February 24, 2014 | War on the Rocks
An Escalation in Tunisia: How the State Went to War with Ansar al-Sharia
Co-authored by Bridget Moreng
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.