Jihadists: The Wallflowers of the Tunisian Uprising

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In the wake of Tunisia's popular uprising this past week, some are debating whether Twitter, WikiLeaks, or even George W. Bush might have played a role in enabling the historic protest movement. But one thing seems clear: The jihadist movement, which has long defined itself as Arab governments' staunchest and most authentic opposition, had nothing to do with it. Jihadists' non-involvement in organizing, encouraging, or even participating in the Tunisian protests suggests that the jihadist current has been largely irrelevant to Tunisia's popular uprising. For as long as jihadists have been in business, one of their main goals has been to overrun an "apostate" Arab leader such as Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. But with the possible exception of Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's 1981 assassination, they never came close. That Tunisia's protesters succeeded where the jihadists so often fail, and appear not at all driven by anything close to jihadist ideology or even general religious grievances, has left members of the online jihadist community unsure how to respond. The uprising, after all, fulfills a top jihadist goal, but it also rebukes their belief that only violent and pious struggle can bring down a man like Ben Ali.

Two days before Ben Ali's ousting, the amir (leader) of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), Abu Mus'ab 'Abd al-Wadud, released a statement titled "In Support of the Intifadah of our People in Tunisia." He appealed to Tunisians, selling AQIM as an ally in their protests. "I found it a fit chance to inform you, on behalf of my Mujahideen brothers in the Islamic Maghreb, our partisanship and consolation with you. And our stand alongside you in your problem and uprising, with advice, inspiration and affirmation," he wrote. "Your battle you fight today isn't alienated from the general battle the Muslim Ummah is engaged in against its external and domestic enemies. ... And I encourage our people in Tunisia to be ready and prepare preparations and send their sons to us to train on weapons and gain military expertise. ... My Muslim brothers in Tunisia: your Mujahideen brothers are with you, and your problem is our problem and your happening is ours, and the bereaved isn't like the adopting."

The statement, an effort to attach AQIM to the Tunisians' cause, has had no appreciable effect. After all, AQIM's jihadist ideology, which has never been very popular in Tunisia anyway, has next to nothing in common with the protest movement. What small role Tunsians have played in the jihadist movement, and that the movement has played in Tunisia, only underscores their irrelevance in the country. On September 9, 2001, two Tunisians working with al-Qaeda helped assassinate Ahmad Shah Massud, the leader of the U.S.-allied Northern Alliance in Afghanistan. Between August 2006 and August 2007, thirty-three Tunisians, just 5.5 percent of the total foreign fighters, joined al-Qaeda in Iraq, according to the records recovered by U.S. coalition forces. Earlier this month, a Tunisian member of AQIM threw an explosive at a French embassy building in Mali, "lightly injuring" two people. A U.K.-based terrorism researcher, who asked to remain anonymous because his work has not been publicly published, estimated that Tunisians only account for 1-2% of the members in AQIM, which he said has "very limited operational capacity that they could project into Tunisia."

Presented by

Aaron Zelin

Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Rena and Sami David fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. He is the founder of the website Jihadology.net.

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