North Africa, West Asia

Further notes on the evolution of the jihadi international movement

The Islamic State project is finding some consensus in countries where political deadlock reduces our social lives to a primordial level. Social and economic frustration stays at an all-time high level, even in a country like Tunisia.

Fabio Merone
6 April 2015
Tunisian police investigate Bardo museum attack.

Tunisian police investigate Bardo museum attack. Demoted/Chedly ben Ibrahim. All rights reserved.The jihadi attack at the museum of Bardo on March 18 marks a new stage in the developing turmoil in the MENA region. In particular, concerns have been expressed on the evolving impact of Islamic State through the region up to the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. The situation is far from clear, the impression being that the local political deadlock which is evident in Libya, Egypt, Syria and Tunisia may be a propitious context for the further penetration of extremist jihadi cells espousing the caliphate of al-Baghdadi.

As for the situation in Tunisia, several violent events marked the post-revolutionary period, notably the political assassination of the two leftist leaders, Mohamed Brahami and Choukri Bel Aid. The ideological polarization of the political scene made these events appear more like a polemical intervention than a comprehensive frame for real threats but this made the dynamic even more confusing. Some new elements, however, have emerged in these recent days that help to clarify some of the mysteries of the Tunisian transition, with special regard to the emergence of a jihadi threat. I will try to make sense of the general situation arising from the latest jihadi statements.

The first source is from the Ifriqiyya website, considered close to the AQMI-linked Okba Ibn nefaa, responsible for attacks against the Tunisian army over the last two years. In a long document of twenty pages released on March 29, they seem to challenge the declaration by the Tunisian security services that they had eliminated the leadership of the group in a recent operation in Sidi Aicha (Gafsa) during which 9 armed jihadi were said to have been killed. What is most important in this document is that they claim to be part of Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, and at one and the same time to be supporting the cause of the caliphate and stressing the will to create a new wilaya (region) of the caliphate in Tunisia.

It is fairly clear that Okba Ibn Nefaa (like AQMI in general) is part of the Islamic State nexus, if not formally with a clear pledge of loyalty, certainly in the type of operation, the choice of objective (targeting the Tunisian state) and in its general political aim, the implementation of a caliphate. This gives credence to the thesis that AQMI is merging into the general IS trend, probably through its experience of Jihad in Tunisia.  On the other hand, the evidence that Okba Ibn Nafaa is developing into a local Tunisian operator is very clear from the general tone of the statement. We get the distinct impression of Tunisians talking to Tunisians about Tunisia. After evaluating the number of people at the demonstration against terrorism, counting about 20,000 people and reacting with some precision to each public declaration concerning the Bardo attack, they conclude that Tunisians are however waiting for the coming of the Islamic State because they hate politicians, the corruption and social injustice of the state. This last statement has become a common argument in many working class areas of Tunisia, with people speculating that Islamic State might install a more basic tax system and a much freer social system.

The second document that seems interesting is the interview that appeared in the IS review, Dabiq (n.8) with Abu Muqatil al-Tunisi, alleged killer of Mohamed Brahami, one of two political leaders assassinated in July 2013. It is not sure whether he is really telling the truth. But if we presume that this is so, we get some interesting clarifications of past events.

  1. He is saying that the assassinations aimed at creating chaos, according to the famous jihadi thesis, translated into English as “the management of savagery”. This book theorizes that in such situations, similar to the ones produced in many countries during the Arab Spring, a political assassination can precipitate political contradictions into a situation of all against all, in which an Islamic vanguard can push forward to an Islamic state seen as a solution and accepted by the population.
  2. The strategy failed because the other Islamist groups would not buy into it.
  3. The group that executed both the operations seem to be extremist jihadi elements, radicalised by their past experiences in prison and without any clear link to any organization.
  4. Libya provided a training camp and easy supply of arms to accomplish such operations.
  5. With respect to the Bardo operations, he praises those executing them and hoped that there would be further instances of people emulating them, but did not make any reference to a group that organized it.

I repeat we can’t be sure this is the truth, but at least this narrative has the advantage of linking several points of analysis. Joined in this fashion they help us grasp the logic behind past, present and future developments on the ground.

The Arab Spring that started in Tunisia at the beginning of 2011 was the culmination of the challenge to several regimes, in particular the Tunisian, Libyan and (in part of the territory) the Syrian. Setting aside the very specific case of Syria, for Libya and Tunisia further consequences were the weakening of state institutions and an increase in outlaw activities, together with a period of intense contention and an ideological vacuum, typical of any situation of transition.

Thanks to such factors, the public were radicalized and for some this took the shape of a radical Islamization. In fact, the public space had been opened up to several political and non-political agencies, but first and foremost, to the Islamists. Alongside an older generation of Islamists (from the Muslim Brotherhood ideological family), who wanted to govern and were interested in advancing a position of moderation, radical Islamic actors became Salafists, representing a new generation that was more radical and less disposed to compromise. Most of this conflict seemed to get absorbed into a process of contention, radical but mostly not violent, that was  keen to form alliances with social actors on the ground. In Tunisia, as in Libya, the new Salafist brand, Ansar al-sharia, was positioned somewhere between the Muslim Brotherhood and more takfirist (radical) elements.

More radical jihadi elements were also lingering behind the scenes. As was the situation in Tunisia, described by abu Muqatil in this interview, we get the sense that takfirist elements acted covertly, without really trying to merge in the process of public contention taking place, but only planning obsessively their apocalyptic plans for the realization of an Islamic state.

Of the two trends of the jihadi movement, we may say that Ansar al-sharia and Jebahat al-Nusra make politics, having a realistic vision of their political goal, while the others are purely ‘revolutionary’ and seem obsessed by a literal application of what they see as the Quranic precepts. These elements are a part of the Salafi-jihadi movement, and are easily distinguished in the same environment from the other types and factions. They have a more urgent apocalyptic vision of the world: which is why I distinguish them by calling the former, radical Islamists (or Salafists) and the latter  ‘apocalyptic jihadis’.  

While it is not completely correct to say that the IS group is totally ‘apocalyptic’ (they are in an advanced stage of state-building), we can say that they are a new generation of jihadi, completely obsessed by the jihad per se. The references to the Quranic verses of Jihad are a constant stream, while the other groups advocate a changing evaluation of the situation in the field. They magnify martyrdom and encourage it, while the others avoid suicide operations, for example. Ansar al-Sharia and Jabahat al-Nusra have joined the Islamic fronts in a national fight while the others fight for their own goals without any political calculation, seeing world conquest as the final stage.

Understanding the differences within the international jihadi movement gives us a key to elaborate a counter-strategy. Any response to the international expansion of IS requires a good policy that proceeds according to certain guidelines. First, avoid as best one may the exposure of the western countries to any military action (this is exactly what an apocalyptic vision requires - the battle between good and evil). Second, keep a low profile, avoiding big rhetorical declarations; focus instead on an intelligent counter-terrorism action that limits the interventions to specific targets in the apocalyptic camp. Third, leave local actors to deal with these tensions; then it is their own contradictions that they have to deal with. Fourth, push for a political solution to each aspect of the crisis which gives the IS strategy its support. Five, deal justly in those international issues (like Palestine/Israel) that make Arab countries frustrated vis à vis western policy.

In conclusion, the Islamic State project is finding some consensus in countries where political deadlock reduces our social lives to a primordial level. Social and economic frustration stays at an all-time high level, even in a country like Tunisia, where the political evolution of the Arab Spring did not bring that change expected in our material lives. Political tension, due mainly to ideological polarization within society has given way to the logic of confrontation. The radical Islamic solution of the Islamic State has some attractions under these conditions. However the apocalyptic vision of the world and the brutal means of action designed to achieve it are despised by most people. Besides that, those groups fail in any politically realistic evaluation. They are doomed to fail. It is just a matter of time. What is important though is to make their failure the consequence of the struggle of their own people, instead of that ‘evil’ Western imperial intervention.

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