Wednesday, May 22, 2013

The black banner in Tunisia

The black banner in Tunisia
Al-Qaeda-affiliate Ansar al-Sharia is demonstrating an alarming growth in
stature and capabilities ansar al-sharia supporters

The Tunisian group Ansar al-Sharia is about as close as one could fear to
being an al-Qaeda-front organization operating freely in an Arab country.
And it's on the move.

For months, Ansar al-Sharia and its allies have been violently harassing
Tunisia's mainstream society and troika government led by Ennahda, the
Muslim Brotherhood-style party. But now it has welcomed, if not indeed
forced, an open confrontation.

As ever, Tunisia is just ahead of the curve in the "Arab Spring." The
confrontation between Ansar al-Sharia and Ennahda illustrates a potential
fault line within the Arab Muslim religious right throughout the region.

Salafist groups, including Salafist-Jihadist and takfiri organizations like
Ansar al-Sharia, may agree with less extreme Islamists about many things in
theory. But in practice, they always find them both a political obstacle and
insufficiently "Islamic." Since they rely on literalism, militancy,
categorical assertions, and extremism virtually unrestrained by almost any
pragmatic considerations, such organizations will invariably find the
power-oriented political realism of Brotherhood-style parties to be
religiously and politically objectionable. More importantly, they will see
political benefits in attacking them rhetorically and, eventually,

That's exactly what is happening in Tunisia. Ansar al-Sharia, which does not
hide its links to Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and proudly flies the
gruesome black banner of Salafist-Jihadism, sought to hold their annual
gathering in Tunis again this year. The group's organizers predicted a
massive turnout of 40,000 people. Even if they were overestimating
participation by double, or indeed quadruple, the actual likely turnout,
this was an extremely disturbing prospect for the Tunisian government and
mainstream society alike.

Ansar al-Sharia has been growing ever more brazen and militant in recent
months. The group is no longer satisfied with attacking "un-Islamic"
cultural expressions such as cinemas, art galleries, literary festivals, and
bars. Instead it has been adopting a much more openly Salafist-Jihadist, as
opposed to simply Salafist, rhetoric, replete with implicit and explicit
calls to violence. Its determination to challenge the government, and even
set the stage for civil conflict, became impossible to ignore.

Under conditions of growing instability in the country, exacerbated by
continued economic woes and other stressors, the government banned the Tunis
meeting on the grounds that Ansar al-Sharia is not a legally recognized
organization in the country. In response, the group shifted its gathering to
the "holy city" of Kairouan. The government banned that meeting as well, and
brought a major security presence to bear in order to enforce its decision.

The resulting violent confrontation outside the ancient and revered Kairouan
Great Mosque left one person dead under murky circumstances. But two things
were clear. First, the government was able to enforce its decisions, but
only through brute force. And second, Ansar al-Sharia felt politically and
organizationally capable of, and interested in, confronting the government
and its security forces.

The implicit message is also clear. The government was able to win this
battle, but it's losing the war to ensure that Ansar Al-Sharia remains a
largely impotent and fringe movement.

A grim set of factors is combining to empower this openly and extremely
radical group. Ongoing economic distress has undermined the government,
including Ennahda, and strengthened the impact of Ansar al-Sharia's
aggressive social services program. Ennahda's political compromises with its
coalition partners undermine its ability to appeal to Muslim extremists who
find conciliation, even in the service of gaining political power, to be
distasteful at best. Instability, and the growing power of their
Salafist-Jihadist allies in Libya and the Sahel region, have provided Ansar
Al-Sharia a new degree of strategic depth.

And, most worryingly of all, Ansar al-Sharia and other Salafist-Jihadist
groups around the region are using the war in Syria in the same way similar
ideologues used the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq. Ansar al-Sharia has
reportedly been a huge, and possibly decisive, factor in sending some 3,000
Tunisian militants to fight in Syria. This not only increases its political
credentials in Islamist constituencies; much more importantly it's starting
to provide them with a growing stream of battle-trained and hardened cadres
ready for armed conflict under the black banner.

The discovery of Ansar al-Sharia minefields along the Algerian border has
been taken by almost everyone, including Ennahda, to confirm that this is
actually beginning to happen. Ansar al-Sharia now openly warns of civil war.

This is a confrontation Ennahda sought to avoid. Its leader, Rachid
Ghannouchi, last year asked Salafists, including associates of Ansar
al-Sharia, to give his party peace and quiet to secure Islamist control over
the police and military. But clearly Ansar al-Sharia is in no mood for

The un-strategic, self-defeating Salafist-Jihadist mentality typically
combines violent extremism with the lack of political judgment
characteristic of most real fanatics. Yet, for now, Ansar al-Sharia appears
to be entitled to an alarming degree of growing self-confidence.

Supporters of Salafist-Jihadist group Ansar al-Sharia rally in Ettadhamen,
Tunisia. (AFP photo)

"The implicit message is also clear. The government was able to win this
battle, but it's losing the war to ensure that Ansar Al-Sharia remains a
largely impotent and fringe movement."

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