New terror threat to Tunisia
By Monia Ghanmi in Tunis for Magharebia – 22/03/13
Tunisian salafist jihadists announced their allegiance to al-Qaeda this week, accepting the group's invitation to wage a holy war.
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's call Sunday (March 17th) to fight Westerners, secularists, reformers and other so-called "enemies" was welcomed by Tunisian salafist jihadists, the movement's leader Mohamed Anis Chaieb told Assabah.
This was the first time Tunisia's salafist jihadist groups officially declared their allegiance to al-Qaeda. And the terror group's call to arms could not have come at a more critical juncture for the still-fragile state.
[AFP/Ali Kaya] Coalition soldiers display an al-Qaeda flag and weapons recovered from Islamist fighters in Mali's Ifoghas Mountains.
[AFP/Amir Qureshi] An Islamist fighter poses in front of a captured Syrian tank on February 2nd, 2013.
[AFP/Fethi Belaid] Salafists rally in Tunis to demand the release of suspects detained for the September 14th US embassy attack.
With jihadists returning from the conflicts in Mali and Syria, and Libyan arms still circulating in the Maghreb, Tunisia is facing unprecedented security challenges.
The new fear is that Tunisia could become the next base for al-Qaeda.
The warning bells have been sounding for months. Long before the al-Qaeda statement, the leader of Tunisia's Ansar al-Sharia movement – who remains a suspect in the September 14th assault on the US Embassy in Tunis – spoke out against the involvement of young Tunisians in foreign holy wars.
Abou Iyadh (real name Seif Allah Ben Hassine) said that rather than going to Syria for jihad, Tunisian youths should begin their extremist struggle at home.
"Tunisia needs its young people and cadres more than any other country," the salafist leader said last month in a YouTube video.
"Abou Iyadh said he considered Tunisia to be the natural place for jihadists currently in Syria," political analyst Noureddine Mbarki told Zawaya.
"Salafist jihadists refuse to participate in the political process, consider democracy a form of apostasy and call for the application of Sharia," Mbarki said.
Tunisian security analyst Hechmi Mira confirmed that the country's salafists had been encouraged "to establish an Islamic emirate".
Tunisian leaders are frank about the threat.
Terrorism – whether home-grown or imported – represents the greatest danger to national security, new Prime Minister Ali Larayedh said a week ago.
"By terrorism, I mean an organised group that uses violence and arms against individuals or to seize power," he said.
The influx of battle-hardened extremists comes from two fronts. Al-Qaeda's Syria affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JAN) used sympathy for the Syrian people to lure new fighters from the Maghreb, just as armed extremists in Mali attracted recruits by portraying the battle as a religious calling.
And they are all starting to head home.
To limit the numbers, Tunis prosecutors on March 19th launched a wide dragnet of extremist groups that recruit young Tunisians for jihad in other countries, particularly Syria, Tunisie Numerique reported.
Home-grown extremists from Ansar al-Sharia had already resorted to violence. Along with the deadly assault on the US embassy, the group is widely seen as responsible for a series of attacks in Tunisia.
Retreating mujahideen fighters only adds fuel to the fire, observers say.
"If young people who are deeply influenced by al-Qaeda make their return, they will keep promoting this organisation's ideas and attempting to attract new recruits," Sahara Media reporter Mohamed Ould Zine warned.
"Al-Qaeda will not cease to exist with the death of its leaders," he warned.
Riadh Sidaoui, the director of the Arab Centre for Research and Political and Social Analysis (CARAPS), agrees that the return of fighters from Syria and Mali poses a serious threat to Tunisia's stability.
"For young Tunisians who return with military training and have become accustomed to killing and weapons, murder is no longer taboo. If weapons are available, along with chaos and the weakness of security agencies in the country, then they will be able to use them against fellow citizens," Sidaoui says.
If the estimated 12,000 Tunisian fighters in Syria (a figure cited by Echorouk last February) return from battle only to launch a holy war in their homeland, the consequences for Tunisia would be devastating, experts caution.
Tunisia had always been seen as a land of preaching, not of jihad.
According to Moncef Khabir, a 27-year-old rights activist in Tataouine, Abou Iyadh's recent suggestion that Maghreb mujahideen leave Syria and Mali to settle in Tunisia is a clear indication that something serious is afoot.
"We know very well that Tunisia was never a land of jihad. Yet what we see today on the political scene - in terms of instability, the proliferation of weapons, jihadist camps and the lack of control inside mosques, in addition to the difficult social conditions - are all factors that could affect the minds of unemployed youth, who could then end up with al-Qaeda," Khabir tells Magharebia.
Moreover, jihadist groups have an unprecedented freedom of movement in Tunisia to spread their ideas and recruit with ease, says terrorism analyst Bassel Torjeman. There is also no control over their funding sources, he notes.
Given these factors, he says Tunisia is ripe to become a "land of jihad".
"As for the timing for when blind violence will explode in the face of civilians in Tunisia, this remains hard to answer," the analyst adds. "However, it will not be too long before it happens, unless we start drying up their financial, political and military sources."
Naceur Khechini, a university professor in Islamic law, also fears that Tunisia will turn into a land of jihad and violence.
"Based on the Takfiri and military approach of jihadist salafists, they could turn any area into rubble and ruin, especially since weapons and funding are available. In addition, they are receiving media support from channels that were created specifically for this purpose," the professor tells Magharebia.
Terrorism in Tunisia could be worse than even the analysts project.
Laâroussi Derbali (aka Abou Talha Ettounissi) was one of the eleven Tunisian terrorists involved in the attack on Algeria's In Amenas gas complex that killed dozens in January. During his interrogation, Abou Talha said Tunisians were in northern Mali, "co-ordinating with other cells to launch attacks in Tunisia", Echorouk reported.
True jihad is not terrorism, imam says
But the religious argument offered by the jihadists is flawed, according to Tunisian imam Adnen Fillani.
"There is a big difference between jihad and terrorism, a gigantic one. God authorised jihad in Islam but prescribed neither terrorism nor extremism. It is necessary not to confuse these two terms," he says.
"Jihad is to spread the religion of Allah and defend the oppressed. It is part of the path of the prophets and the messengers, which is a just war to counter aggression or remove unjust dictatorships. Jihad is not about forcing people to embrace Islam," the imam explains.
Terrorism, Fillani adds, is an "illegal act of aggression rejected and forbidden by all religions".
The real key to preventing violence may be to educate young jihadists, Tunisian sociologist Hayet Ben Salem says.
"It's necessary to hold dialogues with young people who performed jihad with a wrong understanding of Islam. There should be private discussions with them in religious matters and confront them with the Qur'an and the tradition of the prophet," Ben Salem tells Magharebia.
"The reintegration of jihadists must be a priority for the new government, in case these people return to the country. Turning a blind eye and ignoring them could have a negative impact on the state," he adds.
Security analysts are concerned that it may already be too late to turn the tide.
The climate after the Tunisian revolution was appropriate for the growth of al-Qaeda in the country, legal analyst Naceur Heni said March 3rd at a Tunis counter-terrorism conference.
Armed extremists are now trying to exploit regional chaos "to create a nucleus of al-Qaeda operating from Tunisia", Heni added.
Noureddine Neifer, an expert in global security strategies, told the forum that after the assassination of Chokri Belaid, Tunisia became threatened internally and externally by terrorism.
The world today is facing the fourth generation of al-Qaeda, which grew up after the Arab Spring. Neifer described it as "mentally developed and militarily trained".
"This 'fourth generation' is by far the most lethal," he said. "This generation received good training in Libya and Syria on how to use weapons. This generation is hostile to the West and seeks to undermine its economic interests in Muslim lands."
It includes drug-trafficking networks and money-laundering gangs, Neifer added. And it is not afraid of death.
Tunisia, meanwhile, has been struggling to secure its borders with Libya and Algeria to prevent the infiltration of terrorists and arms.
Tunisia asked for the help of the Algerian army in tracking and monitoring more than 300 jihadists who quit al-Qaeda and MUJAO camps in Mali to continue their armed activities in Tunisia.
Algerian authorities answered the call for assistance and have reportedly conducted surveillance of the fighters as they head from Mali back towards Tunisia.
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