Tunisia’s government finds itself increasingly locked in confrontation with the largest self-described jihadist group in the country, Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST). Amidst escalating rhetoric from both sides, the government cancelled AST’s annual conference, which was to be held in Kairouan, after which Prime Minister Ali Larayedh referred to the group as an “illegal organization” connected to terrorism. Security forces clashed with salafist protesters in the Tunis suburb of Ettadhamen, leaving one protester dead and eleven policemen injured.
Tunisia was, of course, the first country to experience the fall of its old government as a part of the Arab uprisings that have transformed the region. And it is a forerunner in another way: Highlighting the difficulties involved when jihadist groups attempt to gain advantage from the new environment of openness.
Jihadist strategists identified what the changes gripping the region were likely to mean for their movement almost immediately. They foresaw unprecedented opportunities to undertake dawa, or missionary work. Whereas such activities would have been suppressed under the old regimes, a figure no less prominent than al-Qaeda emir Ayman al-Zawahiri noted that there now existed the “opportunity for advocacy and statement” in places like Tunisia and Egypt.
Indeed, just as Tunisia has seen AST, with its stated adherence to al-Qaeda’s world view, preaching openly, Egypt has for the first time witnessed figures taking to the airwaves of its satellite television stations and advocating on behalf of the jihadist current.
While it would be easy to decry these governments’ decisions to allow jihadists to operate in the open – and there is indeed a lot to criticize – their choices are rooted in the history of counterterrorism under the old regimes. Counterterrorism was frequently seen by citizens, with justification, not as a means of keeping society safe but as a tool for suppressing people with ideas that the regimes saw as threatening. Hence, the post-revolution pendulum swung in the other direction, toward allowing previously suppressed political trends.
But in Tunisia, many observers now see the environment of openness for jihadist movements drawing to a close. The most recent round of confrontations – a significant escalation beyond anything seen previously between the government and AST – kicked off at the beginning of this month, when Tunisian security forces undertook intensive operations around the Jebel Chambi mountain on the Algerian border against a jihadist group known as Katibat Uqbah Ibn Nafi. Tunisian forces bombarded the militants with artillery, but also absorbed a fair amount of damage, including five soldiers requiring amputations after being hit by improvised explosive devices.
After about two weeks of these operations, Tunisia turned inward, clamping down on Ansar al-Sharia. The government’s crackdown began with the interruption of public lectures and other dawa activities, and culminated in the state announcing the cancellation of the group’s annual conference. Although AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi threatened the government, his group in fact blinked first, as AST told members to stand down in Kairouan. Despite government denials, behind-the-scenes negotiations with AST almost certainly occurred in an effort to prevent escalation.
Both sides want to avoid escalation in the short term, in part because both derive some advantage from the stalemated status quo. For AST, entering into open conflict with the state would undermine a strategy that it carefully cultivated in the wake of Ben Ali’s fall.
This strategy was rooted primarily in dawa, the diffusion of ideas made possible by the change in government. However, unsurprisingly for a group that shares al-Qaeda’s ideology, there was also a violent element to this strategy. Salafi jihadists in Tunisia have been notorious for carrying out acts of vigilante violence against liberals, secularists, civic activists, educators, and others who stood opposed to their dark vision for society. Although there is no smoking gun proving this, AST also appears to have been stockpiling weapons to aid its future confrontation with the state.
The group’s ability to engage in violence while still operating publicly was enhanced by a decentralized organizational structure in which it wasn’t clear to outside observers which actions taken by AST members—if any—were dictated or sanctioned by its senior leadership. For AST, this strategy has been rather effective: it possessed the means to provide social services and thus gain popularity in areas neglected by the government, and had positioned itself as a leading voice opposed to a system widely seen as failing Tunisians. Though AST was numerically small, it was growing, and also enjoyed influence beyond its numbers. Going to the war with the Tunisian state would mean sacrificing its ability to engage in dawa openly.
As for the government, it has broadcast its desire to incarcerate AST members most closely linked to violence. While it wishes to avoid outright confrontation, the government likely believes it can defang AST surgically, without the conflict spiralling out of control.
Both sides stand to lose a great deal. The result is a delicate dance, with the government and AST slowly but cautiously entering uncharted territory in dealing with each other. At some point, the two sides are likely to stop dancing and start fighting. But given their perceptions of what deviations from the status quo could cost them, it could take some time for that point to arrive.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C. He recently completed a visiting research fellowship at the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) – The Hague, where he undertook a major project examining Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, including performing field research in Tunisia in April.