The rapid advance of Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) forces in northern Iraq has taken many by surprise. Tunisians are curious about the origins and extent of the militant organization. In local papers, headlines have begun surfacing suggesting the presence of ISIL in Tunisia. There is little to substantiate these claims, yet this is not to say there is no connection between Tunisia and what is happening in Iraq.
Currently led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, ISIL is an organization ostensibly dedicated to the establishment of an Islamic Caliphate in the Levant. Tunisia being without the Levant, there is little to support the assertion that ISIL itself is operative in Tunisia or North Africa generally. However there do exist various groups, active in North Africa and Tunisia, advocating the establishment of an Islamic state in the Maghreb, notably Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Ansar Al Sharia in Tunisia (AST), and the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade.
Originally named the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat, AQIM grew out of the Algerian insurgency. Initially a more localized organization, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, Al Qaeda’s commander in Iraq from 2004 until his death in 2006, helped recruit for AQIM and gave the group a more globalized scope. The group formally adopted its current name in 2007, and is sometimes referred to as a “franchise” of the core Al Qaeda leadership in Pakistan. AQIM’s affiliation with Al Qaeda leadership is not definite, however, as the group declined, alongside ISIL, to recognize the leadership of Bin Laden’s successor Ayman al-Zawahiri following Bin Laden’s death in 2011.
AQIM has been connected with at least two Tunisian jihadist groups: Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia (AST) and the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade. Ansar al Sharia roughly translates as “supporters of Sharia.” The group in Tunisia, founded by Ben Ali political prisoners amnestied in 2011, has been primarily focused domestically. It has grown enormously in Tunisia, in part due to its organization among disenfranchised youth and its emphasis on da’wa, or charitable work. A 2013 West Point study estimates the group at 10,000 members, while AST members have suggested membership is as high as 100,000. While this organization gained much popularity through its work in the community, initially receiving little opposition from Tunisia’s ruling Ennahda party, it has since been designated a terrorist organization by the governments of both Tunisia and the United States. In 2013, then-Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh claimed proof that AST had been “liaising” with AQIM, further asserting the group was responsible for the political assassinations of the secular bulwark Chokri Belaid and Mohammed Brahmi.
AST shares its name with a number of Ansar al Sharia groups throughout North Africa and Yemen, including the Benghazi group suspected by many of orchestrating the 2012 attack on US diplomatic compounds in Benghazi. Mohammed al Zahawi, the leader of Benghazi’s Ansar al Sharia, insists there is no connection between the Libyan and Tunisian groups. The Interior Ministries of Tunisia and Libya, however, claim the opposite. The true extent of the connection between the various Ansar al Sharia groups remains unclear. Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, one of the premier ideologues of the jihadist movement, published an article in June of 2012 calling for Muslims around the world to establish their own Ansar al Sharia groups and eventually to unite into one movement. By this time, however, the Tunisian group was already well established; despite their common name, the various Ansar al Sharia groups in North Africa appear to share little in the way of command structure or leadership.
Another Tunisian organization connected to AQIM is the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade (Brigade), a smaller outfit dedicated, according to Tunisia’s Interior Ministry, to sowing chaos and replacing the current regime with an Islamic state. The Brigade was responsible for the Mount Chaambi attacks that left 8 Tunisian soldiers dead. Then-Prime Minister Laarayedh claimed that the Brigade, which had set up training camps in the mountainous region bordering Algeria, was in turn supported by AST, and the group has been described by the Tunisian press as AQIM’s Tunisian branch. One publication reported a merger between AST and the Brigade in early 2014, orchestrated by AQIM, though they have since appeared separately in the Tunisian press.
The connections between AQIM, AST, the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, Al Qaeda, and ISIL are complicated. It seems clear that there is a connection between AQIM and the Tunisian organizations AST and the Brigade (which may now have merged together), though any connection between these Tunisian organizations and ISIL is at best ambiguous.
There have been some expressions of solidarity from AST and Brigade. AST leader Seifallah ben Hassine, known as Abu Ayad, recently released an open letter praising the gains of “our brothers in ISIL” and calling for reconciliation between that group and Al Qaeda. The paper At Tunisia reported that the Brigade has begun referring to itself as “The Islamic State of the Islamic Maghreb,” patterning itself after ISIL.
Yet beyond ideological sympathy and common tactics, any substantive connection between the organizations is tenuous. First, while these groups may share similar goals with the respect to the establishment of Islamic states, they work in separate regions, toward the establishment of separate states, employing different means in very different environments. Second, any allegiance AST and the Brigade may have to Al Qaeda, either directly or through AQIM, puts them at odds with ISIL – Al Qaeda has emphatically disavowed ISIL and its actions in Syria.
The clearest connection and the most concrete risk posed by the advent of ISIL lines in the eventual return of Tunisians from Syria. The UN estimates a minimum of 7000 foreign fighters currently in Syria. According to the Tunisian Strategic Studies Center, approximately 2000 Tunisians are fighting in Syria, some of whom have received training under ISIL affiliated groups. While these foreigners add little to the fighting force in Syria, they serve to spread the movement outside the confines of Syria and Iraq – a problem Tunisia’s Interior Ministry is all too familiar with, claiming the participation of returned Tunisian fighter Mohammed Melki in the assassination of Brahmi. According to At Tunisia, the Interior Ministry has prevented some 8,000 young men from going to Syria. The Ministry has also worked to re-integrate those who have returned, with limited success. The conflicts in Syria and Libya are polarizing participants; one of the biggest security challenges for the Interior Ministry going forward will be to prevent Tunisians from participating (current Minister of the Interior Lofti Ben Jeddou has asked for a law prohibiting travel to “hotbeds of conflict”) and to successfully reintegrate and monitor those returning from Syria, Libya, and Iraq.