The Tunisian government announced at a press conference yesterday that Ansar al Sharia, an al Qaeda-linked group that arose following the Arab uprisings, has been labeled a “terrorist organization.” Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou explained that the move effectively puts a “ban” on Ansar al Sharia’s activities and makes membership in the group illegal, according to Tunis Afrique Presse (TAP).
Ben Jeddou said the decision was based on “established facts, police inquiries, field investigations and intelligence reports,” according to TAP’s summary of the press conference. The interior minister added that the government has made substantial progress in thwarting Ansar al Sharia’s “terrorist plots,” with a “large number” of the group’s members already in custody and others “being chased down.”
Director General of Public Security Mustapha Ben Amor explained that 19 “politicians, journalists and artists” have been “threatened with death” by Ansar al Sharia, according to another account by TAP.
“This organization, which was collecting large quantities of weapons, planned to spread chaos and create a security vacuum through assassinations, before seizing power and establishing the first Islamic emirate in North Africa,” Ben Amor said, according to Reuters.
In July, the Tunisian government alleged that Ansar al Sharia members were involved in the assassinations of two prominent politicians. [See LWJ report, Tunisian government alleges longtime jihadist involved in assassinations.]
During this week’s press conference, Tunisian officials again claimed that Ansar al Sharia is connected to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the “Okba Ibn Nafaa” terrorist group operating in Mount Chaambi, near the Algerian border. The Tunisian army has suffered casualties hunting members of the group. According to Agence France Presse, the government says Okba Ibn Nafaa is made up of “veterans of the Islamist rebellion in northern Mali with links to Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM),” including Algerians and Libyans, as well as Tunisians who belong to Ansar al Sharia.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s leaders have longstanding ties to al Qaeda and terrorism. The group is headed by Seifallah ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), who co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) “in coordination with” al Qaeda in 2000, according to the United Nations. The TCG helped execute the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud. The killing of Massoud was an integral part of al Qaeda’s preparations for the hijackings inside the US two days later.
The TCG became an arm of al Qaeda inside Europe prior to the 9/11 attacks and was tied to noteworthy plots against Western interests, including a planned attack on the US Embassy in Rome in early 2001.
Two leaders of the TCG in Europe, Sami Ben Khemais Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, went on to become prominent figures in Ansar al Sharia, serving alongside ben Hassine. Both Essid and Kammoun have been designated by the UN and US as terrorists for their al Qaeda roles. Essid was identified as the head of al Qaeda in Italy and, according to the US State Department, was the principal architect of the plot against the US Embassy in Rome. Earlier this year, Essid was identified as an organizer of Ansar al Sharia’s planned annual rally, which was suspended by authorities. [See LWJ report, From al Qaeda in Italy to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia and Threat Matrix report, Former ‘head’ of al Qaeda in Italy an ‘organizer’ of Ansar al Sharia rally.]
Ansar al Sharia was responsible for the Sept. 14, 2012 ransacking of the US Embassy in Tunis. In its annual Country Reports on Terrorism, published in May, the State Department noted that ben Hassine “was implicated as the mastermind behind the September 14 attack on the US Embassy,” which involved “a mob of 2,000 – 3,000” people, “including individuals affiliated with the militant organization Ansar al Sharia.”
Three days earlier, on Sept. 11, 2012, members of an Ansar al Sharia group inside Libya took part in the attack on the US diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia does not hide its affection for al Qaeda. The group’s leaders have praised al Qaeda and placed their work in the context of the global jihad. In addition, Ansar al Sharia manages social media pages that are littered with al Qaeda propaganda and pay homage to slain al Qaeda leaders. Al Qaeda’s jihadists, including AQIM officials, have returned the favor by openly praising Ansar al Sharia.