Following the Arab Spring, many Islamists and Salafi-jihadis who had been imprisoned under the toppled regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya were set free, and their voice, which had been harshly suppressed by those regimes, suddenly became an integral part of the political and social spheres. Social media, primarily Facebook and YouTube, became the Salafis' main outlets for conveying their messages and ideas. Such outlets have allowed them to actively participate, though at first only online, in the events unfolding in their countries.
This report focuses on two prominent Islamists who emerged in Tunisia following its Jasmine Revolution, the organization that they formed, and their messages and positions on several key events in post-revolution Tunisia.
The Tunisian Sheikhs
Sheikh Abu Iyadh Al-Tunisi
According to his Facebook fan page, Sheikh Abu Iyadh (also spelled Ayadh), aka Sayfullah bin Hussein, is a veteran of the jihad [against U.S. troops] in Afghanistan, and has studied with prominent radical Salafi-jihadi cleric Abu Qatada. Abu Iyadh was among the Arab mujahideen who fought alongside the Taliban in 2001; his final battle prior to leaving Afghanistan for Pakistan was in Jalalabad. At that time, according to his Facebook page, Abu Iyadh was wanted in several countries, including Tunisia, the U.K., and Turkey. He was arrested in Turkey [in 2003] and repatriated to Tunisia, where he was sentenced to 43 years in prison. Abu Iyadh was released from prison in early March 2011, after serving eight years of his sentence.
Not much is known about Abu Iyadh prior to his emergence on the post-revolutionary Tunisian scene. Cageprisoners states that he was born in Tunisia in November 1965, that he was forced to flee his country in 1987 following a wave of arrests of militants in the students' movement, that he studied law in Oujda, Morocco, and that together with his wife, a Moroccan, he went to the U.K. and requested political asylum. It adds that Abu Iyadh has three children, Fida, Muhammad and Hanin.
Reports, presumably emanating from the interrogations of several Guantanamo detainees, give further information on the activities of Abu Iyadh (who is also referred to in them as Sayfullah bin Hussein). The reports describe him as the former leader of the terrorist Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), aka Groupe Combattant Tunisien. Abu Iyadh was believed to be responsible for the so-called Jalalabad guesthouse, where Tunisians arriving to participate in the jihad alongside Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were hosted.
Abu Iyadh's Facebook makes no mention of his role as a founder and former leader of the TCG, which was formed in 2000 by Abu Iyadh/Sayfullah bin Hussein and Tarek Maaroufi. Maaroufi was involved in providing forged Belgian passports to the assassins of Ahmed Shah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance, who was killed two days before 9/11. The TCG became a designated terrorist group in 2002.
In 2001, several Tunisians were identified as belonging to an Al-Qaeda network in Europe. Italian authorities reported that a certain Sayfullah bin Hussein was the Tunisians' ringleader.
Abu Iyadh Eulogizes Bin Laden
After the killing of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, Abu Iyadh eulogized him at a prayer service. He said that like the deaths of other Muslim leaders, bin Laden's death would not stop the cause for which he died: "Let the entire world celebrate the death of one of our Ummah's leaders…since the death and martyrdom of our leaders for the sake of this straight path… is an indication of the truthfulness of our way."
Abu Iyadh added that the death of bin Laden, as that of other "brothers and leaders" such as Abu Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi and Abu Omar [Al-Baghdadi] should increase the steadfastness of the Muslim youth in supporting their religion. Calling upon Muslims to unite following bin Laden's death, Abu Iyadh said: "This is the allegiance, and that is the promise to Allah – do not regress after the death of your sheikh [i.e. bin Laden], or the deaths of your leaders. Remain steadfast – and die for [the same cause] for which the best among you died…"
Sheikh Abu Ayyoub Al-Tunisi
Not much is known about Abu Ayyoub's activity prior to the Tunisian revolution. According to one of his Facebook fan pages, the 30-year-old Sheikh Abu Ayyoub Al-Tunisi (aka Salim "Al-Qantari" Abu Ahmad Ayyoub) left Tunisia in 2008 for France, after being persecuted by the regime of president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. However, he was later forced to leave France and return to Tunisia.
Abu Ayyoub voiced pro-jihadi rhetoric on several occasions. In a video posted online in October 2011, Abu Ayyoub is seen speaking to a group of men in a mosque, in what appears to be a spontaneous Q&A session. One person asks him to comment about the claim made against bin Laden [and Al-Qaeda as a whole] of killing innocent people, to which Abu Ayyoub says: "According to Islamic jurisprudence, there is no such thing as an innocent person… in jurisprudence books, there are no innocents, we have only a Muslim or an infidel… and we are obligated to fight the combatant infidel." He adds: "Osama bin Laden did not kill Muslims… [it was stated that he did so only because] today, the media is controlled by the Jews. What do the Jews do?" The group answered in unison, "They distort..."
The Sheikhs Join Forces
Following the revolution, Sheikhs Abu Iyadh Al-Tunisi and Abu Ayyoub Al-Tunisi apparently joined forces, forming what became known as the Ansar Al-Shari'a in Tunisia (AST). But a few months later, their merger was in question, when Abu Ayyoub apparently left the group.
The AST and the QMF
Ansar Al-Shari'a in Tunisia (AST)
Established following the Jasmine Revolution, the AST began as a Salafi group. The group, through its leaders Abu Iyadh and Abu Ayyoub, spread its message in mosques and streets throughout Tunisia, at public rallies and demonstrations (see below), and online, through its Facebook page. It also came to be associated with the Al-Qayrawan Media Foundation (QMF).
Left, the AST's initial emblem , right, its updated emblem
Al-Qayrawan Media Foundation (QMF)
The QMF maintains an online blog and a Facebook page. On January 1, 2012, the QMF opened an accredited account on the jihadi forum Shumoukh Al-Islam. At the same time, it announced on its Facebook page that its Shumoukh account would be the only trusted source for disseminating its da'wa-related content, whereas its Facebook page would be used for uploading content and releasing its statements.
The QMF had an online presence prior to its "official" January 2012 Shumoukh Al-Islam forum debut; its formation was announced in the first post on its new blog on April 27, 2011. To date, however, there have been only 17 posts on that blog, with the most recent dated July 1, 2011. They include a press release by the AST, sermons and lectures by various Salafi clerics and individuals such as Al-Khatib Al-Idrisi, Munir Al-Tunisi, Abu Al-Wafa' Al-Tunisi, Abu Iyadh Al-Tunisi, and Abu Ayyoub Al-Tunisi; and a fatwa by Salafi-jihadi cleric Abu Al-Mundhir Al-Shinqiti.
On January 3, 2012, the QMF released what it said was the first issue of its series of biographies of "martyrs," Shuhada Ard Al-Qayrawan ("Martyrs of Al-Qayrawan"). The series bears a great resemblance, in both presentation and content, to the Shuhada Al-Jazira ("Martyrs of the Arabian Peninsula") series, which is produced by Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) media wing Al-Malahim.
Left, cover of QMF series of martyrs' biographies; right, cover of AQAP series of martyrs' biographies.
AST on Facebook
In contrast to the clear, pro-jihad message on the QMF Facebook page, the AST's Facebook page serves as a platform for the group's social, political and religious engagement efforts, on a variety of subjects. Nevertheless, several videos of top Al-Qaeda figures, such as Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Abu Yahya Al-Libi, are posted on the page.
On February 29, 2012, the AST announced on its Facebook page the establishment of the Al-Bayariq Media Foundation (BMF) as the official mouthpiece for the group's publications.
The BMF emblem
QMF on Facebook
Unlike its blog, the QMF's Facebook page is constantly updated. It also features a clear pro-jihadi and pro-Al-Qaeda theme. In one post, it asks Muslims to join the "blessed pulpit" of the Al-Fida' online forum, which is a first-tier Al-Qaeda forum used and trusted by Al-Qaeda and its affiliated groups to disseminate their propaganda. The post provides a direct link to Al-Fida'.
The QMF Facebook page also includes a post of a jihadi song about fighting the enemy and achieving martyrdom; it reads: "To those who adore the sound of bullets, directing it towards the chests of the hypocrites and the apostates. Oh Allah… defeat the Crusaders and their apostate allies…"
The page also posts announcements of new jihadi material released on the first-tier Al-Qaeda forums, such as Al-Fida' and Shumoukh Al-Islam; it thus aids in the dissemination of jihadi-related propaganda.
Al-Qaeda leader Ayman Al-Zawahiri on the QMF Facebook page
The AST's Social and Political Activism – From Salafi to Jihadi
The AST's involvement in key Tunisian events ranges from issuing written and recorded statements, to active participation in rallies, demonstrations, and most recently, human relief efforts. The AST's attitude and response to these events can be used to shed light on its overall strategy, vision, and doctrine.
Abu Iyadh at an AST gathering
The AST worked diligently to establish its legitimacy, gaining momentum and public support. One method it used to do so was to associate itself with prominent Salafists in the country, such as Sheikh Al-Khatib Al-Idrisi; many of his sermons and lectures can be found on the QMF and AST web pages. Abu Iyadh attended some social gatherings where Al-Idrisi was also present. At one such gathering, in June 2011, both sheikhs held a Q&A session.
However, the AST's greatest efforts are focused on maintaining a physical presence in mosques, and in working-class neighborhoods around the capital Tunis. The group's social activism consists of holding rallies for the "martyrs" of the Tunisian revolution, supporting Salafis imprisoned by the Tunisian authorities following the revolution, and holding demonstrations in support of the Tunisian mujahideen who joined the jihad in Iraq (see below).
The AST's Social Activism
AST and the Cinema Afric'Art Incident
In June 2011, Salafis and police clashed outside the Cinema Afric'Art in Tunis, following the screening of the film Neither God Nor Master, which is about secularism. The film was directed by France-based Tunisian director and self-declared atheist Nadia El-Fani. The Salafis condemned the film, calling it blasphemous; many Islamists were arrested in the rioting.
A few days later, on June 30, the AST released a statement condemning recent "insults to Muslims and Islam," among them attempts by the Tunisian government and secularists to ban the niqab in educational institutions, and "the call for normalization with the Zionist enemy." The statement criticized the situation in Tunisia, where, it said, anyone was free to express their heresy and apostasy claiming "freedom of opinion and expression." It called the Cinema Afric'Art's screening of the film part of a "dirty and well planned goal" aiming to "pass agendas [which will] enslave our people and land to the Crusader West," and accused the police dispatched to the scene of acting "selectively and systematically" to arrest only those whom they considered fundamentalists and terrorists.
In a recorded message following the incident, that was released on YouTube, Abu Ayyoub blamed the Tunisian government for the arrests of the Salafis in the unrest, and warned of "dire consequences" if they were not released.
In a separate recorded message that appeared online on June 26, 2011, Abu Ayyoub called what he said were that the attempts in Tunisia to sway Muslims from their religion part of "an agenda planned by the Jews and Christians… and their followers… and [carried out via] the blatant Jewish-[controlled] media."
Nessma TV Airs 'Persepolis'
On October 7, 2011, the private Tunisian satellite TV channel Nessma aired the French animated film Persepolis, the autobiographical graphic novel by Iranian-born illustrator Marjane Satrapi. In the film, Satrapi tells of the challenges she faced growing up in Iran during and following the 1979 Islamic Revolution there, and depicts God as a kindly bearded old man, as she imagined when she was young. The airing of the film sparked violent street protests across Tunisia by Islamists due to the depiction of God, which Islam strictly forbids; rioters attempted to storm the Nessma offices and attacked the home of Nessma director Nabil Karoui.
In an online video, posted on Youtube on October 10, 2011,Abu Ayyoub spoke to a group about men about the incident, saying: "You [i.e. Nessma] have depicted God the almighty …we will not return to our homes; either we demolish your headquarters, and destroy what you built in this country, or we return to prison, or we die." As for his suggested response to the perceived insult on Islam, he says: "The solution today, and [while we realize that] we do not possess the constituents for jihad in order to slaughter those [behind the airing of the movie]…is preparation, and heading to the streets."
AST's Political Activism
The Tunisian Elections, The Al-Nahda Party, and the National Constituent Assembly
In the run-up to the October 2011 elections for the Tunisian National Constituent Assembly, the AST followed the stricter doctrinal line within the Salafi movement, according to which participation in any electoral process is strictly forbidden because it infringes on the oneness of God. Under this doctrine, democracy too is forbidden, because it follows laws made by man rather than the shari'a.
Prior to the elections, the AST called numerous times on its Facebook page to boycott them. One post included a fatwa by Sheikh Abu Mundhir Al-Shinqiti banning participation in the elections, and calling not to vote for the Al-Nahda party.
In 2011, Al-Shinqiti, a member of the shura council of the prominent Salafi-Jihadi website Minbar Al-Tawhid Wal-Jihad (MTJ), issued several fatwas against the Tunisian elections, Al-Nahda party, and its leader, Rached Ghannouchi. However, in a December 2011 fatwa on the matter, he refrained from depicting all members and supporters of Al-Nahda in a negative light; instead, he asked Salafists to distinguish between Al-Nahda's top echelon figures and leaders – whom he described as having "gone astray" and who he said must be shunned – and Al-Nahda's members and supporters, whom he said should be engaged in dialogue and da'wa.
Abu Iyadh on Al-Nahda
The AST opposition to the elections spilled over to the National Constituent Assembly (NCA) itself, in which Al-Nahda won 89 out of 217 seats. In a video posted on his Facebook page on December 8, 2011, Abu Iyadh called on his followers to refrain from protesting in front of the NCA offices demanding implementation of shari'a, saying that such an act is considered acknowledgment of NCA legitimacy.
In January 2012, the Al-Fida' jihadi forum posted the Arabic transcript of an interview Abu Iyadh gave to the French Tunisian Realites.com, in which Abu Iyadh criticized Al-Nahda and accused it of playing into the hands of the secular political movements in Tunisia. Abu Iyadh asked why Al-Nahda could not have made similar concessions to the Salafis as well, adding that the party was well aware of what it needed to do "to satisfy us."
Abu Iyadh went on to criticize Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Al-Jebali and his transitional Tunisian government, accusing the government of being un-Islamic. He said that the Salafis are currently in a state of "undeclared truce" with the government, but that their control of the zealous Salafi youth might prove to be insufficient if Islam and its symbols continue to be targeted. Abu Iyadh urged the Tunisian government to allow the Salafis to continue their da'wa-related work in the community, and to refrain from obstructing them in their work.
Next, although he had implied, by referring to an "undeclared truce," that it was indeed possible to arrive at a relatively peaceful status quo between the Salafis and the Tunisian government, he overturned that notion by saying that in any event, the U.S. controlled Tunisia's politics. He said: "If the upcoming Al-Jebali government allowed us to operate, then America will not let us [do so], since the U.S. embassy [in Tunis] is what controls the country, and unfortunately I say this, the embassy controls Al-Nahda [as well]."
Abu Ayyoub on Al-Nahda
Abu Ayyoub's stance on the Al-Nahda party was less harsh. In a July 23, 2011 interview with the Arabic-language Tunisian Binaanews.net, he acknowledged the unparalleled public support for Al-Nahda, and its level of organization compared to Tunisia's other political parties. However, he said, there are "disagreements between us [i.e. Salafists] and Al-Nahda, which are essentially creed related."
In another interview, with the BBC, he said: "For us [Salafis], Al-Nahda is a better [option] than other [political parties]."
AST Supports Tunisian Mujahideen Prisoners in Iraq – The Case Of Abu Qudama Al-Tunisi
Another area in which the AST became increasingly involved was the issue of imprisoned Tunisian mujahideen in Iraq, the most widely publicized case of which was that of Abu Qudama Al-Tunisi, aka Yusri Al-Turaiki (also spelled Al-Tariki).
After leaving Tunisia for Iraq in 2003, Al-Turaiki was arrested in 2006, and charged over his involvement in the bombing attack on the Golden Mosque in Samira'. His confession, allegedly obtained through torture, sparked a public debate. Al-Turaiki was executed in November 2011, in Iraq. His body was later flown to Tunisia for burial, where thousands of Tunisians, including Abu Iyadh, welcomed the arriving "martyr."
Al-Turaiki's case featured prominently on various jihadi forums in the weeks leading to his execution. Banners and digitally enhanced images celebrating his martyrdom were posted on the main pages of prominent jihadi forums, as well as on the AST Facebook page. In one post, the AST announced the date and time of the arrival of Al-Turaiki's body in Tunisia, referring to him as "The Tunisian Al-Falluja Hero."
After Al-Turaiki's body arrived in Tunisia, Abu Ayyoub stated in a video posted on YouTube: "We ask Allah the Almighty to grant us martyrdom, since it is our goal and aspiration. We ask Allah to make it possible for us to travel to the lands of battle, the lands of the lions, the lands of martyrdom, in order to fight the enemies of Allah, [and thus] become like you [i.e. Al-Turaiki], Oh one of the lions of Islam… We ask Allah that you become a role model for the Tunisian youth to follow…"
Schism in the AST
Abu Ayyoub's and Abu Iyadh's different stances vis-à-vis Al-Nahda could be strategic in nature, at least as far as Abu Ayyoub is concerned, rather than ideological. Regardless, it could be one cause of the rift between them that subsequently developed.
In the BBC interview, Abu Ayyoub was asked about his relationship with the AST, to which he replied: "With regard to the Ansar Al-Shari'a, it is a movement; however, it does not represent all the Salafis in Tunisia. It represents only a small group [of Salafis]… [and] it does not represent me."
He explained: "There are no disagreements between us and them [i.e. the AST], but we are of the opinion that organizing [into a movement] will lead to fighting. As we are currently in a da'wa phase, for the most part… why should we organize and [thus] alienate ourselves from the [rest of the] people? We live in a Muslim society, [and the existence of] all these movements and [political] parties leads to disunity, rather than unity."
Abu Ayyoub continued: "As for practical matters, there are no differences between us. They [i.e. the AST] are our brothers… we are united by our creed and doctrine, but we do not think it is beneficial to establish a movement, since we have realized that it divided [the Salafis] rather than uniting them.
Al-Ayyoub's claim that the AST does not represent him, and his attempt to downplay his association with the group, is at odds with his positions within the AST following its establishment. For example, in the July 23, 2011 Binaanews.net interview, Abu Ayyoub was introduced as "official spokesman for the AST." Earlier that month, on July 2, he and Abu Iyadh held a joint press conference, representing the AST.
Abu Ayyoub (left) and Abu Iyadh at the July 2, 2011 AST press conference
It is unclear exactly why and when Abu Ayyoub decided to split from the AST. Both he and Abu Iyadh favor establishing an Islamic state governed by the shari'a. They both support jihad outside of Tunisia on the known jihadi fronts, that is, Iraq and Afghanistan, and both acknowledge that while the need for jihad within Tunisia has not yet materialized, the option of militant jihadi should remain viable if it does become necessary.
The two agree on the role of da'wa to all Tunisians, but Abu Ayyoub favors da'wa without an officially established group or movement. As he says, "We are laying the foundations to a generation that will establish a state that will rule according to the shari'a… and that is not at odds with our principle of fighting any infidel who enters a Muslim land… We are laying the foundations in Tunisia, but in Afghanistan, the solution to [the] America [problem] lies with jihad… But in Tunisia today, the opportunity is specifically da'wa-related."
The AST and Al-Qaeda
As to whether there is a relationship between AST and Al-Qaeda, Abu Iyadh stated in the Realites.com interview that such a relationship is "obligatory" with others who adhere to the same Salafi-jihadi program. He added that a "brotherly" and "complementary" relationship connects those in Tunisia with their brothers in Afghanistan, Somalia or anywhere else, where "they advise us, and we advise them, and support them – if we were capable of supporting them, even if [only] with a good word."
In addition, Abu Iyadh said that he openly supported the jihad in Iraq, even after the U.S. withdrawal there, because, according to him, the Shi'ites control Iraq: "Now [is the time for] jihad [in Iraq], and [Prime Minister Nouri] Al-Maliki and his men should be whipped off the face of the earth, and the mujahideen in Iraq must intensify their strikes."
*M. Khayat is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 Al-Fida', January 1, 2012.
 Cageprisoners, a London-based organization founded in 2003, is headed by Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo prisoner who was released without charge in 2005. It calls itself a "human rights organization... that exists solely to raise awareness of the plight of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and other detainees held as part of the War on Terror."
 Former leader of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), who died in April 2010.
 Al-Qayrawan is an historic city in Tunisia, regarded by many Muslims as the fourth holiest city in Islam. The city became a center for Islamic knowledge during the Aghlabid dynasty (800-909).