Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 22

Demonstrators demand the inclusion of Islamic Law in the constitution, in Tunis, March 25, 2012 (Source al-Monitor)


Like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, Tunisia’s Islamist-dominated government is facing often violent demands for the immediate imposition of an Islamic state from radical Salafist groups, leading Tunisia’s secularist president to warn of the threat posed by Salafi-Jihadists to that nation’s democratic evolution.

Moncef Marzouki became the interim president of Tunisia after his election by the new Constituent Assembly in December, 2011. Marzouki was a long time dissident during the regime of Zine al-Abdin bin Ali, suffering imprisonment and an extended exile in France. Marzouki’s Congress for the Republic political party was one of two secularist parties that joined the larger Islamist Ennadha Party to form a new post-revolutionary coalition government. While Ennadha member Hamadi Jebali assumed the greatest power as Prime Minister, the president remains in charge of defense issues and foreign policy, though he must consult with the prime minister on both portfolios (Reuters, December 13, 2011).

According to the Tunisian president, those Arab Islamists who accepted the democratic process following the Arab Spring revolutions are finding themselves increasingly at odds with more extreme Islamist factions that regard acceptance of democracy as treason, as well as with the broader population that has looked to moderate Islamists for rapid reforms and improvements in their living conditions:

Now the Islamists are finding out that they have fallen into the trap of democracy because they have heavy responsibilities in the economy and regarding living conditions. The people now want solutions to the problems of water, food, security etc. The people will judge them [the Islamists] on the basis of performance. I can say with full frankness now that if Ennahda went to the elections today it would perhaps be surprised by a violent reaction from the people because they did not do what was expected of them (al-Hayat, November 4).

Marzouki has previously suggested that the center of jihad was shifting from the Afghanistan-Pakistan region to the Arab Maghreb (North Africa, west of Egypt) after finding a foothold in northern Mali. Fear of becoming embroiled in the international “war on terrorism” has produced a policy of dialogue with religious extremists, “but these policies have not produced a result until now and, on the contrary, we have seen what happened” (al-Hayat, October 4).

Since the revolution, Tunisia’s new Islamist government has been challenged by mass protests and a series of attacks by radical Salafists, including the September 14 attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis led by veteran jihadist Abu Iyad al-Tunisi. Four of the attackers were killed by security forces. In late October, Salafist militants attacked two National Guard posts in the Tunis suburb of Manouba, after a Salafist was charged with assaulting the head of the local public security brigade. Shortly afterwards Khalid Karaoui, imam of the Ennour Mosque in Manouba, died of wounds incurred in the attack (al-Jazeera, October 31; AFP, November 1). There have even been direct clashes in the streets between Salafists and supporters of Ennadha with sometimes fatal results (AFP, November 5). Ennadha is also facing pressure from its youth wing, which is demanding quicker reforms and the prosecution of former regime members accused of corruption and torture.

Many of the leaders of these strikes are veterans of the Salafi-Jihadist Groupe Combattant Tunisien (GCT), founded in 2000 by Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (a.k.a. Sayfallah bin Hussein) and Tarik bin Habib Maaroufi, who returned to Tunisia last spring after serving time in Belgium on terrorism-related charges (Tunisia Live, April 1; for Abu Iyad, see Militant Leadership Monitor, May 1). Maaroufi is best known for his role in planning the assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Mahsoud in Afghanistan in 2001.

Fifty-eight of those arrested in the clashes at the U.S. embassy went on a hunger strike in prison in protest of the conditions under which they are held and to bring attention to what the hunger-strikers describe as government persecution of the Salafist movement. Two prisoners have already died, including Muhammad Bakhti, a colleague of Abu Iyad and a senior Tunisian Salafi-Jihadist who was sentenced to 12 years in jail after clashes between the army and Salafists near Tunis in 2007. Bakhti was released in the amnesty that followed the revolution (AFP, November 17).

The bloody demonstration at the U.S. embassy was led by Abu Iyad al-Tunisi (a.k.a. Sayfallah bin Hussein). A one-time follower of radical Jordanian cleric Abu Qatada, Abu Iyad was a founder of the GCT and is the current leader of the Salafi-Jihadist group, Ansar al-Shari’a in Tunisia (AST) (Business News [Tunis], September 17). Abu Iyad left Tunisia in 1991 under pressure from the Ben Ali regime. He attempted to obtain political asylum but his anti-British sermons did little to endear him to his hosts, who eventually sent him packing. Abu Iyad then joined the battle against American forces in Afghanistan before his arrest in Turkey in 2003 and subsequent extradition to Tunisia, where he was sentenced under the anti-terrorism act to 58 years in prison, where he remained until his release under the post-revolution amnesty in 2011 (Business News [Tunis], November 17). Abu Iyad has since stated his belief that it is the U.S. embassy that rules the country “and pulls the strings of the party in power” (Business News [Tunis], September 17).

Police efforts to detain Abu Iyad after the incident appear to have been half-hearted, missing him at home, at a funeral he attended the next day, and most revealingly during an appearance at a Tunis mosque that had been widely announced on social networking sites earlier that day (Business News [Tunis], September 17). 

Ennadha has been criticized by the opposition for not taking a firmer line with Tunisia’s Salafists, but party leader Rached Ghannouchi is wary of alienating the community, possibly pushing it towards even greater violence: “We need to avoid the rhetoric of the enemy within. We have the experience of Ben Ali, who detained tens of thousands of Ennahda members and demonized the party. Then the regime fell, and now Ennahda is in power. If we want to demonize the Salafists, they are the ones that will be in power in 10-15 years’ time. This is why we talk to them as citizens, not as enemies” (Le Monde, October 18).

In remarks that mirror the difficulties Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood is having with the Egyptian Salafist community, Gannouchi has elsewhere warned that the Salafis’ demonstrations and violence result in the depiction of Tunisia as a “center for terrorism and extremism” and a “Salafi State, even though they are a minority within a minority. I do not think they follow Ennadha. Actually they might become the biggest enemies of Ennadha” (al-Hayat, October 4).

In the post-revolutionary period, not only has the disparate coalition of secularists, leftists and Islamists that deposed the Ben Ali regime returned to its component (and rival) parts, but almost each political party represented in the new parliament, including Ennadha, has suffered splits and defections, hampering Tunisia’s political transition and weakening its response to internal threats (al-Jazeera, October 23). In a response to these growing tensions, a state of emergency has been imposed on a month-by-month basis since July, but on October 31, President Marzouki imposed a three-month extension of the state of emergency, reflecting a deteriorating security situation (Tunis Afrique Presse, October 31).





With ECOWAS and the African Union (AU) now in agreement over the formation of a force of 3,300 African peacekeepers drawn from both ECOWAS and non-ECOWAS nations, many nations whose support would be required for the success of such an option have recently cooled to this plan, while others, such as Algeria, continue to maintain a reserved position. An apparent victory by one of the Islamist factions occupying northern Mali over a well-armed Tuareg rebel militia that has offered to join counterterrorist operations has not inspired confidence in the ultimate success of the under-size AU force. [1]

Though January 2013 had long been suggested as the starting date of an international military intervention, UN Special Envoy for the Sahel Region, former Italian premier Romano Prodi, said during a visit to Rabat that it would be September, 2013 before an intervention could begin (AFP, November 20). With the intervention receding into the distant future, many refugees from the fighting in northern Mali are returning to their homes, unhappy with Islamist rule but unwilling to wait nearly a year or more for assistance in driving the Islamists out of the region. 

Nigeria’s decision to pledge only 600 troops to the projected force of 3300 would seem to imperil a project that was designed to be built around a larger Nigerian core (Daily Trust, [Lagos], November 22). Chad, a non-ECOWAS country, has apparently agreed to join the intervention force, but the composition of the rest of the force has yet to be revealed (L’Indépendant [Bamako], November 12). The EU has dampened earlier expectations that European troops might supplement African forces in the mission. According to EU Counterterrorism Coordinator Gilles de Kerchove: “The European Council held on 18 and 19 October came out in favor of a military mission to train the Malian Army. There is no question of European intervention as such. It is up to Mali to win the north back” (Le Monde, November 12).

Algerian Foreign Minister Mourad Medelci reminded concerned parties that: “Algeria is not convinced that an exclusively military solution would bring peace and unity to Mali. Our wish is to convince our partners that the military path must be oriented toward the fight against terrorism. It must be accompanied by a political process in the form of a dialogue between the Malian protagonists” (Jeune Afrique, November 14). In neighboring Mauritania, national assembly president Messaoud Ould Boulkheir warned of the fallout from an intervention: “[Mali] is like a volcano about to erupt… If this volcano awakens, it will dump incandescent ashes over its neighbors” (AFP, November 12). A November 14 communiqué from the Tunisian president’s office warned against an “uncalculated military intervention in Mali” that could turn the Maghreb into a “hotbed of tension” and threaten the security of the Maghreb states (Tunisian Press Agency, November 15).

Libya delivered its opinion on a military intervention in Mali via Mahfouth Rahim, director in charge of African affairs at the Libyan Foreign Ministry: “We Libyans believe that we should not focus on military solutions at the moment to avert escalation which might lead us to what happened in Afghanistan… The military solution would exacerbate the crisis as the Tuareg rebels and other Islamist groups would be forced to seek refuge in other countries such as Libya” (PANA Online [Dakar], November 14).

Former Malian Prime Minister Ibrahim Boubacar Keita (1994-2000, parliamentary speaker, 2002-2007) is among those who have urged caution, noting that the Malian army needs time to rebuild to counter tactics likely to be used by the Islamist militants: “The population will be used as a human shield. Hence the need for extreme care in planning and skill in implementing an intervention. Military logistics and intelligence will be crucial with a view to knowing exactly whom we are dealing with, before saying: "Let’s go in, let’s go in!" (Le Monde, November 4).

In the north, meanwhile, the defeat of the secular Tuareg rebel Mouvement National de Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA) by Islamist forces demonstrated the latter’s military strength and the readiness of the Islamist groups to cooperate in the field. During what has been described as a MNLA attempt to retake Gao, fighting broke out with forces belonging to the Islamist Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJWA) near Asango on November 16. Asongo is 120 miles west of Menaka, where the MNLA was attempting to create a base for counterterrorist operations (Jeune Afrique, November 18; AFP, November 20). Locals suggested that many of those resisting the MUJWA attack in Asongo were not MNLA members, including local Tuareg political leader, Alwabegat ag Slakatou and six of his men who were reported among the dead (AFP, November 20).

AQIM was reported to have sent some 300 reinforcements to Gao from Timbuktu, roughly 185 miles to the west (AFP, November 17; Jeune Afrique, November 18). The reinforcements were said to belong to AQIM’s Katibat al-Mulathamin (Veiled Brigade) and the Katibat Osama bin Laden, led by Abu Walid Sahrawi.

Though MNLA spokesmen described only light casualties in the clash and described the action as “an initial success,” reports from the area and Malian security sources described dozens killed in “a real bloodbath” (Tout sur l’Algérie, November 17; AFP, November 20). Both sides presented casualty figures that were likely inflated, with the MNLA claiming 65 AQIM and MUJWA fighters killed, while MUJWA announced the death of over 100 members of the MNLA (AFP, November 20). The MNLA’s chief-of-staff, Machkanani ag Balla, suffered a serious wound while leading his men in the fight. MUJWA spokesman Walid Abu Sahrawi said the movement was dedicated to destroying the MNLA: “In Azawad, we are going to pursue the MNLA wherever they may still be found. We control the situation” (Jeune Afrique, November 18). Northern Mali’s three northern provinces are now conveniently divided between the three Islamist movements – Gao in MUJWA, Timbuktu in AQIM and Ansar al-Din in Kidal. The MNLA was expelled from Gao in June and now operates in rural areas only.

According to MNLA spokesman Hama ag Sid Ahmed, MUJWA forces setting up new bases on the outskirts of Gao have been joined by AQIM commander Mokhtar Belmokhtar (who appears to be at odds lately with the rest of the AQIM leadership – see Terrorism Monitor Brief, November 15) and various Pakistanis, Egyptians and Moroccans (Tout sur l’Algérie, November 16).

A spokesman for the Islamist Tuareg group Ansar al-Din claimed that movement leader Iyad ag Ghali had tried to prevent the fighting between MUJWA and the MNLA and remained on the sidelines when the conflict began. In Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso President Blaise Compaoré is now holding joint talks with Ansar al-Din and the MNLA, rather than meet the two rebel Tuareg groups separately, as had been the case so far (AFP, November 16). According to an Ansar al-Din spokesman, if talks go the right way, “one can foresee ways and means in which one can get rid of terrorism, drug-trafficking and foreign groups” (AFP, November 14; PANA Online [Dakar], November 18).


1. The intervention force briefly took the name “Mission de la CEDEAO [Communauté Economique des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest] au Mali” (MICENA – ECOWAS Mission in Mali).before expanding its base by adopting the new name “Mission Internationale de Soutien au Mali” (MISMA – International Support Mission to Mali).