Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia (AST) may have begun to operate under the name of Shabab al-Tawhid following the group’s terrorist designation.
The group’s leader is Seifallah Ben Hussein, who is referred to as Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi. He has been the leader since his release from prison in 2011. Al-Tunisi fought in Afghanistan in the late 1980s, and became a top Al Qaida lieutenant by 2001. Following the revolution in 2011, al-Tunisi was released from prison in Tunisia and immediately formed AST. He is currently in hiding due to the group’s terrorist status in Tunisia, and is believed to be in Libya.
Kamel Zarrouk has been identified as an important leader and potential ‘second-in-command.’ It is believed in 2014 he fled Tunisia and reportedly travelled to Syria to fight alongside IS.
Shaikh Khattab Idriss is one of the most influential Salafi clerics in Tunisia. There are conflicting reports on his involvement with AST, or lack thereof. At the very least is has promoted the group at events, and certainly served a spiritual guide and leader for the organization.
AST has attracted a large membership base through its commitment to Dawa (charity in the name of Islam). This has allowed the group’s members to participate in a variety of ways, from joining military operations, teaching, religious lecturing, or promoting Salafi ideology in their communities.
Estimates in 2012 has placed the groups membership in the neighbourhood of 30,000 to 50,000. For many of the individuals, membership simply means promoting Salafi ideology through lectures, charity and publications. The largest portion of AST’s members are not involved in violence and are organized around the pursuit of Dawa.
AST’s funding for the organization comes from several different sources, private Tunisian donors, Saudi and Kuwaiti donors, and through its work with Tunisian Sunni groups it accepts religious-based donations.
The creation of AST has its origins in the Tunisian Prison where Abu Iyadh al-Tunisi was being held in 2006. He along with twenty other Islamist prisoners from various other groups conceptualized the group. After the revolution in 2011, the prisoners were freed and began to build the group that would become AST.
AST quickly gathered support from Shaikh Khattab Idriss and began to meet with the al-Nahda political party, although the two would later separate when al-Nahda took power. The group began to establish a public relations system, creating a Facebook page and the ‘al-Qayrawan Media Foundation’ that helped AST to grow to between 30,000 to 50,000 members.
The group does occasionally engage in violent activities in Tunisia, however, it has never claimed responsibility for any attacks. The Tunisian government has implicated the group in multiple suicide bombings and small arms attacks.
Following the implication of involvement in various attacks, the government cracked down and designated the group a terrorist organization. AST was force to reduce its operations, including its Dawa practices, and maintains a minimal presence in events, social media and operations. The designation also forced al-Tunisi into hiding, who proclaimed that the designation was an ‘honour,’ and had shown the ‘goodness’ of the path AST had taken. From hiding, al-Tunisi proclaimed that the group was loyal to Al Qaida, IS and called for the cooperation of jihadi groups.
AST is a large scale organization that combines Dawa principles of community service, teaching, proselytizing, and to a lesser degree, violence. AST promotes Salafi ideology in Tunisia and is separate from the Ansar al-Sharia organizations in Libya and Yemen.
It is important to note, that AST has never claimed responsibility for an attack, instead the Tunisian government has attributed a number of suicide bombings and armed attacks to the group.
February 2013: Leftist, secular politician Chokri Belaid was shot and killed, creating political turmoil in the government. Tunisian authorities later implicated Ansar al-Shariah in the assassination. (1 killed)
July 2013: Another left-wing politician, Mohamed Brahmi, was assassinated. The Tunisian government linked Ansar al-Shariah and the earlier assassination of Chokri Belaid to the murder and subsequently designated Ansar al-Shariah as a terrorist organization. (1 killed)
October 30, 2013: Two suicide bombers targeted a hotel beach in Sousse. Only one detonated his bomb, and he was the only casualty. Five Ansar al-Shariah members were arrested in connection with the bombing. (1 killed)
September 14, 2014: Abu Iyadh organized riots and looting against the U.S. Embassy and a nearby American school in Tunis following the attack on the embassy in Benghazi. (4 killed, unknown wounded)
AST is a supporter of Al Qaida ideology, promoting Jihad and Salafi ideas. AST takes a less violent approach to the ideas in the hopes of bringing more Tunisians to Islam, specifically AST’s interpretation of it.
Despite their alignment with Al Qaida ideology, the organization primarily focuses on local recruitment and Dawa activities. AST typically sets up lectures from prominent Salafi clerics and passes out mainstream Salafi literature. It also passes out information and news relating to the global jihad.
Some AST members have gone on to fight as foreign fighters for Jihadist groups abroad, although a large portion of the membership are dedicated to providing food, medicine, clothing in acts of charity. These acts are part genuine, and part designed to attract others to AST’s particular Salafi brand of Sunni Islam.
The group’s objective is to support the global Jihadist movement. This includes promoting Salafi ideology in Tunisia and recruiting people to join AST’s membership.
AST practices what it believes is a less violent Jihadist movement. The group hopes to use these practices to recruit more Tunisians to follow the Salafi Jihadist goals. Although it does proclaim to support both Al Qaida and IS in their goals and aims, it has remained self-contained within Tunisia.
AST takes a different approach than typical terrorist organizations, focusing on charitable works and Islamic education. It has not claimed responsibility for any attacks, although a few attacks have been attributed to the group by the Tunisian government. Suicide bombings and small arms are what has been used in the attacks that are being attributed to AST. These attacks are targeted towards government forces, religious sites, and groups or places representing Western influence like tourists and tourist destinations. Additionally, AST members are frequently involved in riots or demonstrations, including the attack on the US Embassy in Tunis.
There is currently no evidence available that demonstrates any coordination between AST and the similarly named groups in Libya and Yemen.
Updated on December 4, 2015.
- “Ansar al-Shariah (Tunisia).” Mapping Militant Organizations. Stanford University. Last Modified March 10, 2015. Accessed December 4, 2015. https://web.stanford.edu/group/mappingmilitants/cgi-bin/groups/view/547#summary
- “Attack Type-Ansar al-Sharia (Tunisia).” Global Terrorism Database. Accessed December 4, 2015. http://www.start.umd.edu/gtd/search/Results.aspx?chart=attack&search=ansar%20al%20sharia%20tunisia&count=100
- Petré, Christine. “How Ansar al-Sharia grew in post-revolutionary Tunisia.” The Middle East Monitor. Last Modified March 11, 2015. Accessed December 4, 2015. https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/articles/africa/17448-how-ansar-al-sharia-grew-in-post-revolutionary-tunisia
- Zelin, Aaron Y. “Meeting Tunisia’s Ansar al-Sharia.” Foreing Policy. Last Modified March 8, 2013. Accessed December 3, 2013. http://foreignpolicy.com/2013/03/08/meeting-tunisias-ansar-al-sharia/