Ansar al-Shariah (Tunisia)

FormedApril 2011
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackSeptember 14, 2012: Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the leader of Ansar al-Shariah (AST), organized riots and looting targeting the U.S. Embassy and a nearby American school in Tunis following an attack on the embassy in Benghazi (4 killed, 29 wounded). [1] [2]
Last AttackJuly 16, 2014: Militants used rifles and grenades to attack Tunisian soldiers at military checkpoints near the Tunisian border with Algeria (14 killed, unknown wounded). [3]
UpdatedAugust 24, 2016

Narrative Summary

Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST) is a Salafi-Jihadist militant organization established in 2011 that combines community service, proselytization, and violence to promote its Salafi ideology and goals in Tunisia.  The group aims to establish Shariah law in Tunisia and promotes the idea of global jihad. AST should not be confused with the Ansar al-Shariah organizations operating in Libya, Yemen and Egypt as none are formally affiliated.  However, AST and Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) do reportedly share operational, financial, and logistical links. [4] [5] [6] [7] [8]

Plans to create AST began in 2006 in a Tunisian prison, when future leader Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi conceptualized the organization with twenty other Islamist prisoners. After the Tunisian revolution in 2011, the prisoners were freed and began to build the group that would become AST; the group officially became active in April 2011.  AST had support from Shaikh Khattab Idriss, one of the most influential Salafi clerics in Tunisia and began meeting with the powerful political party al-Nahda.  (The two later grew apart when al-Nahda came to power in the government and its connection to AST became a liability, as AST began to adopt more violent tactics.) [9] AST quickly established a public relations system, creating a Facebook page and the “al-Qayrawan Media Foundation” that helped it grow to a reported 40,000-50,000 members by 2012. [10] [11]

AST’s flexible membership system has bolstered the group’s recruitment.  Individuals can commit themselves to AST’s mission in a variety of ways, from joining military operations to teaching religion classes in their communities. Those who wish to fight can do so on behalf of the organization, although most who choose violence go abroad to practice it. For example, many members left Tunisia to participate in militant training camps in Libya and subsequently joined the Syrian Civil War. Several thousand have reportedly fought in Syria, and about 400 of those have returned to Tunisia. [12] However, for most of its tens of thousands of members, membership in the group means promoting its ideology through lectures, charity, and publications that it passes out in markets and puts online. According to AST leader Tunisi, the group is organized around the idea that “Tunisia is a land of dawa (charity in the name of Islam) not a land of jihad.” The emphasis on dawa is meant to attract other Tunisians to AST’s Salafi brand of Sunni Islam. [13]

Despite its public appearance of charitable activities, AST does engage in violent activities in Tunisia. While the group has never claimed credit for its attacks, the Tunisian government and the media have implicated the group in multiple suicide bombings, small arms attacks and kidnappings. Most infamously, the Tunisian government claimed Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi orchestrated the rioting and attacks on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis on September 14, 2012, which killed 2 and wounded 29 and followed the riots at the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi.  U.S. government reports confirmed that AST was involved in the attack. [14] [15] Later, the Tunisian government also blamed AST for the assassination of two Tunisian politicians and subsequently designated the group as a terrorist organization in August 2013. [16]

Following this designation, the Tunisian government cracked down on both the organization’s dawa activities and purported terrorist operations. Tunisi went into hiding and AST shifted from highly publicized dawa events and limited social media publications to religious quotes, declarations of solidarity with other Salafis around the world, and calls for patience. [17] [18] AST also released a statement after the designation, declaring that it was loyal to Al Qaeda. [19] 

In order to avoid the Tunisian military, in 2013 Tunisi fled to Libya, where he made a call for reconciliation and cooperation amongst jihadist groups throughout North Africa, in particular advising that the Islamic State (IS) agree to mediation with other groups, while also declaring support for ISIS. [20] [21] In May 2013, AST made an announcement that Jabhat Fatah al Sham (the group former known as Al-Nusra), AST, AQ, IS and the mujahedeen of Libya and Mali will stand united against enemies.  It is unclear why this announcement was made, as the AQ and IS forces were fighting each other at the time. [22]

In 2014, AST targeted the Tunisian government and military in its attacks and developed its relationship with IS.  Further, AST leader Kanel Zarrouk pledged allegiance to IS and joined the Syrian civil war. [23] In July 2014, AST’s spokesman, Seifeddine Rais, swore loyalty to IS.  It is unclear whether or not he spoke on behalf of AST or solely himself.  Following his pledge, a number of AST leaders left to fight in Syria and dedicated themselves to IS.  Although AST has backed IS on social media in past years, the extent of their connection to the group is unknown.  [24] [25] [26]

In August 2014, Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia began to operate additionally under the name of Shabab al-Tawhid, reportedly to conceal its actions from the Tunisian government and media.  However, the media still refers to the group as Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia. [27]  After July 2014, AST ceased appearing in the media, although it is unclear whether this is because it halted operations or if group is operating secretly.  Tunisi was killed by an airstrike in Libya in June 2015. [28]

Leadership

  1. Sami Ben Khemais Essid (Unknown to Unknown): Essid is a senior leader in AST. He fought in Afghanistan for two years and trained as a recruiter for AQ before the U.S. identified him as the head of AQ operations in Italy, where he plotted an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Rome. He was sentenced in an Italian court and was deported to Tunisia in 2008, but was subsequently freed from prison after the Tunisian revolution in 2011. [29]
  2. Mehdi Kammoun (Unknown to Unknown): Kammoun is another senior leader in AST who was identified as an AQ operative in Italy along with Essid. He had previously been a member of the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (GSPC), which later became Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). After being convicted and sentenced for organizing an Al Qaeda cell in Italy, he served part of his sentence in Tunisia before being freed from prison after the Tunisian uprising. [30]
  3. Seifeddine Rais (Unknown to Present): Rais is the spokesman for AST. He declared loyalty to the Islamic State (IS) on July 8, 2014. [31]
  4. Shaikh Khattab Idriss, also spelled al-Khatib al-Idrissi (Unknown to Present): Idriss is one of the most influential Salafi clerics in Tunisia. There are conflicting reports on his position in the group and if he has one at all. At the very least, he has advertised for the group and appeared at events, and certainly serves as a spiritual inspiration for the organization. [32]
  5. Kamel Zarrouk (Unknown to 2014): An important leader in AST, sometimes called the group’s second-in-command, Zarrouk was pursued by the Tunisian government before reportedly traveling to Syria to fight alongside IS in 2014. [33]
  6. Seifallah Ben Hussein, more commonly known as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi (2011 to June 2015): Tunisi trained and fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s and became a top AQ lieutenant by 2001. After escaping Tora Bora with Osama bin Laden, he was arrested in Turkey and extradited to his home country of Tunisia, where he was imprisoned. He was released in an amnesty following the 2011 revolution in the country and immediately formed Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST). Following the Tunisian terrorist designation of AST, he went into hiding in Libya. He was reportedly killed in an airstrike in Libya in June 2015. [34]

Ideology & Goals

Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST) is a Salafi-Jihadist militant organization that aims to establish Shariah law in Tunisia and promote global jihad. [35] The group has close ties to Shaikh Khattab Idris, one of the most influential Salafi clerics in Tunisia. [36]

Name Changes

Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia reportedly began to operate additionally under the name of Shabab al-Tawhid, following its Tunisian terrorist designation in August 2014 in an effort to conceal its actions.  The media still refers to the group as Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia. [37]

Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

In August 2012, Tunisia declared Ansar al-Shariah a terrorist organization. [41] In January 2014, The U.S. State Department declared Ansar al-Shariah a terrorist organization, and named Abu Lyadh a terrorist. [42]

Resources

Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST) is funded by Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), by smuggled goods and by private Tunisian donors. [43] Some analysts suggest that there is evidence of Saudi and Kuwaiti funding, although the proof for such connections is vague. [44] 

External Influences

Some analysts suggest that there is evidence of Saudi and Kuwaiti funding for Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia, although the proof for such connections is vague. [45] 

Geographical Locations

Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia is active across Tunisia.  The group has carried out attacks in Sousse, Sidi Bou Zid and Tripoli and organized community outreach campaigns in Tunis, Sousse, Sidi Bouzid, al-Qayrawan, and Bizerte.  After the designation of AST as a terrorist group by the Tunisian government in August 2014, Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi went into hiding but continued to direct the organization from Benghazi and Tripoli, Libya until his death in June 2015. [46]

Targets & Tactics

Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia’s (AST) employs tactics of provision of education and charitable works in order to maintain positive relationships within Tunisian communities.  The majority of its member typically proselytize and perform service rather than engaging in terrorism. [47] [48] Although AST does not claim responsibility for its attacks, the group has been implicated by the Tunisian government and media for various suicide bombings, small arms attacks and kidnappings.  AST has targeted the Tunisian government, government forces, religious sites and groups representing Western influence such as tourists and foreign consulates.[49] 

Political Activities

At its outset, Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST) had close ties to the political party al-Nahda, formed when the future members of both groups were imprisoned together under the Ben Ali regime in 2006. The groups reportedly held meetings after they were released from prison in 2011. However, as al-Nahda came to power in government and as AST became more violent, the relationship became a liability for al-Nahda, which designated AST as a terrorist organization in August 2013. [50]

Major Attacks

Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST) has not claimed responsibility for any attacks that happened before 2014. However, the Tunisian government and media implicated the group in a number of suicide bombings, small arms attacks and kidnappings. [51]

  1. September 14, 2012: Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, leader of AST, organized riots and looting targeting the U.S. Embassy and a nearby American school in Tunis following the attack on the embassy in Benghazi (4 killed, 29 wounded).[52]
  2. February 6, 2013: Leftist, secular politician Chokri Belaid was shot and killed, creating political turmoil in the government. Tunisian authorities later implicated AST in the assassination (1 killed, 0 wounded).[53]
  3. July 25, 2013: Another left-wing politician, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated. The Tunisian government linked Ansar al-Shariah and the earlier assassination of Chokri Belaid to the murder and subsequently designated AST as a terrorist organization (1 killed, 0 wounded).[54]
  4. October 23, 2013: Militants attacked the Tunisian National Guard in Sidi Ali Bin Aoun, Sidi Bou Zid, Tunisia, killing 8 soldiers (8 killed, 0 wounded).[55]
  5. October 30, 2013: Two suicide bombers targeted a hotel beach in Sousse, Tunisia. Only one detonated his bomb, and he was the only casualty. Five Ansar al-Shariah members were arrested in connection with the bombing (1 killed, 0 wounded).[56]
  6. March 21, 2014: AST militants kidnapped the secretary of the Tunisian ambassador, Mohamed bin Sheikh in Tripoli, Libya. Sheikh was ultimately released on June 29, 2014 (no casualties ).[57]
  7. July 16, 2014: Militants used rifles and grenades to attack Tunisian soldiers at military checkpoints near the Tunisian border with Algeria (14 killed, unknown wounded).[58]

Relationships with Other Groups

Like many groups in North Africa, Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia’s (AST) leadership has ties to Al Qaeda (AQ).  Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi, the leader of AST, reportedly had relationships with both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri of AQ.  Two other AST leaders, Sami Ben Khemais Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, were convicted for participating in and running AQ operations in Italy before returning to Tunisia and joining AST. [59]  AST publicly stated its loyalty to AQ on its social media pages since the group’s foundation, but is not formally affiliated with AQ. [60] AST’s relationship with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) was unclear until the Tunisian government published an “Allegiance Act,” signed by AST leaders for AQIM in August 2013.  Prior to the concrete proof of affiliation, AQIM was rumored to have been funding AST, and AST consistently retweeted AQIM tweets in support of the group. [61] [62] [63]

Unlike most other jihadi groups, AST supports both AQ and the Islamic State (IS), who are known to use their affiliates to fight one another.  AST publicly supports the Islamic State (IS) and has encouraged members to go to Syria to fight with the group; AST leader Kanel Zarrouk pledged allegiance to IS and joined the Syrian civil war in 2014. [64] In July 2014, AST’s spokesman, Seifeddine Rais, swore loyalty to IS.  It is unclear whether or not he spoke on behalf of AST or solely himself.  Following his pledge, a number of AST leaders left to fight in Syria and dedicated themselves to IS.  Although AST has backed IS on social media in past years, the extent of their connection to the group is unknown.  [65] [66] [67]

Although AST shares a name with the Ansar al-Shariah organizations operating in Libya and Yemen, the groups are unrelated and do not act as affiliates. Although, they all do employ methods of dawa.  AST and Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) reportedly have operational, financial and logistical links, but the extent of their relationship is unclear. ASL has allegedly sold weapons to AST.  [68] [69] [70] [71] [72] [73]

Community Relationships

Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST) emphasizes the importance of education and charity for the community.  AST has earned much of its popular support through its dawa, or charitable work, for the communities of Tunisia. AST provides food and medical services for the poor, organizes Islamic lectures for the general public and runs classes for children. [74]  [75]

AST distributes its printed propaganda in markets and publishes its materials online, establishing itself as a charitable group, rather than violent organization.  The use of social media and propaganda is handled by the group’s media branch: the al-Qayrawan Media Foundation, which was founded shortly after AST formed [76]


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