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The battle for jihadist domination in Tunisia

Andreas Gorzewski / groJune 30, 2015

The "Islamic State" is stepping up the competition against al Qaeda in the battle for jihadist dominance in Tunisia. Both organizations use attacks like that in Sousse to recruit radicalized followers.

Tunesien Salafistische Jugendliche (Symbolbild)
Image: picture-alliance/ZUMA Press
The spread of "Islamic State" (IS) terrorism in North Africa seems unstoppable. IS supporters used Twitter to confess to the devastating beach attack in the Tunisian holiday hub, Sousse, where 39 people were killed on Friday.
It is hard to prove whether IS sympathizers masterminded the massacre. The confession shows that the competition between different jihadist groups is now in full swing in the birthplace of the Arab Spring. Some groups had already declared war on the government in Tunis before Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi established his caliphate Syria and Iraq. Now, IS is aiming to gain a foothold in Tunisia, also to Libya.
In the troubled region of North Africa, Tunisia seemed to be a haven of stability for a while. Unlike its large neighbor Algeria, no civil war had taken place between the army and Islamists in the 1990s. And unlike Egypt and Libya, Tunisia came out relatively unscathed from the upheavals of Arab Spring in 2011. The nation of eleven million has even drafted a progressive constitution. But the sunny holiday paradise has another side to it: Many regions are neglected and impoverished. More than 3,000 Tunisians who are fighting for the IS in Syria and Iraq originate from those areas. More jihadists come from this region than from any other Arab country.
Recruiting new IS followers
Despite the high number of fighters from Tunisia, IS has had no significant base in their home country for a long time. IS leadership wants to change the situation. In March, an organization the "Brothers" called for a pledge of allegiance to the IS caliphate, says terrorism expert Aymenn Jawad Al-Tamimi from the US think tank "Middle East Forum" (MEF). Jihadist groups in several African countries have formally subordinated themselves to the terrorist organization under al-Baghdadi's leadership. Apparently, another group called "Mujahideen of Tunisia" followed their footsteps and called for an IS province in Tunisia, said Al-Tamimi.
Angriff auf das Nationalmuseum in Bardo Tunis
Police swoop in after the attack on the Bardo Museum in Tunisia in MarchImage: AFP/Getty Images/F. Belaid
Nonetheless, Osama bin Laden's terrorist group al Qaeda has been active in Tunisia since 2002. Back then, the group confessed to an attack on the island of Djerba, in which 19 tourists were killed. Later, a branch of the network called "Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQMI)" emerged in North Africa. The "Brigade Okba Ibn Nafaa", which was named after a seventh-century Muslim army commander, allegedly belongs to this section. The group can mostly likely be credited for several attacks on soldiers and politicians. Experts suspect that the "Brigade" was also behind the attack on the Bardo Museum in the capital, Tunis. In the attack on March 18, 2015, 20 tourists and a police officer were shot. Another tourist later died from injuries sustained in the attack.
Ansar al-Sharia and charity
Many members of the "Brigade Okba Ibn Nafaa" are said to have been members of the Salafist group "Ansar Al-Sharia", whose Tunisian chapter was established by Abu Iyadh. The organization's founder had fought in Afghanistan and Bosnia. Abu Iyadh is suspected to have been behind the attack on the US embassy in Tunis in 2012. He has since been on the run. Some of his followers may have joined IS offshoots in Libya. "Ansar Al-Sharia" also presents itself as a charity organization, says North Africa expert and former Austrian defense attaché in Libya, Wolfgang Pusztai. The group also wanted to show that they also take care of the needy.
Seifeddine Rezgui, mutmaßlicher Attentäter von Soussa
Seifeddine Rezgui, the alleged assassin in SousseImage: picture-alliance/dpa/Social Media
Even more jihadist groups are active in Tunisia. The IS is trying to win over followers from these groups, stresses terrorism expert Al-Tamimi. Attacks like the one in Sousse were used as a forceful means of touting their message.
Aims to incite people's revolt
North Africa expert Pusztai does not see a great difference between members of specific groups. "The different Salafist-jihadist groups are united by a common ideology and a common vision of a fundamentalist Islamic state," says the security analyst. Unlike those in the disintegrating state of Libya, Tunisian jihadists are aware that the prospect of a military victory over the state is unrealistic. Their immediate goal is to establish pockets of resistance.
They will try to make use of the difficult passage through the Chaambi Mountains on the border with Algeria to extend their influence. Pusztai suspects that their long-term goal is to kick off people's revolt. The jihadists plan to lay down the groundwork for a revolt in their ongoing attacks on security forces and vacationers. If tourists stay away amid fears of terrorism , the already poor economic situation in the country will be exacerbated - the terrorist groups hoping this situation will work in their favor. It remains to be seen which of the extremist groups would benefit the most.