The month of March 2013 has witnessed an increase in tensions between local Tunisian Salafist networks, the newly formed government of P.M. Laarayedh, and the country's secular/liberal societal factions.
On March 26, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) issued a warning on social media towards P.M. Laarayedh, after he condemned Tunisia's Salafist minority as responsible for recent violence in an interview with French media that same day. The post featured a threat to topple the government from Abu Iyad al-Tunisi, a prominent jihadist founder of AST suspected of orchestrating the September 11, 2012 riots at the U.S. Embassy in Tunis. Following those riots, Abu Iyad was targeted for arrest at the al-Fatah Mosque in Tunis, but escaped after his supporters confronted security forces.
Iyad's warning came days after al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), issued a new message calling on jihadists across the region to to join its ranks and take up arms against French assets as well as Western-sympathetic local governments in the Arab World. The message included a specific call towards Ansar al-Sharia members in Tunisia, which was reportedly received positively by the group.
On March 27, the Tunisian government announced that it would take measures to curb the flow of Tunisian jihadists to the conflict in Syria, citing concerns over their return to the country to engage in militant activity. Reports indicate that thousands of Tunisians are currently participating in both the Syrian and Malian conflict. In Syria, Tunisian nationals are estimated to comprise 30-40 percent of all foreign fighters. The majority of Tunisian jihadists fighting in Syria hail from outlying communities in the west and south of the country, primarily the town of Ben Guerdane, located near the Libyan border. Multiple Tunisian nationals also participated in a deadly raid against Algeria's In Amenas gas facility in January 2013.
Following the 2010-11 Tunisian revolution, Salafist-jihadist elements have increased their activity substantially. Following the ousting of the Ben Ali regime, previously strict anti-Islamist policing policies were forgone, while the ensuing security vacuum enabled the establishment of training camps and weapons smuggling networks in outlying areas. Training camps near the Libyan and Algerian borders are currently meant to facilitate the indoctrination and transfer of Tunisian nationals to conflicts elsewhere in the region, including in Syria, Mali, and Algeria.
Since 2011, Tunisian jihadist groups, including AST, have directed the majority of their domestic efforts toward charity and social programs, in a likely effort to gain the support of conservative and impoverished communities. These efforts include the establishment of community policing patrols in both suburbs of the capital Tunis and outlying towns. Patrolmen often operate in cells of two and four, openly identifying themselves with bright orange vests. These patrols have helped to protect local businesses from criminal activity, while using foreign-donated funds to distribute food and appliances to impoverished families. They have also been accused of enforcing their own strict version of Islamic law, otherwise known as "morality policing."
Such policing efforts include both rhetoric and attacks against perceived heretical establishments and individuals. Furthermore, the head of the local branch of the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice recently called for a Tunisian topless feminist protester to be stoned in accordance with Sharia law. Additional attacks against Sufi and religious minority shrines, secularist/liberal political leaders, media offices, and security forces headquarters have been largely attributed to Salafist militants operating in the capital, as well as in outlying areas.
The hostile reactions exhibited by prominent jihadist leaders to Laarayedh's rhetoric suggest that these groups may seek to confront the Tunisian government should it engage in any broad counter-jihadist activity. Since 2011, Tunisia had been declared largely off-limits for jihadist campaigns, with activity limited to preaching and recruiting and funding for other conflicts in the region. Small-scale violence, including rioting and harassment of secular activists, has occurred in an increasing fashion, although sophisticated bombing attacks have not occurred.
Under the administration of former P.M. Jebali, the Tunisian government was widely accused by secular parties of failing to confront jihadist activity and of turning a blind eye to the operations of alleged Salafist vigilante groups. On February 6, opposition politician Chokri Belaid was assassinated by suspected jihadists, sparking a wave of protests which eventually led to Jebali's ousting.
The Laarayedh government, however, has become considerably more vocal in its opposition toward jihadist influence in the country, in a notable departure from the policies of the Jebali administration. Laarayedh's rhetoric blaming jihadists for domestic strife has been matched by an increase in policing activity in outlying areas, in addition to the creation of the "crisis cells" and efforts to identify cells suspected of recruiting fighters for the Syrian conflict.
The charity and other social outreach campaigns witnessed in Tunisia follow a regional strategy used by jihadists, aimed at garnering the support of the local population in the event of any possible confrontation with government authorities. In addition to the establishment of weapons stockpiles and bases in outlying areas, jihadist cells heavily rely on the loyalty of the local population for refuge and counter-intelligence.
At the time of writing, the majority of Tunisia's Salafist-jihadists remain opposed to an armed confrontation with the Tunisian government, including the Ansar al-Sharia network. That said, Tunisia's Salafist-jihadist movement remains highly decentralized and fragmented, and includes al-Qaeda-affiliated members who believe in violence as a means of practicing their beliefs. In the coming months, a broad government crackdown could spur prominent Salafist-jihadist leaders to advocate violence, particularly in the event of an arrest or killing of a prominent cleric, or the widespread closure of Salafist mosques and other institutions. Suspicions of U.S. assistance in counter-jihadist efforts, including the use of drones, could also increase hostile sentiment.
In the long-term, the return of Tunisian nationals from combat zones in Syria and Mali is likely to enhance the combat capability of local jihadist groups. Following conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq during the 1980s and 2000s, foreign participants have been known to utilize bomb-making and ambushing tactics acquired during fighting for use against governments in their home nations, including in Saudi Arabia, Algeria, and Yemen.
Any Salafist-jihadist reprisal campaign would likely include the targeting of police stations and other government installations in outlying areas, in addition to possible sophisticated bombing attacks against government ministries in the capital Tunis. Additional targets include escalated attacks against perceived heretical establishments, including entertainment venues, hotels and restaurants serving alcohol, religious minority shrines, and the offices of secularist parties and organizations.
Tunisia's jihadists have made their stance perfectly clear regarding their refusal to compromise with any push toward liberal democracy. The ball is now solely in the court of the moderate Islamists currently holding Tunisia's seat of power. Faced with the choice of confrontation or concession, there are clearly dark times ahead for Tunisia's burgeoning democracy.