In early February, a video of an interview with Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s leader Seifallah ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi) was released online after it had been banned by government officials. Hassine, who is wanted for instigating the Sept. 14, 2012 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis, was asked about the migration of young Tunisians to the jihadist battlefields in Syria and Mali. He responded by discouraging the practice, saying Tunisia’s Salafi jihadists were needed at home and that the wars abroad have “emptied Tunisia of its young.”
A review of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s official Facebook page and other online sources tells a different story. Hassine’s organization frequently celebrates the “martyrdom” of Tunisians, especially those who fought in Syria.
In Facebook entries posted this week, the group showcased Tunisians killed in Syria. And Ansar al Sharia’s logos accompanied the young Tunisians’ images, thereby indicating the organization’s official seal of approval.
One post announces the death of a Tunisian who fought in Deir al Zour, a city located on the Euphrates River that the Al Nusrah Front is currently seeking to capture. The Facebook posting says that he fought for the Hamza Bin Abdul Muttalib Brigade.
In a separate but related posting, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia embedded a video of what appears to be the same Tunisian and asked Allah to accept his “martyrdom.” The video itself was not produced by Ansar al Sharia, but it shows the recruit lying dead in the rubble of a building, with his weapon by his side.
Another Facebook post shows a Tunisian who was apparently killed while fighting Bashar al Assad’s organized thugs, or Shabiha. The recruit is shown holding a grenade in the photo and, in the accompanying text, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia asks Allah to accept his death in Syria, where he waged jihad.
In February, one of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia’s sister Facebook pages posted a banner that reads, “Tunisian blood continues to irrigate the land of al Sham (Syria).” The banner features eight Tunisians, and Ansar al Sharia Tunisia said they are “among the men of Tunisia who answered the call of the oppressed in Syria.”
As with the other Tunisian “martyrs” who have died in Syria, Hassine’s group prayed that Allah would “accept them among the martyrs.” Some of the men were also featured in separate Facebook postings by Ansar al Sharia Tunisia.
Estimates of the number of Tunisians fighting in Syria vary greatly, from dozens to hundreds. Some of these estimates are undoubtedly exaggerations.
But Tunisians waging jihad abroad remains a problem, with recruits taking part in the fighting in Mali and Syria, as well as terrorist attacks such as the Sept. 11, 2012 assault on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya and the January 2013 siege of the In Amenas natural gas field in Algeria. Authorities have indicated that 11 Tunisians took part in the latter attack.
And while Seifallah ben Hassine says he does not want Tunisians going off to fight in foreign lands, his organization openly celebrates the “martyrdom” of men who do.