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Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia’s Social Media Activity in 2014
By Daveed Gartenstein-Ross and Oren Adaki
Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), the country’s foremost salafi jihadist group, has experienced a significant change in fortunes over the past year. A year ago it was able to operate legally in Tunisia, and concentrated primarily on undertaking dawa (evangelism) to win young Tunisians to its cause. However, a rise in violent incidents carried out by salafists caused tensions between AST and the state to spike. Relations between AST and Tunisia reached a point of no return in late July 2013, when in a five-day period secularist politician Mohammed Brahmi was murdered and salafists killed eight members of the security forces, five of whom had slit throats. The government cracked down on the group after those incidents, designating it a terrorist organization, banning its activities, and arresting its members.
AST has been an innovator among jihadist groups in its use of social media. Thus, as it attempts to recover from the blows inflicted upon it by the Tunisian state, its social media activities may provide some important clues. This analysis begins by examining AST’s social media activity related to events in Tunisia before turning to AST’s perspective on issues further afield, such as the Syria jihad. MEMRI has also produced a recent report on AST’s Facebook page that is worth noting.
Rejection of the Terrorism Designation
AST vehemently opposes its designation as a terrorist group by the Tunisian government. Its main line of argument is that the group has humanitarian projects and enjoys the widespread support of other Muslims. A tweet that AST sent from its official account on January 1, 2014 purported to show “what you don’t see in the media about Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia.” It linked to a video of AST’s community service projects, in which the group distributed medical supplies and repaired public infrastructure. The video emphasized in particular very young children (seemingly elementary or middle school age) tackling these service projects while wearing bulky orange vests identifying them as doing this work under AST’s banner.
In a similar vein, on March 10 AST asked in a tweet: “Does Ansar al-Sharia truly frighten the Muslims of this nation?” The tweet included a link to a different video on AST’s community service efforts, including testimonies from sick people whom AST helped. One blurry-eyed old man offering his testimony states that he has diabetes; the camera pans down to reveal that the toes on his left foot have been amputated.
Further making a bid to show the support they enjoy, on February 21 AST tweeted an invitation to participate in their campaign asking “who are my helpers in the cause of Allah,” with participants using the Arabic-language hashtag #Support_for_Ansar_al-Sharia_in_Tunisia.
A graphic promoting the “Who are my helpers in the cause of Allah” public relations campaign, tweeted February 21, 2014.
AST received support from a variety of circles, which the group posted to its Twitter feed. On February 25, it tweeted a photograph of a handwritten sign leaning against an automatic weapon, with a flag of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the background. The sign reads: “Support for Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia from the soldiers of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham.”
Another representative photograph posted as part of the campaign, on February 26, featured a handwritten sign held up in front of a Saudi mosque that read: “Support for Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia,” attributing this support to “your brothers from the Land of the Two Holy Mosques.” (For more coverage of AST’s “who are my helpers in the cause of Allah” campaign, see MEMRI’s report, referenced above.)
Another aspect of responding to the crackdown has been disseminating anti-government propaganda. Some of this propaganda has been supplied by outside scholars, including Abu Qatada al-Filistini, who has longstanding and deep connections to AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi. Abu Iyad spent time in the United Kingdom, where Abu Qatada was also based, during his exile from Tunisia. Some jihadist forums have portrayed Abu Iyad as Abu Qatada’s “disciple,” and one AST member described Abu Qatada as “probably the most influential” jihadist theorist who has the group’s ear.
On January 21, AST posted a message from Abu Qatada, titled “An Important and Urgent Message to Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia,” to all its social media platforms, including Twitter. Part of Abu Qatada’s message is devoted to attacking Ennahda, the Islamist political party that opted to work through electoral politics. Abu Qatada said that although Ennahda and AST seemingly share a common goal of “establishing Islam,” Ennahda moved in the “direction of the secularists,” and in the course of negotiations over the new Tunisian constitution accepted that sharia would not be the country’s source of law. According to Abu Qatada, Ennahda—which was in power when the crackdown on AST began—went even further astray “in their pursuing you [AST members] and attributing to you false actions that were used as an excuse to chase you and imprison you, and even to kill you.” Abu Qatada said that because Ennahda has allied itself with the secularists, it therefore shares in their judgment and fate.
This graphic was tweeted on January 21, 2014,and includes excerpts about Ennahda from Abu Qatada’s message.
Thereafter, AST continued to press the theme that the Tunisian government had aligned itself with infidelity. On May 10, a tweet and accompanying graphic called on Muslims to fight the “leaders of infidelity,” and argued that Islam’s “powerful ability to protect itself” was the characteristic that would ultimately produce a victory.
On May 20, AST posted a graphic titled “So that the nation will learn…” The accompanying text explained that “we do not label the tyrants infidels, nor do we repudiate them nor antagonize them and their friends due to their imprisoning, torturing, and persecuting us.” Rather, it explained that they label their opponents infidels “due to their imprisonment of monotheism and their detaining the sharia.” This statement reflects AST’s prioritization of its interpretation of sharia: it is unambiguously the most important value for which the group stands, and its suppression is more important to members, according to this statement, than even being subjected to imprisonment or torture.
These statements reflected AST’s understanding of both the general situation that it confronted as well as the clash of values between the group and the government. But some of its statements instead deal with specific incidents, such as “A Word of Truth and an Outcry in the Valley,” which was posted on April 15, addressing a recent raid in Rouhia in which security forces’ raid of a mosque resulted in the arrest of 40 salafists, reportedly including returnees from Syria. AST’s statement is one of solidarity with the arrested salafists, claiming that the group “follows what is occurring to you moment by moment, and we share in your pain and anguish.” Describing the Rouhia raid as one of the “crimes of the tyrannical Tunisian regime,” the statement describes a pattern of “harassment, intimidation, displacement,” as well as “the violation of the sanctity of homes and of women.” The statement calls on the people of Rouhia to hold fast to their beliefs and “be as one hand in confronting the taghut [any person or thing that is worshiped or obeyed instead of Allah, here referring to the Tunisian government] and its soldiers, and make them taste a cup of what they have made you taste.”
One possible AST strategy for winning Tunisians to its side is depending on the security forces’ overreaction to alienate the population, which is a technique often employed by militant groups. The statement on Rouhia suggests that AST has this precise route in mind, as it calls for the people of Rouhia to “open media outlets for yourselves on all available social networks” in order to “cover the attacks of the soldier of the taghut.” AST advises the audience to make haste in doing so, and warns them not to “wait for the media to sympathize with you.”
The Centrality of Sharia
As previously noted, one of AST’s major lines of attack against the government is that it stands against Islam, and has essentially apostatized itself—by agreeing to a constitution that didn’t enshrine Islam as the law of the land, and cracking down on AST. One genre of AST’s social media activity emphasized the importance of sharia and described how laws and governance deriving from anything other than sharia are illegitimate, and nullify one’s Islamic faith.
A January 25 tweet from AST asked: “A constitution made by man?!” It also contained a graphic stating that whoever places man made laws above those of Allah “is undoubtedly an apostate if he insists on doing so and does not revert to rule according to what Allah has revealed.”
A February 22 tweet explored “the consequences of ignoring Allah’s laws.” The tweet included an attached graphic in which Arabic script written on a parchment scroll proclaimed that “a nation that is ruled by anything other than the law of Allah Almighty is a dead nation… The law of Allah gives us life, while the law of man is a deadly, killer poison.”
This graphic, titled “Ignoring Allah’s Law,” was tweeted on February 22, 2014.
On March 1, AST tweeted a graphic titled “Why do they fight the Ansar?” The graphic included excerpts from Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) theologian Ibrahim al-Rubaish. “Modern history has proven the intensity of the infidel’s war against those who want to rule by sharia, even if they desire this peacefully,” Rubaish stated. “Therefore the flag of tawhid [monotheism] is only raised upon the skulls of the monotheists, and the land will not be ruled by sharia till it takes its share of the blood of the supporters of sharia [ansar al-sharia].”
On March 5, AST tweeted a graphic stating that “ruling by anything other than what Allah has revealed is infidelity that removes you from the religious community.” A statement by AST emir Abu Iyad al-Tunisi posted on March 23 also advanced this theme. In it, Abu Iyad called AST “the guardians of Allah for this religion.” He summarized AST’s sharia platform with the statement that “it is either Allah and no other but Him, or Allah and others with Him, and this does not please Allah.”
This image of Abu Iyad al-Tunisi was tweeted on March 23, 2014, along with a statement. The text reads “either Allah alone, or Allah and others with Him.”
The Syria Jihad
It is impossible to overstate the impact that the Syrian civil war will have on this generation of jihadists. Given the extremely high number of foreign fighters who have gone to Syria, the Afghan-Soviet war appears to be a comparable event in terms of impact on militants. Both conflicts should be considered first-order humanitarian disasters, justifiably inflaming passions throughout the Muslim world and beyond. Because of the devastation wrought by both wars, the various violent non-state actors who showed up to defend Sunni Muslims against their antagonists gained legitimacy from the clerical class and popularity at the street level. Tunisia’s interior ministry has said that 1,800 Tunisians have now traveled to Syria to fight Bashar al-Assad’s regime, and Syria has been one of the recurrent themes in AST’s social media activity.
On January 14, AST posted Abu Iyad al-Tunisi’s “A Statement of Support for Our Brother Mujahedin in Syria.” Much of the statement was devoted to addressing the infighting between jihadist factions, which he referred to as a fitna. Abu Iyad urged his audience not to judge the primary players in the dispute because “awareness of the circumstances of the dispute is almost nonexistent, nay, nonexistent” given the observers’ “distance from the field.” He said that even for Syria-based jihadist groups who “fell into wrong practices,” that is unsurprising because that phenomenon occurred even in Prophet Muhammad’s time—and further, “the evil deeds of good people are flooded by their good deeds.” He urges his audience that concentrating on the mistakes of certain jihadist groups “and ignoring the good” is an injustice.
Abu Iyad called on respected jihadist figures to issue a ten-point statement to end “the fitna against ISIS.” The points he urged included postponing all arguments until the fitna ended, promising to establish sharia law, using force against “those who made the blood and honor of the muhajirun [meaning “the emigrants,” a reference to foreign fighters] permissible,” and renewing the intentions of jihad. The statement very purposefully explicitly avoids taking sides in the fighting among mujahedin factions, instead urging reconciliation.
In Abu Qatada’s aforementioned January 21 statement, he referred to Tunisians going to fight in Syria as a “blessed matter,” while acknowledging that Abu Iyad has expressed reservations about the phenomenon “so that Tunisia is not left without the call [dawa] and care.” However, Abu Qatada argued that “the goodness in you is much and is enough for both cases.” Abu Qatada also said that it bothered him that some of those who went to fight in Syria “are extreme because of the enthusiasm of youth.” Abu Qatada claimed that “the Ummah requires gentleness.” This appears to be a criticism of ISIS’s brutal tactics, which al-Qaeda’s leadership had spoken out against as a strategic matter; Abu Qatada would later issue more thunderous denunciations of ISIS following its expulsion from al-Qaeda.
On April 11, AST’s social media platforms (along with Shamukh al-Islam Forum and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya) announced the “Jihad Ummah Contest,” which was designed as a “jihadist contest for those unable to reach the land of jihad.” The victors, who would be selected based on being the first to post comments on a jihadist Facebook page, would “win” donations of weapons to mujahedin in “the lands of jihad.” The prizes included a G3 sniper rifle, a Kalashnikov, three hand grenades, and two Kalashnikov magazines.
Though 2014 hasn’t been the most active year for AST’s social media, it has featured plenty of interesting indications of the group’s current outlook and strategy. Continued attention to the group’s social media activity will be worthwhile as it attempts to come back from the government’s crackdown.
Daveed Gartenstein-Ross is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and an adjunct assistant professor in Georgetown University’s security studies program. He is the author or volume editor of fourteen books and monographs, including Bin Laden’s Legacy. Oren Adaki is an Arabic language specialist and research associate at FDD specializing in the Arab world.