Social Media Jihad: Tunisian 'martyrs' in Syria
Tunisia has long exported jihadists. During the 1990s, Tunisians made their way to al Qaeda and affiliated camps in Afghanistan. During the peak of the Iraq War, Tunisia and Libya made North Africa a deep pool for al Qaeda's recruitment efforts. And with the Syrian war raging on, the subject of Tunisians waging jihad abroad has become a hot topic once again.
Estimates of the number of Tunisians fighting inside Syria vary by a wide margin. It is impossible for us to say what the right figure is. For a sense of the reporting on this topic, see this article published by Tunisia Live, which deals with the controversy surrounding television footage of "a young Tunisian man who says he just returned to the country after fighting in Syria for eight months."
Likewise, Al Monitor has translated an account by Nesrine Hamedi that was first published by As-Safir in Lebanon. (The piece cites a figure reportedly supplied by the Tunisians that seems ridiculously high -- 40% of foreign fighters in Syria are supposedly Tunisian. That can't be right.)
Hamedi concludes that the "general climate in post-revolutionary Tunisia encourages the proliferation of this phenomenon, as does the laxness and disregard exhibited by the ruling Ennahda party in its dealings with Salafist Jihadist groups."
Which brings us to Ansar al Sharia Tunisia and its leader Seifallah ben Hassine, a.k.a. Abu Iyad al Tunisi, who is wanted for his role in the Sept. 14, 2012 assault on the US Embassy in Tunis.
How many recruits has Ansar al Sharia Tunisia sent off to fight in Syria? We don't know. But the group certainly makes a point of honoring and glorifying Tunisian "martyrs" who are killed in Syria. In an interview earlier this year, ben Hassine seemed reticent to endorse this phenomenon because it has "emptied Tunisia of its young" and he would prefer for young Salafi jihadists to stay home. Ben Hassine is building popular support for his movement through missionary work and propaganda efforts. He probably would prefer that young Tunisians join his organization rather than become cannon fodder in Syria.
However, the Associated Press noted in February that ben Hassine "has regularly preached for joining jihads in Syria and elsewhere."
"Tunisians can be found everywhere in the land of jihad," ben Hassine explained in a banned interview that was posted on his group's Facebook page, according to the AP. "The ways of going are easy and we don't stop our people from leaving."
His organization's propaganda suggests a more active role. As we reported earlier this month, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia's Facebook page regularly honors Tunisian martyrs and even embeds its logos over images of slain Tunisians. This has continued in the weeks since our initial report, albeit sporadically as the group's Facebook page is frequently taken down. Some posts highlight martyrs killed while fighting for al Qaeda's Islamic State of Iraq as well.
On March 23, the group posted on Facebook a chant honoring Tunisians who have fallen in the Levant. The same chant was posted on Ansar al Sharia Tunisia's YouTube page earlier this month. A screen shot of the chant can be seen at the top of this post.
The SITE Intelligence Group has translated the chant, which is titled, "Yesterday, the Events Shocked Us, on the Land of the Levant They are Being Embraced."
Here is the entirety of SITE's translation:
This wailing everywhere, and tears don't stop the thoughts. O eyes that cry, and the death that took our companions. They are brothers who resided in the hearts and a balsam that heals the sad. Their body parts spread in every land and their wounds irrigate the branches. Yesterday, the events shocked us, on the land of the Levant they are being embraced. Marwan, Muhammad and Abu al-Zubeir are symbols of perfection there. This wailing everywhere and tears don't stop thoughts. O eyes that cry, and the death that took our companions. They are brothers who resided in the hearts and a balsam that heals the sad. Their body parts spread in every land and their wounds irrigate the branches.
So while ben Hassine has said that Tunisia's youth should stay home, his organization continues to lionize those who choose jihad abroad.