The Tunisian group Ansar al-Sharia is about as close as one could fear to being an al-Qaeda-front organization operating freely in an Arab country. And it’s on the move.
For months, Ansar al-Sharia and its allies have been violently harassing Tunisia’s mainstream society and troika government led by Ennahda, the Muslim Brotherhood-style party. But now it has welcomed, if not indeed forced, an open confrontation.
As ever, Tunisia is just ahead of the curve in the “Arab Spring.” The confrontation between Ansar al-Sharia and Ennahda illustrates a potential fault line within the Arab Muslim religious right throughout the region.
Salafist groups, including Salafist-Jihadist and takfiri organizations like Ansar al-Sharia, may agree with less extreme Islamists about many things in theory. But in practice, they always find them both a political obstacle and insufficiently “Islamic.” Since they rely on literalism, militancy, categorical assertions, and extremism virtually unrestrained by almost any pragmatic considerations, such organizations will invariably find the power-oriented political realism of Brotherhood-style parties to be religiously and politically objectionable. More importantly, they will see political benefits in attacking them rhetorically and, eventually, literally.
That’s exactly what is happening in Tunisia. Ansar al-Sharia, which does not hide its links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and proudly flies the gruesome black banner of Salafist-Jihadism, sought to hold their annual gathering in Tunis again this year. The group’s organizers predicted a massive turnout of 40,000 people. Even if they were overestimating participation by double, or indeed quadruple, the actual likely turnout, this was an extremely disturbing prospect for the Tunisian government and mainstream society alike.
Ansar al-Sharia has been growing ever more brazen and militant in recent months. The group is no longer satisfied with attacking “un-Islamic” cultural expressions such as cinemas, art galleries, literary festivals, and bars. Instead it has been adopting a much more openly Salafist-Jihadist, as opposed to simply Salafist, rhetoric, replete with implicit and explicit calls to violence. Its determination to challenge the government, and even set the stage for civil conflict, became impossible to ignore.
Under conditions of growing instability in the country, exacerbated by continued economic woes and other stressors, the government banned the Tunis meeting on the grounds that Ansar al-Sharia is not a legally recognized organization in the country. In response, the group shifted its gathering to the “holy city” of Kairouan. The government banned that meeting as well, and brought a major security presence to bear in order to enforce its decision.
The resulting violent confrontation outside the ancient and revered Kairouan Great Mosque left one person dead under murky circumstances. But two things were clear. First, the government was able to enforce its decisions, but only through brute force. And second, Ansar al-Sharia felt politically and organizationally capable of, and interested in, confronting the government and its security forces.
The implicit message is also clear. The government was able to win this battle, but it’s losing the war to ensure that Ansar Al-Sharia remains a largely impotent and fringe movement.
A grim set of factors is combining to empower this openly and extremely radical group. Ongoing economic distress has undermined the government, including Ennahda, and strengthened the impact of Ansar al-Sharia’s aggressive social services program. Ennahda’s political compromises with its coalition partners undermine its ability to appeal to Muslim extremists who find conciliation, even in the service of gaining political power, to be distasteful at best. Instability, and the growing power of their Salafist-Jihadist allies in Libya and the Sahel region, have provided Ansar Al-Sharia a new degree of strategic depth.
And, most worryingly of all, Ansar al-Sharia and other Salafist-Jihadist groups around the region are using the war in Syria in the same way similar ideologues used the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ansar al-Sharia has reportedly been a huge, and possibly decisive, factor in sending some 3,000 Tunisian militants to fight in Syria. This not only increases its political credentials in Islamist constituencies; much more importantly it’s starting to provide them with a growing stream of battle-trained and hardened cadres ready for armed conflict under the black banner.
The discovery of Ansar al-Sharia minefields along the Algerian border has been taken by almost everyone, including Ennahda, to confirm that this is actually beginning to happen. Ansar al-Sharia now openly warns of civil war.
This is a confrontation Ennahda sought to avoid. Its leader, Rachid Ghannouchi, last year asked Salafists, including associates of Ansar al-Sharia, to give his party peace and quiet to secure Islamist control over the police and military. But clearly Ansar al-Sharia is in no mood for patience.
The un-strategic, self-defeating Salafist-Jihadist mentality typically combines violent extremism with the lack of political judgment characteristic of most real fanatics. Yet, for now, Ansar al-Sharia appears to be entitled to an alarming degree of growing self-confidence.