The attack on Benghazi's U.S. consulate propelled a new jihadist organization into the political spotlight: Ansar al Sharia. As a number of groups sharing the same name have emerged across the Middle East and North Africa, pundits now scrabble for details of this little known yet seemingly ascendant force of global jihadism. This week, an interview with Hassen Brik, a spokesperson for Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, offered some clues as to the motivations and personalities behind the organization's development in Tunisia.
As we enter the family home in Tunis, it becomes clear that the lives of Tunisia's vilified jihadists cannot be reduced to the images of pious fanaticism on which the western media relies. We are greeted by his sister; unveiled, she is casually dressed in khaki cut-offs and a vest top. She says she feels under no pressure from Hassen to dress conservatively. His brothers, too, have followed very different life trajectories. Karim, in fact, goes by the stage name "Minissi" and has gained a large domestic following for his self-produced rap music. In contrast, their eldest brother is a military man, having served as an army sniper during the Ben Ali era.
The life of 34-year old Hassen has, of course, taken a different turn. In 2003, he traveled to Iraq as a fighter but ended up stationed across the border in Syria, operating a safe house for potential jihadists as they were vetted and trained for the mission ahead. There, he was arrested and deported back to Tunisia where he was imprisoned under the anti-terrorism law. And it was in these jails, Hassen tells us, that Ansar al Sharia was born. He claims that communal prayer time served as a forum for discussion and refining ideas that would be put into practice on release.
Ansar al Sharia's moment arrived with Tunisia's revolution. In March 2011, the new transitional government pardoned a number of prisoners who had been convicted under the Ben Ali regime's repressive anti-terrorism laws. Among their number was Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (more commonly known as Abu Iyadh), a former Guantanamo detainee who would lead a press conference the following month to announce the public debut of Ansar al Sharia.
A fighter abroad and a preacher at home, Hassen believes that it is now his duty to open da'wa offices across the country, offering a religious education that conforms to Ansar al Sharia's interpretation of Islam. "This is a long-term vision to prepare society," he says, "We are for jihad, armed revolution, but we cannot do this if the people are not with us. It will only be possible when everyone is behind the vision. Look at Libya, the insurrection was only successful once armed and sharing a common vision."
Although little is known about Ansar al Sharia, Hassen emphasizes that its members do not want to stay in the shadows. "Now we want to talk," he says, "We want to be open, even if you are from the CIA."
References to American power run through many of his assertions and he attributes his own imprisonment to the counterterrorism policies of the Bush administration. "It used to be permissible to study the Koran openly," he says, "but after 2004 the government terrorized us on American orders."
He is referring to Tunisia's 2003 Anti-Terrorism Law, legislation that allowed security forces to arrest civilians with alleged links to terrorist organizations drawing praise from the U.S. State Department. Cases were usually held in private court sessions and many defendants claim that their convictions were based on confessions extracted through torture.
Popular reactions to Ansar al Sharia's emergence have been hostile. Described in the Tunisian media as an "Islamist cancer," the secular middle classes have greeted its rise with a mixture of horror and revulsion. Nor has it found favor with more moderate Islamist groups. The ruling Ennahda party has blamed the organization for this month's attacks on the U.S. embassy, and followers of the more moderate "scripturalist" brand of Salafism also distance themselves from the violent tactics of their theological counterparts.
When asked if Ansar al Sharia can realistically attract wider support, Hassen counters that Tunisian society has failed to listen to its message: "We are trying to extend our hand to the Tunisian people but they aren't taking it yet. We bring a new vision of politics for the Arab world, but we know this will take time. After 50 years of Bourgiba and Ben Ali, people have lost their religion and we are feeding it."
References to the broader regional context litter his speech, although he denies that his organization is operationally linked to organizations in Libya, Yemen, Egypt, and Morocco that share the same name.
Turning to the subject of attacks on U.S. targets in Tunis the previous week, Hassen chooses his words carefully. Young Ansar al Sharia followers were involved, he says, but not on the direct instructions of the leadership.
"We do not deny that violent acts were committed in our name. We have made mistakes and many of our number have been behind bars. Now we are rehabilitating them, but this will take time. They need to be educated in the very foundations of Islam.
These boys of the districts follow us because they are tired of politicians' immorality. They appreciate our coherence: our words come straight from the heart."
A visit to Tunis's working class El Khadra suburb the previous day suggested that there is truth in this sentiment. Although few were willing to openly align themselves with Ansar al Sharia, several young men expressed admiration at the organization's piety and its refusal to engage in high-level political squabbles. Abu Iyadh's name commanded particular enthusiasm, in the words of one young man, "he is strong where Ennahda are weak. He is the only man to stand up against the Americans."
Demographic studies of those convicted under Tunisia's anti-terrorism laws show that the jihadists have previously found these neighborhoods to be fertile ground for recruitment. Today their inhabitants remain as socially and economically marginalized as they were under Ben Ali, a reality which continues to escape many who rail against Ansar al Sharia as an aberration within Tunisia's cosmopolitan society.
"We stand in solidarity with the weakest," Hassan says, "and in time we will have local leaders who organize the boys."
Yet the notion that Ansar al Sharia's message has found real resonance within small sections of Tunisian society continues to escape the country's chattering classes. High-level political discussion revolves around constitutional issues with little attempt to address the grievances of the most vulnerable. But this is a social blindness that they cannot afford to maintain. "For us, this is an opportunity to plant our seeds in the sunlight." Hassan concludes, "and we are starting to see the fruit."
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 27/09/2012
-Louisa Loveluck is a freelance journalist specializing in Middle Eastern affairs and a researcher at the International State Crime Initiative