In their most aggressive move yet, the Tunisian government blocked a Salafist rally from taking place in the holy city of Kairouan on Sunday, with the aid of 11,000 policemen and heavy security cordons. Although related violence broke out in a Tunis suburb between members of Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST), a jihadist group with ties to Al Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), and police — at least one extremist was killed and 15 policemen were wounded — the warfare promised by AST’s fugitive leader was largely avoided. On Thursday, Abu Iyad al-Tunisi had warned: “To the tyrants who think they are Islamists . . . know that the stupid things you are doing are dragging you to war.” Few of the rally’s expected 40,000 participants showed up, dissuaded by the massive police presence, checkpoints, and vehicle searches; following the clashes, authorities arrested some 200 AST members.
Although the government, led by moderate Islamist party Ennahda, had initially pursued a waffling approach to violence by ultraconservative Salafists — prompting accusations of laxness and, more damningly, of collaboration with the sect — the ruling party changed its tactics following a cabinet shuffle in February, and bolstered by the discovery of multiple jihadist training camps this spring: under the leadership of prime minister Ali Larayedh, Ennahda’s tacit approval of the movement has evolved into outright condemnation. (Little surprise given that national elections are mere months away). This has translated to new measures to track jihadist recruiting cells for Syria, use of tear gas to disperse Salafist meetings, dismantling of preaching tents and an aggressive campaign against armed militants near the Algerian border.
While the Salafists are often qualified as a foreign import (i.e., the offspring of violent jihads waged abroad), notably by local media outlets, the religious extremists unarguably have domestic roots. During the reign of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali, conservative and moderate Islamist groups alike were banned or imprisoned. These groups included the Tunisian Islamic Front (TIF), a radical offshoot of Ennahda’s predecessor, the Islamic Tendency Movement. TIF would, in turn, later birth Tunisia’s first legalized Salafist political party, Jabhat al-Islah, or the Tunisian Islamic Reform Front. After Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011, these repressed Salafist factions re-emerged. Under the General Amnesty Law, approximately 1,800 Salafist prisoners were liberated. This in-country resurgence was augmented by several thousand Salafist jihadists home from conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Somalia, and determined to bring sharia, or Islamic, rule to Tunisia. Two less-radical factions have also emerged post-Arab Spring: scriptural Salafists who eschew political participation in favor of a purist version of Islam — such as the Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform, an Islamist militia group that emphatically espouses Sharia law — and more politically engaged groups that reject violence like Jabhat al-Islah and Hizb ut-Tahrir (quite marginal compared to their Egyptian counterparts). Today, Tunisia’s Salafists are estimated to number between 3,000 and 10,000 (with as many as 50,000 non-party supporters), and are often erroneously depicted as a cohesive group by international and domestic media. This characterization belies a number of ideological complexities.
While Tunisian jihadists largely acquired their battlefield experience abroad — notably in Syria and Mali in recent months — their activities have been inching closer to home since September 2012 when members of AST, including Abu Iyad, allegedly bombed the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Salafist jihadists are also suspected of involvement in the assassination of secular opposition leader Chokri Belaid on February 6, 2013. During this period, the Tunisian army seized two large arms caches believed to belong to AST, as well as jihadist training camps along the Algerian and Libyan borders — discoveries which prompted an ongoing manhunt for two armed groups of jihadists believed to be veterans of the Mali conflict with ties to AQIM. Algeria has deployed 6,000 troops to the border region to assist the operation. In early May, 37 suspects were arrested, including two believed to have murdered a police officer near Tunis after a Salafist fatwa was issued against him.
According to Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, such developments may indicate that the Salafist jihadists are “preparing for a long-term war against the state.” Salafists are also waging ideological warfare, which, while focused more on proselytizing than jihad, has nonetheless employed violent methods. (That said, it remains difficult to identify whether the actors behind recent clashes with secularists are jihadists or other, violently inclined factions within the Salafist movement.) In recent months, Salafist protestors have targeted Sufi shrines, art exhibits, establishments that sell alcohol and secular universities. Under AST leadership, factions are also conducting a grassroots campaign (so to speak) designed to supplant imams whom the Islamic ideologues deem too moderate. They have not slacked on the culture-war front, either, violently disrupting a dance performance, assaulting a school director who barred the entry of a veiled student, and clashing with high schoolers performing the Harlem Shake. These incidents garnered relatively widespread media coverage, but the controversy surrounding Amina Tyler, a 19-year old activist, and her topless revolt earned Tunisian Salafists their broadest notoriety yet. On March 20, Adel Almi, a top Salafist cleric and head of the Centrist Association for Awareness and Reform, issued a fatwa on Tyler: his reaction inspired a wave of international protests – notably by Femen activists. (These stood, it should be noted, in stark contrast to the muted response to Belaid’s assassination outside of Tunisia.) Ennahda officials also condemned Tyler’s actions, albeit less dramatically, and on Sunday, in rough simultaneity with the rally, the activist was arrested in Kairouan for her “immoral acts.”
Salafism remains a minority movement (and the jihadists a minority within a minority). Nevertheless, the movement’s growing success harms Ennahda as it stems, in large part, from the government’s lackluster leadership. Salafist groups have successfully played off Ennahda’s domestic policy failings by filling basic humanitarian needs, and providing educational, mediation and administrative services. They also serve as morality police in Tunisia’s impoverished southern and interior regions where residents feel disenfranchised and alienated from the more prosperous, secularized areas of the country. Under the guise of an “anti-system actor,” says Gartenstein-Ross, Salafists visit neglected areas where they “don’t just talk about jihad or Bin Laden — they hand out food, sometimes clothing, sometimes medical supplies, sometimes they have convoys with doctors.” As a result, residents “would have a good view of them . . . they wouldn’t think too hard about the specifics of Salafism or Salafi jihadism.” Tunisian blogger Lina ben Mhenni notes this perception is heightened by the view held by many youths that “secularism and moderation are related to dictatorship and repression. For them, religious groups represent the alternative.”