi explosion
Terrorist activity became more dangerous after the revolution that toppled Ben Ali. The Tunisian government has even announced that al-Qaeda is active in the country. Several confrontations with ‘jihadi Islamist’ groups took place following the revolution. Plenty of attempts by these groups have also been thwarted, but some went unannounced and others did not receive a lot of media attention.
The leniency of the ruling Ennahda party towards some of these groups provided an atmosphere in which some terrorist groups think they enjoy protection and can thus violate the law. Salafi extremist movements expanded, spread, armed and planned for terrorist operations. The assassination of opposition figure Chokri Belaid is an example. Based on the interior ministry's findings regarding the activity of these groups, Tunisia is on the path of becoming a hub for terrorists and fighters or of becoming a transit point for them.
Ennahda's responsibility as a ruling power
The war on terror does not tolerate hesitation or half-baked solutions. Several factors have contributed to the fragile security situation in Tunisia, and terrorism has become a ‘globalized’ phenomenon.
Ennahda, as the ruling party, has a great responsibility in confronting this threat. It must dissociate itself from all these groups and must not act or speak in any manner that implies it’s providing a political, security or intellectual cover for them.
Social rejection of religious extremism
Tunisians have voiced their confidence in the efforts by security and army forces to fight terrorism and limit it. The wide social rejection of terrorism makes this fight possible.
The state's confrontation of terrorism
Ansar al-Sharia organized a conference in the city of Kairouan on May 19 without applying for a permit, in what was seen by some as a flagrant act of defiance of the state. The government ban of the conference prompted clashes between police and Ansar supporters, in which at least one person was killed and dozens wounded.
The interior ministry issued a statement referencing Ansar al-Sharia as a “rogue organization”. The statement said the authorities “decided to prevent holding the conference because it represents a violation of laws and a threat to public safety... The ministry reassures all citizens that its forces are fully ready to maintain their safety and property and to prevent spreading strife in the country.”
State's strength, a societal demand
The government’s insistence in preventing the Ansar al-Sharia conference was a response to a Tunisian societal demand, under which it is seen as important to fight extremist Salafi organizations that pose a threat to the society and state.
Ansar al-Sharia failed to hold their conference. Abu Yahya al-Shanqiti, a member of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, issued a statement admitting the group’s failure. In one of the statements, he hoped that patience be granted to Ansar al-Sharia “following its failure to impose its will on the Tunisian government”. He also said that Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia is going through an ordeal and described those who were against holding the conference as “apostates and traitors”.
The statement provided religious advice away from inciting jihad, a well-known aspect of al-Qaeda. This implies that there is a conviction that al-Qaeda supporters in Tunisia don't have the capability to engage in an armed confrontation in any Tunisian city following the security pressure made by the interior ministry.