Originally commissioned December 2012, co-authored with Yordanka Evgenieva
Ansar Sharia Tunis’ (AST) network has the potential to feed into groups with violent agendas – the lack of clear leadership, cellular structure and ongoing security crackdowns may push AST’s supporters to look for affiliations elsewhere or alter sooner rather than later the group’s agenda from dawa to jihad.
- AST supporters overlap with violent Jihadi groups in Tunisia, and leadership divisions are pushing segments towards more violent ideologies.
- AST’s lack of strong leadership and its illegal status in Tunisia might encourage dissatisfied affiliates to join jihadi groups or undertake violent acts on behalf of the group
- The restrictions imposed on the group to practice dawa freely may contribute further to turning their agenda towards violent jihad
Ansar Sharia Tunisia (AST) was founded in post-revolutionary Tunisia in 2011 and quickly became the biggest salafist organisation in the country with membership varying from 3,000 to 10,000. Its founder and leader Sheikh Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi proclaimed Tunisia to be the “land of dawa” or preaching and providing social outreach programs for the poor and underprivileged as opposed to armed jihad. AST’s quick growth was driven by the liberalisation of the political sphere and consequent new opportunities for Islamist discourse to fill in the artificial vacuum that Ben Ali had created with his anti-Islamist policies. AST also profited by the election of the the Islamist En-Nahda party, which adopted a paternalistic attitude towards the salafist group.
A drastic change to AST’s standing with the ruling party En-Nahda came in 2013 after a series of political assassinations for which AST was blamed, although it never took responsibility for any of them. As a result, the same year AST was banned by the government and labeled a terrorist organisation. These events fed into the group’s narrative of oppression and AST’s efforts to portray itself as the champion of oppressed peoples and regions within Tunisia. Geographical and social divisions between segments of Tunisian society are one factor that is driving the group towards engagement in violence.
The new status of AST and the resulting crackdown against it, meant that the group started going underground with its social media presence significantly reduced, while the leader Sheikh Abu Ayyad Al-Tunisi fled to Libya. This left room for the Jihadi ‘entrepreneurs’ to take advantage of the opportunities that under-governance provide and find new source of recruits within AST’s ranks. Tunisia’s border and under-developed rural areas, where rule of law is weaker, cooperation between Jihadis and criminal networks make the promotion of violent ideologies profitable.
Additionally, across Tunisia, supporters of AST and violent groups overlap. The extent of AST’s formal connections with groups like Tunisian Combat Group (TCG), Ajnad al-Khalifa, Okba Ibn Nafta or Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), is unclear. The existence of such connections as well as the lack of clarity can be explained through AST’s cellular organisational structure with varying degrees of independence, relying on middle men to connect the leadership to the grassroots. Consequently, more isolated, less controlled cells can easily shift towards violence and engagement with violent groups unbeknownst to central leadership. Those groups could also be used by AST as alternative platforms for the advancement of their radical islamist agenda, which shifts from the non-violent dawa towards violent jihad.