In a December 2012 interview, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki publicly admitted that his government has underestimated the danger posed by Tunisia’s Salafi-jihadis.[1] Since the ousting of former President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali in 2011, Tunisia has witnessed a resurgence of Salafism, including a violent Salafi-jihadi stream. Although Tunisian authorities blame the increase in the number of jihadists primarily on regional dynamics toward religious conservatism as well as the former regime’s suppression of Islamists, it is evident that Tunisia has a domestic radicalization problem. Tunisian nationals were recently involved in a number of violent incidents in Tunisia and other countries in the region, with some having received training abroad, such as in the Libyan civil war.[2] In late December 2012, Tunisian authorities even dismantled a terrorist cell linked to al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) that was plotting acts of sabotage.[3]

This article details recent violent incidents in Tunisia and also examines the factors behind the radicalization of some Muslims in the country.

History of Religiously-Motivated Violence in Tunisia
Throughout its more recent history, Tunisia has witnessed sporadic religiously-motivated attacks. On August 2, 1987, four bombs exploded in four hotels in Sousse and Monastir, injuring 13 people.[4] An extremist cell called Islamic Jihad, which was subsequently dissolved, claimed responsibility.[5] On February 17, 1991, three Islamists attacked the office of the government Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party in Bab Souika, leaving one security guard dead.[6] The most prominent attack, however, was on April 11, 2002, when a young Tunisian linked to al-Qa`ida bombed the synagogue in Djerba in Tunisia’s south. The attack resulted in the deaths of 21 people, including 14 German tourists, five Tunisians, and two French citizens.[7]

In 2003, as an immediate response to the Djerba attack, Ben Ali implemented a comprehensive set of anti-terrorism laws.[8] Religiously-motivated incidents decreased in the subsequent years. Yet in 2006, a small group of five Tunisians and one Mauritanian, known as the Soldiers of Asad Bin al-Furhat[9] (or the Suleiman Group), entered Tunisia from Algeria with six Kalashnikov rifles and several grenades.[10] The Suleiman Group aimed to establish a nationwide jihadist movement to bring down the Ben Ali regime by force. Trained by the Salafist Group for Preaching and Combat (which became AQIM in 2007), the group quickly recruited more members, numbering 40 at its height.[11] Yet the government subsequently crushed the group in the town of Suleiman. Religiously-motivated attacks seemed under control from that point forward.

This changed with Tunisia’s revolution in 2011, which saw a resurgence of religious ultraconservatism, including Salafi-jihadism. Since the revolution, ultraconservative Muslims have obtained arms and clashed with security forces throughout the country. In May 2012, Salafi-jihadis and regular criminals attacked a police station as well as bars selling alcohol in the governorate of El Kef.[12] In June, they firebombed several offices of Tunisia’s biggest trade union, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT). That same month, an attack on an arts exhibition in La Marsa killed one, injured 65 policemen and led to the arrests of more than 160 people.[13] In September, violent Salafist mobs took to the streets to protest against an American film ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad and stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and an American school—leaving three dead and causing the U.S. Embassy to recall its unessential staff from Tunis.[14]

Moreover, two Tunisian Salafi-jihadis were arrested in October 2012 for their alleged involvement in the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Libya that led to the death of its ambassador. One of the suspects,  Ali Harzi, was released due to lack of evidence in January 2013, although authorities “strongly suspected” his involvement. He is, however, still facing charges for membership in a terrorist organization.[15]

Most recently, on December 21, Tunisian authorities uncovered a terrorist cell affiliated with AQIM, leading to the arrests of 16 people, including three Libyans, while an additional 18 other cell members are still being pursued. The members of the group, known as the Militia of Uqba Ibn Nafaa in Tunisia, reportedly received training and weapons in Algeria and Libya.[16] They sought to establish a Tunisian branch of AQIM to overthrow the government by force.[17]

Radicalization in Tunisia
Certain territories in Tunisia have traditionally been more rebellious and religiously conservative than others. Tunisia’s south and interior, in particular, have found it difficult to deal with the modernization policies launched by the colonial and post-independence governments, whose leaders came from more privileged areas.[18] The secular nature of the Habib Bourguiba and Ben Ali regimes were particularly alienating for Tunisia’s conservative Muslims. Both Bourguiba and Ben Ali originated from Tunisia’s coastal region, which enjoyed much higher government spending for development than Tunisia’s interior and south, resulting in a wide regional gap in prosperity and modernization.[19]

Bourguiba and Ben Ali’s policies to limit the power of traditional religious establishments also alienated many conservative Muslims. For example, shortly after his ascent to power, Bourguiba dismantled the Great Zaytouna Mosque and other Islamic institutions with their centuries-old traditions of teaching and scholarship. His willingness to break with many of Tunisia’s Islamic traditions, such as the fast,[20] led many conservative Muslims to retreat further into religion. Consequently, Tunisia’s society became increasingly polarized between the secular elite and the more conservative broader public. This became particularly obvious when urbanization exposed many conservative Muslims to the lifestyle of the country’s secularists in the big cities.[21]

The biggest opposition to the secular elite was the Islamist movement Jama`a Islamiyya (The Islamic Group), renamed as the Islamic Tendency Movement in 1981 and then Ennahda in 1989. Although this Islamist movement was only loosely connected to violence,[22] enduring regime suppression and persecution contributed to the split of some of its members and the creation of more violent splinter groups.[23]

Regime suppression culminated in 1991, when the Bab Souika affair provided the Ben Ali government with a pretext to crack down on the entire Islamist movement. The terms “Islamists” and “terrorists” even became interchangeable in many respects within regime circles.[24] Yet the crackdown on Tunisia’s predominantly moderate Islamists only benefited the emergence of more radical interpretations of Islam in Tunisia—although this trend was also due to regional dynamics toward religious radicalism at the time. Ben Ali’s 2003 anti-terrorism laws, which resulted in the arbitrary imprisonment of hundreds of Islamists, some of whom were tortured, further deepened the resentment that many conservative Muslims held toward the regime.[25]

Resurgence of Salafism After the Revolution
Yet it was only after the revolution in 2011 that Tunisia began to suffer from frequent small-scale religiously-motivated violence—this being despite the fact that the majority of ultraconservative Muslims in Tunisia belong to the “scientific Salafists” who reject the use of violence and focus on preaching a “pure” version of Islam. Most of the scientific Salafists are apolitical, but recently some have also decided to join the political game through the creation of the Salafist Reform Front Party, or Jabhat al-Islah.[26] The ultraconservative Hizb-ut-Tahrir party—belonging to the international organization with the same name—was also recently licensed in Tunisia. Similar to the scientific Salafists, Hizb-ut-Tahrir has endorsed non-violence, although some of its leaders have in the past expressed more violent rhetoric. Both ultraconservative groups advocate the establishment of a caliphate, but Jabhat al-Islah favors a gradual national approach to achieve this goal, while Hizb-ut-Tahrir advocates an international Islamic revolution.

While a minority within a minority movement—the number of Salafists is generally estimated at 10,000 in a country of about 10.7 million[27]—Tunisia’s Salafi-jihadis, who are prepared to adopt violence to achieve their goals, have colored the perception of the movement as a whole. Increasingly mixing with jihadists are regular criminals and economically disenchanted people, both of whom share blame for the recent outbreak of violent incidents in Tunisia.[28]

The recent resurgence of Salafism is due to several factors. Most importantly, in 2011 many imprisoned leading Salafist militants charged under the former regime, such as Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (also known as Abu Iyadh), were released from prison.[29] In addition, many exiled ultraconservative Muslims returned to Tunisia following the revolution, such as Shaykh Béchir Ben Hassan, a leader  within Tunisia’s Salafist landscape who has been active in spreading ultraconservative Islam ever since his return to Tunisia. The increased religious liberties in Tunisia’s young democracy have also allowed ultraconservative religious scholars from abroad to come to the country to spread their beliefs. Moreover, enduring economic hardship is an important factor playing in the hands of the Salafists. In some regions, such as Tunisia’s southwest, unemployment stands at almost 30% while youth unemployment is even higher. This increases resentment toward the government, which Salafists can exploit.[30]

There are a number of support facilities that facilitate the spread of Salafism in Tunisia. Mosques taken over by ultraconservatives remain important establishments to increase their influence, although the government has recently managed to retake some of them.[31] According to Tunisian government estimates, radical clerics control from 100-500 mosques out of 5,000 in the country.[32] Some individual imams have also encouraged violence while preaching, such as the imam of the prestigious Zaytouna Mosque who called for the deaths of the artists of the La Marsa arts exhibition before he was deposed by the government.[33]

The Tunisian branch of the jihadist platform Ansar al-Shari`a,[34] founded by Abu Iyadh upon his release from prison, is another important means to organize and direct the Salafist movement. In May 2012, Ansar al-Shari`a staged a mass rally in Kairouan attended by up to 5,000 Salafists.[35] Ansar al-Shari`a has also organized numerous campaigns against blasphemy and encouraged gender segregation.[36] Significantly, the members of the AQIM cell dismantled in December 2012 were all active members of Ansar al-Shari`a, although a direct organizational link between Ansar al-Shari`a and AQIM cannot yet be proven.[37]

In a climate of regional turmoil and the war in Syria, most of Tunisia’s Salafi-jihadis are still looking to other countries to wage jihad, with only small-scale organizational establishments and incidents on Tunisian ground. Recently, Syrian authorities revealed a list containing the identities of 108 foreign jihadist fighters—46 of whom were Tunisians.[38] This indicates that Tunisia’s real challenge still lies ahead—namely, when such fighters return home, trained and potentially armed—increasing the likelihood for the medium- and long-term that Tunisia could become a staging ground for jihadist action. Tunisia’s south and mountainous areas provide a particular fertile ground for the creation of violent cells.[39]

The future threat from Tunisia’s Salafi-jihadis depends on the regime’s response to religiously-motivated violence. Until now, the Ennahda party has stressed the need to engage in dialogue with Tunisia’s ultraconservative Muslims, while arguing that any kind of violence will not be tolerated. Ennahda senior members have repeatedly warned that excluding Salafists from society will only foster further radicalization.[40]

Yet Ennahda’s dialogue-seeking approach has led the regime in many cases to turn a blind eye to small-scale Salafist violence.[41] Only the most important Salafist incidents have evoked regime response: following the attack on the La Marsa arts exhibition, Ennahda senior members stated that Ben Ali’s anti-terrorism laws could be evoked to deal with such attacks.[42] Moreover, the attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis resulted in the imprisonment of 144 people, including two senior members of Ansar al-Shari`a.[43] While in prison, Salafists engaged in a hunger strike that caused the deaths of two members, including one leader.[44]

Such developments only increased the animosity between Ennahda and ultraconservative Muslims, who view Ennahda as an ally of the West and un-Islamic.[45] Despite that, Tunisia’s Salafi-jihadis are likely to continue to benefit from Ennahda’s “soft” approach toward their movement. This is all the more important given that Ennahda is likely to remain one of the most—if not the most—important player in Tunisian politics for years to come.

Anne Wolf is a graduate of Cambridge University specializing in North African affairs. She works in Tunisia as a journalist, researcher and political risk analyst.

[1] In an interview with The World Today, President Marzouki said in reference to the recent Salafist attack on the U.S. Embassy in Tunis: “We [the government] didn’t realise how dangerous and violent these Salafists could be.” For details, see Alan Philps, “Moncef Marzouki on Tunisia and the Struggles of Drafting a New Constitution,” The World Today 68:11 (2012).

[2] “Tunisian Islamists Receiving Weapons from Libya,” al-Monitor, February 15, 2012.

[3] Thomas Joscelyn, “Tunisian Government Arrests al Qaeda Cell Tied to Ansar al Sharia,” The Long War Journal, December 22, 2012; Monia Ghanmi, “Tunisia Foils al-Qaeda Expansion Plan,” Magharebia, December 24, 2012.

[4] “7 Italians, 4 Britons Hurt in Tunisian Hotel Blasts,” Associated Press, August 3, 1987.

[5] The members of Islamic Jihad were arrested and faced the death penalty. See Alison Pargeter, “Radicalisation in Tunisia,” in George Joffe ed., Islamist Radicalisation in North Africa: Politics and Process (New York: Routledge, 2011), p. 79.

[6] Michael Willis, Politics and Power in the Maghreb: Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco from Independence to the Arab Spring (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2012), p. 168.

[7] “Al-Qaeda Claims Tunisia Attack,” BBC, June 23, 2002; “Tunisian President in Djerba to Mark Decade Since Bloody Synagogue Attack,” al-Arabiya, January 6, 2013.

[8] While called “Anti-Terrorism Law on Support of International Efforts against Terrorism and Money Laundering,” certain aspects of the legislation were violating Tunisia’s international obligations as they enabled arbitrary arrests and the prosecutions of political prisoners. For details, see “Universal Periodic Review of Tunisia: Human Rights Watch’s Submission to the Human Rights Council,” Human Rights Watch, April 7, 2008.

[9] Asad Bin al-Furhat was a Tunisian scholar and fighter who led a Muslim army against Sicily in 827.

[10] Pargeter, “Radicalisation in Tunisia.”

[11] Ibid.

[12] “Tunisia Salafis Riot to Protest an Arrest,” Associated Press, May 26, 2012.

[13] “Tunisian Salafis Riot over ‘Insulting’ Art,” Reuters, June 13, 2012.

[14] “Tunisia Death Toll Rises to Four in U.S. Embassy Attack,” Reuters, September 15, 2012.

[15] Scott Shane and Tim Arango, “Turkey Detains 2 in Connection With Killings in Libya,” New York Times, October 5, 2012; “Tunisian Suspect in Attack on U.S. Consulate in Libya Freed,” Associated Press, January 8, 2013.

[16] Joscelyn.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Alison Pargeter, “Localism and Radicalization in North Africa: Local Factors and the Development of Political Islam in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya,” International Affairs 85:5 (2009): p. 1,039.

[19] Alexis Arieff, “Political Transition in Tunisia,” Congressional Research Service, June 18, 2012.

[20] Bourguiba famously appeared on television during Ramadan drinking a glass of orange juice and asking Tunisians to do the same.

[21] Pargeter, “Localism and Radicalization in North Africa: Local Factors and the Development of Political Islam in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya,” p. 1,041.

[22] The 1991 Bab Souika attack was executed by young members of the Ennahda movement, but attempts to link senior members to the attack or other incidents have failed.

[23] For example, Islamic Jihad, which claimed responsibility for the hotel bombings in 1987, is a breakaway faction from the Islamic Tendency Movement.

[24] These details came from the leaked U.S. Embassy cables published by Wikileaks. The cable in question was dated November 29, 2005.

[25]  “Universal Periodic Review of Tunisia: Human Rights Watch’s Submission to the Human Rights Council.”

[26] For details, see Anne Wolf, “New Salafist Party: A Threat to Tunisia’s Democratic Transition?” Middle East Online, August 3, 2012.

[27] “Tunisia Detains 86 After Salafi Islamist Riots over Art Exhibition,” al-Arabiya, June 12, 2012.

[28] Anne Wolf and Raphael Lefevre, “The Demon or the Demonized? Deconstructing ‘Salafism’ in Tunisia,” Open Democracy, June 5, 2012.

[29] Abu Iyadh fought in Afghanistan against the United States before being arrested in Turkey in 2003, from where he was extradited to Tunisia. Having met Usama bin Ladin in 2000 in Kandahar, Abu Iyadh has never denied his ties to al-Qa`ida, although he never belonged to the group. Currently, he is wanted by the Tunisian authorities over the September 2012 U.S. Embassy attack in Tunis. See Louisa Loveluck, “Planting the Seeds of Tunisia’s Ansar al Sharia,” The Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, September 27, 2012.

[30] “Tunisia Races Economic, Social Challenges Amid Historic Transformation,” International Monetary Fund, September 5, 2012.

[31] In November 2012, Religious Affairs Minister Nourredine el-Khadmi stated that approximately 100 mosques are still controlled by the Salafists as compared to 500 earlier in the year. For details, see Antoine Lambroschini, “Tunisia Salafist Chief Calls for Calm, Warns of Explosion,” Agence France-Presse, November 2, 2012.

[32] Ibid.

[33] “Tunisian Artists Call for International Support,” Euromed Audiovisual, June 19, 2012.

[34] While only loosely interlinked, the Ansar al-Shari`a branches in Tunisia and Libya are considered primarily responsible for the U.S. Embassy attacks in both countries. Less well known is that besides such violent activities, both Ansar al-Shari`a branches are increasingly engaged in provisioning social services and organizing events, such as mass gatherings, campaigns against blasphemy and lectures of ultraconservative scholars, although Tunisia’s branch is far more active and geographically spread than Libya’s. For more details, see Aaron Zelin, “Maqdisi’s Disciples in Libya and Tunisia,” The Middle East Channel, Foreign Policy, November 14, 2012.

[35] For details, see Fabio Merone and Francesco Cavatorta, “The Emergence of Salafism in Tunisia,” Jadaliyya, August 17, 2012.

[36] Ibid.

[37] Joscelyn.

[38] “46 ‘terroristes’ tunisiens arrêtés en Syrie,” Business News, October 21, 2012.

[39] Tunisian authorities have found it difficult to control the large desert areas in the south and the mountainous regions close to the border. Already the members of the Suleiman Group used Tunisia’s mountains to establish camps and to hold weapons training. Most recently, some suspects linked to the Militia of Uqba Ibn Nafaa managed to escape to Jebel Chambi, Tunisia’s highest mountain.

[40] For details, see Erik Churchill and Aaron Zelin, “A Balancing Act: Ennahda’s Struggle with Salafis,” Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, April 19, 2012.

[41] For example, when a group of Salafists attacked protesters who expressed solidarity for the owner of Nassma TV, Nabil Karoui, no action was taken against the attackers. For details, see Roberta Lusardi, “Tunisia’s Islamists: Ennahda and the Salafis,” Middle East Policy Council, May 8, 2012.

[42] “Tunisia Rioters to be Charged Under Anti-Terror Law,” al-Arabiya, June 12, 2012.

[43] “Tunisia Jails Salafist Leader in U.S. Embassy Attack for One Year,” Reuters, October 24, 2012.

[44] “Tunisia Govt Faces Dilemma over Islamist Hunger Strikes,” al-Arabiya, November 20, 2012.

[45] “Tunisia Jails Salafist Leader in U.S. Embassy Attack for One Year.”

Stay Informed

Sign up to receive updates from CTC.

Sign up