The assassination of a prominent opposition leader has sparked a political crisis in Tunisia. Chokri Belaid, a politician who had spoken out against the ruling Islamist Ennahda party and Salafists, was shot dead outside his home on Feb. 6. The assassin’s identity is not yet publicly known.
Thousands took to the streets to protest Belaid’s murder. Shortly thereafter, Tunisian prime minister Hamadi Jebali, a member of Ennahda, announced that he would dissolve the current government coalition to form a more inclusive body.
“I have decided to form a government of competent nationals without political affiliation, which will have a mandate limited to managing the affairs of the country until elections are held in the shortest possible time,” Jebali said, according to Magharebia.
In response, the Ennahda party disowned Jebali.
Some of the very same Salafists Belaid criticized prior to his death have weighed in on this precarious state of affairs as well. Seifullah Ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), the head of Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, has issued a statement on his group’s official Facebook page.
“We stress this to the Ennahda Movement and its government, towards which our position is known, that conceding and prostrating in such a decisive moment in our country’s history will be political suicide, the harm of which will not just rebound on it but also on Islam as a religion,” the statement reads, according to a translation prepared by the SITE Intelligence Group.
Ben Hassine continues: “We stress that we will never hand over the country to the boys of France and the West, even if that costs us our lives. You let down the Muslims in 1991 and we will not allow you to repeat the experience in 2013.”
Ben Hassine reissued his call for sharia law to be imposed, saying that “the West and especially America and France, will never stand on the side of Islam or even the reformed kind until a camel can pass through a needle, we therefore call for a new contemplative reading of our Book.”
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia has criticized the Ennahda party in the past, but Ben Hassine’s most recent call appears to seek some common ground against their perceived common rivals and enemies, both domestically and abroad.
In October 2012, press outlets reported that a leaked video showed that a leading figure in Ennahda, Rachid Ghannouchi, had secret dealings with Ansar al Sharia Tunisia and other extremist groups.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, which orchestrated the Sept. 14, 2012 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis, is headed by Seifullah ben Hassine (a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi), who has longstanding ties to al Qaeda. In 2000, Hassine co-founded the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG), an al Qaeda-affiliated group that participated in the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud in Afghanistan.
Hassine was arrested in Turkey in 2003 and deported to Tunisia, where he was sentenced to more than 40 years in prison. Hassine was released from prison in 2011, in the wake of the Tunisian revolution.
According to the Middle East Research Institute (MEMRI), Hassine eulogized Osama bin Laden after the al Qaeda master was killed in May 2011. “Let the entire world celebrate the death of one of our Ummah’s leaders,” Hassine said, “since the death and martyrdom of our leaders for the sake of this straight path … is an indication of the truthfulness of our way.”
MEMRI noted that in the eulogy, Hassine added that the death of bin Laden and other “brothers and leaders,” such as al Qaeda in Iraq leaders Abu Musab al Zarqawi and Abu Omar al Baghdadi, should compel Muslims to fight on. “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,” Hassine said. “Remain steadfast – and die for [the same cause] for which the best among you died.”
Two other Ansar al Sharia Tunisia leaders are Sami Ben Khemais Essid and Mehdi Kammoun, both of whom were convicted by Italian courts for their participation in al Qaeda’s operations in Italy. Essid was the head of al Qaeda in Italy before his arrest. According to the US State Department and other sources, Essid plotted to attack the US Embassy in Rome in early 2001. Both Essid and Kammoun were convicted in Italy of terrorism charges and deported to Tunisia for further imprisonment, but released in 2011 after the Tunisian revolution.
After the Sept. 14, 2012 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis, the Tunisian government imprisoned numerous Ansar al Sharia members. One of them is Bilel Chaouachi, a young imam who has openly praised Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
On Dec. 21, 2012, the Tunisian government announced that it had arrested members of an al Qaeda terrorist cell who had been trained by al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and “were active within” Ansar al Sharia Tunisia.
In January 2013, the group re-branded its official Facebook page to mourn the death of Said al Shihri, who had been the deputy leader of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The organization’s Facebook page contains multiple other pieces of pro-al Qaeda propaganda.