There are a number of violent extremist groups operating within Tunisia’s borders and successfully recruiting Tunisians for foreign conflicts. Among these, ISIS stands out for its ability to recruit Tunisians both for its domestic and international operations. ISIS-affiliated groups in Tunisia include Ansar al-Sharia, Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, and Mujahidin of Kairouan.
Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia
Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) is a violent, jihadist, Islamist group that seeks to implement sharia (Islamic law) in Tunisia. It works to achieve this goal by performing dawa (proselytizing, including both religious education and the provision of social services) domestically to increase its base of support for future violent jihad, enforcing strict modesty laws under the banner of hisbah (the duty to command moral acts and prohibit immoral ones, in accord with sharia), and carrying out jihad by instigating and executing violent attacks. Several of AST’s key leaders reportedly pledged their allegiance to ISIS in late 2014. Since then, AST has acted as the largest ISIS affiliate in Tunisia. The flow of Tunisians out of the country has been so great that even AST’s al-Tunisi lamented that the wars in Syria and Mali have “emptied Tunisia of its young.” Tunisians have been featured heavily in ISIS propaganda, and ISIS has regularly eulogized Tunisian fighters and suicide bombers.
AST claims to have recruited as many as 70,000 Tunisian members between April 2011 and January 2014.
The links between AST and ISIS appear to date back as early as February 2014, when AST deputy leader Kamel Zarrouk reportedly traveled to Syria to join ISIS. The Long War Journal reported that, “Zarrouk is known in his [Tunisian] neighborhood as someone who encouraged young people to go for jihad in Syria, which he considers to be the springboard for establishing an Islamic state from the Gulf to the ocean.” In July 2014, while speaking at a mosque in Kairouan, Tunisia, AST spokesman Seifeddine Rais swore loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. The same month, Al-Monitor reported that a number of AST leaders had gone to Syria and pledged allegiance to al-Baghdadi. (Source: AllAfrica)
Since then, ISIS and AST have become increasingly entrenched. In a March 2015 ISIS video, a Tunisian militant named Abu Yahya al-Tounessi called on Tunisians to join ISIS in Libya: “We are coming to conquer back Tunisia. I swear you will not be at ease now with the Islamic State a few kilometers from you just across the border.” In April 2015, an ISIS-affiliated group called the “Tripoli Province” released a video threatening the Tunisian government, promising attacks to avenge Islamists imprisoned in the country. The video also urged Tunisians to come to Libya to fight with ISIS. “The Islamic State is only a few kilometers from you [Tunisia], we are coming,” a masked gunman says, “Brothers, come to Libya. Don’t be humiliated by the [Tunisian] dictators. Muslims have their own state now.”
AST had previously aligned itself with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and pledged alliance to al-Qaeda. Its leaders in the past have said that AST, the Nusra Front, al-Qaeda, “the Islamic State of Iraq” and other mujahideen “all stand united against our enemies.” AST leader Abu Iyad al-Tunisi released a statement in June 2014 calling for ISIS to set aside its disagreements with other jihadist groups and “open their hearts to a new comprehensive reconciliation.” (Sources: Counter Extremism Project, Jadaliyya, Long War Journal, Reuters, Long War Journal, Al-Monitor)
AST founder and leader Abu Iyad al-Tunisi was a close associate of al-Qaeda. He fought alongside the group and the Taliban in Afghanistan even after the country fell to coalition forces in 2001. A Joint Task Force Guantanamo report found that al-Tunisi formed a unit called the “Jalalabad Group” and “volunteered to defend [bin Laden] and the embattled al-Qaeda fighters at Tora Bora.” Several of the group’s members were later detained at the U.S. detention center at Guantanamo Bay. (Sources: Long War Journal, Weekly Standard, Long War Journal, Reuters)
We are coming to conquer back Tunisia. I swear you will not be at ease now with the Islamic State a few kilometers from you just across the border.
AST claims to have recruited as many as 70,000 Tunisian members between April 2011 and January 2014. AST youth wing leader Youssef Mazouz believes these recruits were attracted to AST because of its charity work, proselytizing campaign, and aid distribution to poor areas. As one student supporter of AST said: “They welcome people, they perform charitable works that the state doesn’t do: caravans bringing food aid, assistance, clothes, in every corner of the country in the poor neighborhoods.” AST also appears to attract recruits by capitalizing on popular frustration with the Tunisian government. (Sources: AllAfrica, Jadaliyya)
AST has held three conferences since April 2012 to spread its message and discuss the future of the group. Little is known about the first conference, which was attended by a few hundred Islamists. Upwards of 10,000 Islamists attended the second conference in May 2012 in the western city of Kairouan. AST leaders called on attendees to boycott the media, which they accused of slandering the Salafist movement. AST leader al-Tunisi advocated for the creation of an Islamic workers collective to challenge the secular Tunisian General Labor Union. In a massive show of force, Tunisian security forces blocked the third conference in May 2013, which organizers estimated would attract more than 40,000 attendees, even though the Tunisian government did not declare AST a terror organization until August 27, 2013. The ensuing clashes drew 40,000 rioters, and security forces shot and killed one bystander in Tunis. AST has not publicly held an annual conference since then. (Sources: Washington Institute For Near East Policy, Eurasia Review, Al-Monitor)
Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade
Okba Ibn Nafaa, sometimes called the Okba Ibn Nafaa Brigade, is a militant group that has been responsible for a majority of the Islamist attacks on the Tunisian military. The group pledged allegiance to ISIS in September 2014.
The Tunisian government has described Obka Ibn Nafaa as “veterans of the Islamist rebellion in northern Mali with links to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).” The Tunisian government blamed Okba Ibn Nafaa for the June 26, 2015, assault on Tunisia’s Hotel Rui Imperial Marhaba, which killed at least 37 people.
Okba Ibn Nafaa has been fighting the Tunisian army in the border region with Algeria since 2012. The group was responsible for a July 2014 attack on Tunisian military checkpoints near the Algerian border that killed 14 soldiers. In September 2014, the Tunisian government uncovered an Okba Ibn Nafaa plot to attack the October parliamentary elections. (Sources: Financial Times, Reuters, AllAfrica)
In late March 2015, Tunisian forces killed Okba Ibn Nafaa’s leader, Khaled Chayeb, a.k.a. Lokmane Abou Sakhr. Sakhr allegedly masterminded the March 18 attack on Tunis’s Bardo Museum that killed 21 people, including 19 foreign tourists. (Sources: Wall Street Journal, Wall Street Journal)
Mujahidin of Kairouan
In May 2015, a Tunisian jihadist group called “Mujahidin of Kairouan” swore allegiance to ISIS. The March/April 2015 issue of ISIS’s English propaganda magazine Dabiq included content and images that illustrated the group’s increasing pivot to Tunisia. The magazine focused on ISIS in Africa and featured a photo of the Tunisian “Mosque of Kairouan” on the cover. (Sources: Tunisia Live, Al-Arabiya, Clarion Project)
There are several Tunisian-linked networks tied to ISIS’s prime competitor, al-Qaeda. These groups include U.S.-designated Tunisian Combat Group (TCG) and foreign-based group Ansar al-Dine.
Tunisian Combat Group (TCG)
The Tunisian Combat Group (TCG), a U.S.-designated Foreign Terrorist Organization, has worked closely with al-Qaeda. TCG co-founder and al-Qaeda commander Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi founded the group in 2000 with other al-Qaeda higher-ups, with the goal of bringing Tunisians back from Afghanistan to Tunisia to topple the Tunisian government.
Since its formation, TCG has been linked to a number of violent incidents. The group provided Belgian passports to the Tunisian al-Qaeda operatives who killed the Afghan anti-Taliban leader Ahmad Shah Massoud on September 9, 2001. In April 2001, a “dual TCG-al-Qaeda operative” was arrested in Italy for planning an attack against the U.S. embassy in Rome. The plot forced U.S. embassies and consulates across the country to close for the first time since the first Gulf War. (Sources: New York Times, Long War Journal)
Ansar al-Dine is affiliated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), which operates in Northern Mali and Southern Algeria. Analysts estimate that Tunisians comprise roughly half of Ansar al-Dine’s 600-man force.
Recruitment and Radicalization
A number of factors have enabled violent extremist groups to prosper in Tunisia, chief among them being the country’s high levels of unemployment. Since 2011, unemployment has skyrocketed in Tunisia, leaving an estimated 200,000 Tunisians without jobs and providing violent extremist groups with a market of young, dissatisfied males which ISIS readily exploits. Tunisian Prime Minister Habib Essid has said that one of the most common and salient factors drawing Tunisians to ISIS—other than ideological alignment—are “economic reasons. They didn’t have jobs... They couldn’t have a normal life.” (Sources: International Business Times, Business Insider)
New freedoms in Tunisia following the revolution are also believed to have set the stage for ISIS’s relative domestic popularity. The country’s new freedoms mean that militants are able to preach and recruit freely. These freedoms, coupled with the fact that Tunisia’s new brand of democracy has come with these staggering unemployment, has left some revolutionary youth to lean towards alternative—occasionally extremist and Islamist—political systems. (Source: New York Times)
Ben Gardane has produced the largest number of Tunisia’s foreign fighters, despite the town’s population being less than 80,000 people.
There are also “pull” factors drawing Tunisians to violent extremism. Libya’s Ansar al-Sharia (ASL) has embedded recruiters within Tunisia, funneling civilians who want to fight in Syria into Libyan training camps. Tunisian citizens have trained in guerrilla tactics, bomb-making, and small arms, and have reportedly gone on to fight with secular and Islamist groups in Syria. While ASL and AST share almost the same name, the groups do not share a chain of command. They work together and share many of the same goals, but are separate groups. (Sources: Long War Journal, Atlantic, Wasat)
Ben Gardane in particular—the border town which suffered the March 2016 attack—is known both for its high rates of unemployment and its role as a major exporter of Tunisian foreign fighters. According to estimates, Ben Gardane has produced the largest number of Tunisia’s foreign fighters, despite the town’s population being less than 80,000 people. Within Ben Gardane, there are believed to be dozens of ISIS sleeper cells, and an illegal market of weapons and ammunition is known to have historically flowed through the city to neighboring Libya. (Sources: Soufan Group, Daily Maverick, Vice)
Although Ben Gardane has served as a gateway to violent extremist groups, Tunisians in the town are broadly credited with helping to quash the March 2016 attack, purportedly carried out by ISIS militants. (Source: Daily Beast)
In early 2016, news agencies began reporting on a major push by ISIS to recruit Tunisian women for suicide bombings in western Libya. Many Salafist groups in Tunisia, including AST, have also expanded their membership by recruiting through “preaching tents” on school campuses. These tents attract students by discussing popular topics, including how to support the revolt against the Syrian regime. In 2013, Salafists reportedly “controlled” 100-500 of the 5,000 mosques in Tunisia. (Sources: Al Chourouk, Combatting Terrorism Center)
A Reuters investigation on the Bardo Museum attack revealed that the two attackers were both radicalized in Salafist mosques and traveled to Libya for training. The younger of the two, 21-year-old Jabeur Khachnaoui, was initially radicalized at school. Salafists had set up a tent just outside of school grounds where they proselytized students and talked about “prayers, the headscarf and jihad.” Although it is unclear in the report, it seems that authorities closed the Salafist tent near the school only in the wake of the Bardo attack while the imam at the local mosque has only been “pressured into changing his rhetoric.”
Tunisians hold both leadership and combatant positions in extremist groups across the Middle East and North Africa. (Source: U.S. Department of Defense)
Tunisian militant groups send high numbers of militants to fight in Syria, primarily with ISIS. By July 2015, approximately 5,500 Tunisians had reportedly traveled to Syria to fight against Bashar al-Assad’s government. That same month, Tunisian Interior Minister Lofti Ben Jeddou reported that Tunisian security forces had prevented an additional 8,000 Tunisians from traveling to Syria to fight. As of late 2015, an estimated 6,000 Tunisians are believed to have joined jihadist groups in Iraq and Syria. There are also an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 fighting in neighboring Libya, and dozens of Tunisians fighting in both Mali and Yemen. (Sources: Business Standard, New York Times, United Nations)
On February 1, 2017, German police arrested an asylum seeker from Tunisia suspected of plotting an ISIS attack in Germany and who was also wanted in connection to a 2015 attack in Tunisia that killed 20 people. In December 2016, another Tunisian man, Anis Amri, plowed a truck into a German Christmas market, killing 12 people. Germany has cited delays by Tunisia in providing documents necessary to deport suspected extremists. Documents for Amri were received only two days after his attack. According to media reports, in secret recordings made by German security services, Amri had offered to a hate preacher in October 2016 to conduct suicide attacks on behalf of ISIS (Sources: Washington Post, News Corp Australia Network)