Early in his new book, Your Sons Are At Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad, The Washington Institute’s Aaron Zelin quotes a pair of sociologists who note that ‘where theories are plentiful … ideas are vacuous’. The book is in many ways the antithesis of this approach. It is not without theoretical content; where social movement theory arises as a means of understanding jihadism, say, the author gives an overview of the literature to contextualise it for the reader. But the general approach is historical, empirical, and detail-rich, so that by the time Zelin summarises his findings in the various sections there can be no doubt about the evidentiary basis.
The book traces the development of Islamism and jihadism in Tunisia. The fact that there is a jihadi trend in Tunisia was something of a surprise even to some Tunisians in the aftermath of the revolution in 2011, the first domino of the ‘Arab Spring’. It was even more surprising for Westerners whose common image of Tunisia is as a secularised country. This is reinforced by the encounter most have with the country — usually as tourists in the major urban and coastal centres. As Zelin explains, the reality is far more complicated.
First, Habib Bourguiba, Tunisia’s ruler from 1957 until 1987, while often viewed as being in the mould of Turkey’s militantly secular founder Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, had waged the anticolonial struggle against the French in religious terms. This need not be a contradiction: as Taner Akcam has pointed out, Atatürk’s nationalist project was ‘fundamentally defined by religion’ when he waged war against the Allied occupation of Turkey, and he came to power on that basis — before he swept away the caliphate. Bourguiba, however, in contrast to Atatürk, conceived of himself as a religious leader, rather than someone deliberately curtailing Islam. Even after Bourguiba’s aggressive secularising reforms began, eliminating ‘basic aspects of Islam from daily life’, as Zelin describes it, and famously scandalising the faithful by drinking orange juice on television during Ramadan, he ‘truly believed he was establishing a Tunisian and republican Islam’.
Second, many Tunisians remained devoutly Muslim. The resistance of Islam to secularisation is a phenomenon of its own, one Bourguiba had to contend with as he was disestablishing Islam from the legal code. The struggle was especially acute in the education field and perhaps above all else on the matter of women’s rights. It is notable that the same issue, around the same time, caused immense trouble elsewhere in the region. In 1963, rioting erupted in Burayda, Saudi Arabia, when the government tried to open a girls school. The same year, in Iran, the Shah faced a full-fledged revolt over a series of reforms known collectively as the ‘White Revolution’, a central aspect of which was female legal equality and social empowerment. The Shah’s prime minister, Asadollah Alam, acted decisively to suppress the rebellion, yet could not stop its instigator, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, attaining from these events the status of leader of the opposition, even after he went into exile.
It was in this context that Tunisia’s Islamist movement took shape and modelled itself mostly from the Jamaat al-Tabligh (or Tablighi Jamaat, JT), a group focused more on proselytising (dawa) than politics. The grand old man of Tunisian Islamism, Rashid al-Ghannushi was intimately involved in this nucleus, having encountered the JT in Paris in 1966-7. Al-Ghannushi had earlier contact with the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimeen), probably the most constitutionally-minded branch of the Ikhwan at that time.
Zelin lays out the phases through which al-Ghannushi and his allies developed. Holding their orientation as a social movement until the early 1970s, the movement expanded and was radicalised by clashes, on campus and in the streets, with the Left. In 1979, having witnessed the Iranian revolution, the movement took an explicitly political turn. The fall of the Shah and the rise of an Islamic Republic was an inspiration for Islamists everywhere, including the current leader of Al-Qaeda. It proved that pro-Western leaders could be toppled, that Islamists could take power, and that populations could be mobilised behind the project. Khomeini’s triumph ‘shows us the awakening has come’, as al-Ghannushi put it.
The Tunisian Islamists, operating since 1972 under the name al-Jamaat al-Islamiyya (JI), registered as a political party, the Islamic Tendency Movement (MTI), which would later become Harakat al-Nahda and form the first elected government after the revolution. An interesting dynamic that Zelin highlights is that, despite three rounds of increasingly harsh repression in the 1980s, the ability of Tunisia’s Islamists to participate in the political process delayed their involvement in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet occupation. This gives the Tunisian jihadists a distinct history. Bourguiba’s replacement, Zeen al-Abedeen Ben Ali, initially showed some leniency, but a showdown over elections in 1989, partly influenced by and partly foreshadowing events in Algeria, saw the Islamist movement mostly banished from the country and the remnants went into prison or underground.
During the Ben Ali era, the Islamists initially tried violence: al-Ghannushi’s movement always had a clandestine military wing and this was reactivated. The military strategy would fizzle in Tunisia itself. By 1996, Harakat al-Nahda had ceased to be able to operate in the country and, realising the Ben Ali system would not be removed by force, returned to its peaceful platform, forging links with other Tunisian oppositionists outside the country. But the jihadists gained experience in many other places.
For various reasons, the collaborative effort of the Iranian theocracy and Al-Qaeda to support the Bosnian government during the 1992-5 war is often downplayed, when not outright denied. But Bosnia was a crucible for the Tunisian jihadists, making Al-Qaeda into a truly global network. Tunisians were particularly notable as facilitators and recruiters for the Bosnian jihad, and Zelin lays out the dizzying cast of characters who, in the absence of a viable path to power in their homeland, threw themselves into this struggle. Tunisian jihadists were particularly salient at the logistics hub in Milan under Anwar Shaban, an Egyptian who (at least aspired to) play the role for Bosnia that Abdullah Azzam had in Afghanistan.
The same pattern held for Algeria, which spiralled into civil war after the military cancelled the elections. Alongside Italy, other external hubs, notably London, came into play, and Tunisians once again had central roles. Jihadi cleric Umar Othman (Abu Qatada al-Filistini) was the leading champion of the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in its fight with the Algerian regime, and at his side in ‘Londonistan’ was Sayfallah Ben Hassine (Abu Iyad al-Tunisi), the leader after the revolution of the main jihadi group back home, Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia (AST).
Zelin documents the intimate connection the Tunisian jihadists had to foreign terrorism. They were tied up to the Bojinka plot, a mid-1990s precursor to the 9/11 massacre, and had various connections to the GIA’s operations in France, though the latter is complicated by an aspect undiscussed in the book, namely the deep infiltration of the GIA networks by Algeria’s secret police, the Department of Intelligence and Security (DRS), who pushed GIA to ever-greater extremism in order to discredit them. These European networks involving the Tunisians would become even more salient in the early 2000s. They were involved in Al-Qaeda’s immediate post-9/11 attacks campaign — against the synagogues in Istanbul in November 2003 and the trains in Madrid in March 2004, among others. Then, a decade later, the networks in Turkey, robust long before they could be blamed on the Islamist sympathies of the president, were adapted for the foreign fighter flow to Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) in Syria.
Within Tunisia, the landscape was shifting and the Islamists found new issues and new opportunities. The ‘Al-Aqsa Intifada’, the Palestinian terrorist campaign against Israel beginning in 2000; the Iraq invasion of 2003 and the foreign fighter mobilisation; the satellite channels with figures like Yusuf al-Qaradawi and other tele-preachers — all made their mark on the Tunisians. A Salafist movement was building alongside the more established Islamist current, and Zelin explains that the Tunisian Salafis disproportionately fell into the jihadi stream. Again, this is surprising for those who think of Tunisia as a secular country, but it links very much to the heavy Tunisian involvement in supporting the GIA even after its use of takfir (excommunication, for which the penalty is death) became vast and indiscriminate. A valuable section of the book explains the forgotten events of December 2006 and January 2007, when Tunisia had one of its few jihadi insurgencies, led by a group called Jund Asad bin al-Furat (‘Sulayman Group’).
With Ben Ali’s downfall in January 2011, al-Ghannushi was able to return to Tunisia after 22 years in London and Al-Qaeda, through its ‘Islamic Maghreb’ affiliate (AQIM), made its move, assisted by the release of a number of jihadists in January and February 2011 as part of the amnesties for ‘political prisoners’. Later, when many of these people joined IS, there would be claims from Al-Qaeda-aligned forces that the Tunisian government had released these extremists as part of an effort to sully and divide the opposition — a conspiracy that actually did happen in Syria and Libya, as Zelin notes. But in Tunisia, this was a self-serving untruth from the jihadists. The interim government, bereft of legitimacy and capacity, besieged by an angry population that had conquered its fear and put the dictator to flight, committed to what Zelin calls its ‘original sin’ — releasing the jihadist ‘political prisoners’ — because it had no choice.
AST was the main jihadi movement in Tunisia and most of the book is given to charting the group’s rise and fall. Set up as a front group during Al-Qaeda’s rebranding efforts, Zelin tracks the disagreements that AST ended up having with its mother branch, AQIM, as the interests, local versus regional, diverged. AST took on the lessons of the IS movement’s failure in the mid-2000s, and made allowances for Tunisia’s individual circumstances. The AST programme — harking all the way back to al-Ghannushi’s Tablighi-influenced efforts four decades earlier — was a dawa-first enterprise. Zelin covers in some detail the Al-Qaeda correspondence, between AQIM and other branches with the ‘centre’, learning lessons from this experiment. AST was assisted by a ‘soft touch’ understanding with Harakat al-Nahda, which rather admired AST and thought it could reason with it. This provided for the jihadi movement a unique moment of openness in Tunisian history — until August 2013 when AST was designated as a terrorist organisation and effectively shut down.
In the brief period from the spring of 2011 to the summer of 2013, AST pioneered something like a reboot of the jihadi movement, and not just for Al-Qaeda’s wing of it. The online outreach AST engaged in, the overt messaging on Facebook and other social media platforms, and the offline, street-level attempt to build (and enforce) a parallel state by engaging with communities that the official state could not reach were all picked up in various ways by other actors later. Zelin argues persuasively that AST was a victim of its own success in two senses.
On the one hand, the prominence and power AST had gained for itself meant that it was too much to manage internally, and the carefully-sequenced stages of jihad Abu Iyad envisioned broke down as young radicals and others jumped the gun. This brought about the external complications with AST’s success: greater scrutiny, particularly after the attack on the US Embassy in Tunis in September 2012 — an episode forgotten amid the controversy to the east in Benghazi, but which could have been orders of magnitude more lethal. AST had attracted American attention and then threw caution to the wind, assassinating several Leftist politicians and adopting a confrontational stance with Harakat al-Nahda. By the spring of 2013, AST had sealed its fate and several months later the formal decision was taken. For Tunisian jihadism, it was back to normal as their activities would be mostly conducted outside the country.
The methods of AST were tried by Al-Qaeda’s affiliates in Somalia, Yemen, and Mali — all of them drawing directly on AST’s experience, as the book lays out. The other Ansar al-Shari’a branches, notably in Libya, did the same. And IS ‘succeeded’ in bringing its state out of the shadows, not only in the ‘Syraq’ area but in next-door Libya, assisted by Tunisians like Bubakr al-Hakim, a legacy jihadist from the Iraq conflict of a decade earlier, who had been within AST and involved in the assassination of the Leftist politicians, before he defected to IS and acted, inter alia, as one of its guides for external terrorism.
Zelin covers in an in-depth, yet digestible way, the intricacies of the final split between Al-Qaeda and IS in early 2014, and how that played out among Tunisian jihadists. A point he emphasises, which can be forgotten now because we know how the story ends, is just how ambiguous things were up to 2013. IS was already on the rise by late 2010, receiving up to 250 foreign fighters per month, quite a number of them Tunisian. As an aside, Zelin’s documentation on the matter of the Tunisian foreign fighters is definitive. The quantity and granularity of the data — the numbers that went and where, names, motivations, activities — is simply extraordinary, and what could be a rather dry statistical exercise is presented in the most readable format.
The book draws two implications from the IS foreign fighter outflow having begun before the revolution: first, that many of the problems arising since the revolution vis-à-vis the foreign fighter flow with the jihadists were probably in train anyway in some form, and, second, links with IS would not have raised any red flags for Al-Qaeda’s local loyalists, hence Al-Hakim’s known history with the group did not exclude him from AST. It was in this context that Abu Iyad miscalculated horrendously.
Abu Iyad refused to speak out against IS, and welcomed its members, like Turki al-Binali, to preach in the country and to AST’s members. Abu Iyad even sent a letter to Al-Qaeda’s leader in mid-2013 — leaked three years later to combat a polemic by Ahmad Abousamra, the highest-ranking American there has been in IS — calling for reconciliation. Though Abu Iyad realised his mistake within six weeks, it was, as Zelin explains, too late. Many in AST had concluded that the dawa-first strategy had run its course, that IS had the answer — and under AST’s nose, IS had set up the networks that allowed them to transfer to the ‘caliphate’.
Proving that history never goes away, the echoes of the Tunisian involvement with GIA would make themselves heard once the Tunisians were within IS in Syria and Iraq. The Tunisians became notable members of the ‘ultra-extremist’ Hazimi wing of IS that has, largely, been suppressed. (Ironically, the Hazimi bête noire was Al-Binali.) Zelin’s gut-wrenching chapter on the Tunisian ‘contribution’ to IS evinces their role in innovating new ways to murder people and their involvement in some of the group’s worst crimes, including sex slavery.
Tunisian jihadists, now outside their country again, have taken up insurgency in the surrounding states in Africa and recommenced their role in terrorism in Europe and beyond. Zelin has as much detail as anyone could hope for — a blow-by-blow account — of the Tunisian involvement in IS in Tunisia itself, in Libya, in the Levant, and in the Sahel and with Al-Qaeda after the terrorism designation. It is notable that these new-old areas of operations for the Tunisians, like Libya, have served as springboards for attacks further afield — the 2016 Christmas market attack in Germany prominent among them.
Predictions might be difficult, especially about the future, but in closing Zelin offers some carefully considered trendlines to watch.
In numerous places in the region over the years, one has heard the accusation, variously in tones of admiration and reproach, that Tunis dumped its misfits abroad with IS while they got on with the transition to democracy. Zelin acquits the Tunisian government of this, but nonetheless points out that Tunisia has not handled the foreign fighter problem very well — neither preventing them getting abroad nor dealing with them afterwards. There is little political will, even from Harakat al-Nahda, to take these people back, and little infrastructure to cope with them if they returned. The prison systems of the Middle East are notorious as incubators of the jihadi malady, and Zelin gives an itemised view of the way this is true in Tunisia. The Tunisian prisons inter alia helped the jihadists make the connections for the AST experiment, and in the next phase these establishments will be where key networks take shape.
In the contest between IS and Al-Qaeda as represented by Katibat Uqba bin Nafi (KUBN), IS has the decisive advantage, Zelin concludes. IS can draw on a nostalgic narrative for its ‘achievements’, while Tunisians have experienced KUBN as little more than brigands. There is also the fact that Tunisia’s Salafists are disproportionately jihadi in nature, a fact Zelin ensures readers are reminded of, as he does throughout the book — reinforcing evidence and argument without being repetitive. The instability in Algeria and Libya, escalating in both places, will feed into the future trajectory of Tunisia’s jihadist movement.
Others have emphasised the variety and scope of Zelin’s sources, and the bibliography is a treasure trove for anyone interested in this subject. Even so, he is modest in his forecasting what comes next. Zelin’s book is the essential foundation for anybody trying to assess the Jihadi Question in Tunisia, but that limited scope does not mean the question — and the answers — are of significance only for Tunisia.