Almost two months after Tunisia’s prime minister and the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, an al Qaeda-linked organization, traded barbs in the press and online, tensions have escalated once again. Tunisia Live reports that there were “clashes between Tunisian police and Ansar al Sharia” this past weekend.
This prompted a response from Seifullah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), the founder and head of Ansar al Sharia, on the group’s Facebook page. Hassine’s statement was translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
“What you are passing through now is a test and a trial by which the honest will be distinguished from the liar, and the one who is truly steadfast from he who claims steadfastness,” Hassine says, addressing “the youth.” Hassine implores Ansar al Sharia’s members to move forward and “not to back and let go of the gains that you achieved.”
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has been building up its ranks through countrywide proselytizing, but the Ennahda regime’s recent actions have interfered in these events and threatened the group’s designs.
In addition, Ansar al Sharia may not be permitted to hold its third annual congress, which would serve, as in the past, as its signature recruiting and propaganda event. “We haven’t decided yet regarding the meeting of Ansar al Sharia,” Minister of Interior Lotfi Ben Jeddou said on Friday, according to Tunisia Live.
In response, Hassine tells his followers to be “steadfast” and warns the Tunisian government.
“To those tyrants who are covered by Islam, and Islam has nothing to do with them, know that today you commit many foolish acts that speak about you expediting the battle,” Hassine says, according to SITE’s translation. “I say to you, by Allah, you
aren’t fighting youth, but you are fighting a victorious religion helped by Allah and no force on Earth no matter how strong can defeat it.”
Hassine connected Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s struggle to the work of Tunisian jihadists abroad. “I am just reminding you that our youth that exhibited heroic acts in defending Islam in Afghanistan, Chechnya, Bosnia, Iraq, Somalia and the Levant will never hesitate to sacrifice for their religion in Tunisia.”
“America, the West, Algeria, Turkey and Qatar whose help you seek will never help you when the swords rattle, the arrows are ready, and sword edges strike other sword edges,” Hassine adds.
Hassine’s use of the word “tyrants” to describe the Ennahda government is especially inflammatory. As Ansar al Sharia Tunisia spokesman Seifeddine Rais explained during a radio interview earlier this week, “The term ‘tyrants’ is used to refer to those who are ruling without using Sharia (or Islamic law), which is the case of Tunisia. The government said they are not going to apply Sharia.”
Another leading member of Ansar al Sharia, Sami Ben Khemais Essid, has also responded to the Ennahda government’s recent interference in his group’s activities. According to Magharebia, Essid criticized interior minister Ben Jeddou.
“He has declared war on Muslims in Tunisia,” Essid said of Ben Jeddou. Essid vowed that Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s third annual congress will be held as planned on May 19. However, Essid said, the group’s leader will not be in attendance.
“Abu Iyad (Hassine), a leader of Ansar al-Sharia who is wanted by the security forces, won’t attend the third annual congress of the group,” Essid said, according to Magharebia. “The only reason for that is that he loves Tunisia and doesn’t want to confuse his supporters if he gets arrested by the security forces before them.”
Essid is the former head of al Qaeda’s operations in Italy and was arrested in early 2001 for plotting against the US Embassy in Rome, among other terrorist activities. [See LWJ report, From al Qaeda in Italy to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia.]
Essid was convicted of terrorism charges and imprisoned in Italy for several years. He was deported to Tunisia, where he was again imprisoned, only to be freed in the wake of the Arab Spring. The United Nations and US Government have designated both Hassine and Essid al Qaeda-affiliated terrorists.
The flare-up in tensions between the Tunisian government and Ansar al Sharia is hardly surprising. In late March, Tunisian prime minister Ali Larayedh harshly criticized Hassine’s group in press interviews. Ali Larayedh accused Ansar al Sharia and Hassine, in particular, of spreading violence. “Abu Iyad is deeply involved in issues of violence and arms trafficking,” Larayedh claimed.
Hassine responded with an “Urgent Letter to the Wise [Men] of Ennahda” on Ansar al Sharia’s Facebook page and web site.
“To your wise men we say: Keep your sick [or diseased] ones from us, or we will direct our war against them until their downfall and their meeting with the dustbin of history,” Hassine warned. “Know that we will not delay in saying that the answer is what you see, not what you hear… If you do not rectify your situation.” [See LWJ report, War of words escalates in Tunisia.]
Nearly two months later, the threat of increased violence has not abated.