Zelin on Maaroufi

The Salafi and Salafi-jihadi trends in Tunisia will be of increasing interest, especially as en-Nahdhah moderates its positions in hopes of governing together with secular and left-wing parties. The party’s moves to the center open space for more conservative and more “radical” elements to rally supporters in the name of a more pure Islamist cause. As was seen after the incidents at Bir Ben Khalifa and Sfax (and in Jendouba) earlier this year where Salafis clashed with local authorities and some were arrested suggest Tunisia’s Salafi trend, more or less peaceful if pushy, does still contain important confrontational and violent elements. Groups like Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) have been covered well by Aaron Zelin on his blog and recently on Tunisia Live. AST is active on jihadist forums and identifies itself with jihadist causes explicitly on Facebook and elsewhere, and its leadership includes experienced jihadists who fought in Afghanistan and are well connected with militant networks in North Africa and Europe. His latest profile is of Tarek Maaroufi who recently returned to Tunisia from Belgium, after spending time in prison there for his role in the Brussels Cell. Maaroufi was involved in the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) and spent time in Afghanistan. Zelin writes:

The main modus operandi of Maaroufi’s “Brussels cell” was facilitating document forgery and recruiting individuals to fight abroad. As such, based on Maaroufi’s background, one could surmise that he may be attempting to tap into the swell of Tunisian Salafi youth that are outraged by Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of their Sunni brethren. Such speculation could be bolstered by Abu Ayyad’s remark in an interview with As-Sabah last week that “we have a large group of young people who want to go out to jihad in Syria.” Based on past relations between Abu Ayyad and Maaroufi, and the fact that Abu Ayyad leads AST, it is possible that Maaroufi may be recruiting individuals to go fight in Syria—or that he may end up doing so if he remains in Tunisia. During the height of the Iraq war, Tunisia was a key staging area where fighters from Europe and North Africans West of Libya would go prior to making their trip to Syria and then later into Iraq. These networks may be re-established for the jihad in Syria, and Maaroufi could ultimately play a role in their regeneration.

The flow of fighters into Syria could be a future issue for Tunisia. Unlike many other countries in the Middle East and North Africa, Tunisia was unaffected by major violence following the Soviet jihad of the 1980s following the return of foreign fighters. One of the main reasons for this was a lack of promotion on the part of the former Tunisian regime to send unwanted individuals abroad. Though the current government is not promoting jihad abroad, the access to information through the internet has changed the game. There are already reports of Lebanese, Palestinians, Libyans, Yemenis, and Europeans joining the Syrian jihad. The last thing Tunisia needs though is a group of hardened fighters returning in a few years while the country is still transitioning to a better future leading to potential instability, especially if the economy continues to sputter. This is why although Maaroufi may only be in Tunisia for ten days, more should be paying attention, or at least determining his true intentions.

Zelin mentions Libyans showing up in Syria; these reports have been somewhat murky but there is no secret about militia leaders in Libya encouraging men to head to Syria or arms from Libya reaching the Syrian rebel fighters. And there appears to be official tolerance for whatever flow of men and guns may be moving to Syria from Libya (as well as overt support for the Syrian National Council from Tripoli, diplomatically, financially and in humanitarian terms). Imam Shaykh ‘Aymad Drissi was reported to have confirmed that fighters from Benghazi had gone to fight the As’ad regime in Syria, while saying jihad in Syria was incumbent on all Muslims and calling on Libyans to support the fight in Syria financially, morally or through pray and praised Libyans electing to take up arms there. At present these are relatively minor variables, but nonetheless worth watching as things change in the region, and outside actors (in the Gulf especially, but elsewhere too) push for the continued militarisation of the Syrian crisis. It is of course also important to be wary of exaggerated and false claims by the Syrian regime and its supporters about hordes of Libyan and Jordanian Salafites massing at the country’s borders, poised to wage an epic jihad against the Damascus government, designed or deceive internal and external opinion of Syria’s rebels — and there are no shortage of such reports in Arabic coming out in the last few months.

Addendum I on Mauritanian and Algerian Islamists

My previous post regarding the role of Algerian Islamist parties in the post-Civil War period focused primarily on the functional and strategic role of such parties. This is also true of the previous posting on the Mauritanian Tawassoul. The conclusion of both of those posts was that the net affect of these parties, both representing historically marginal political constituencies and tendencies, was to legitimize established political authorities. In their pursuit of position, whatever their intentions or goals might be, have served to offer a glean of Islamic legitimacy to their respective regimes through their commitment to compromise at any cost.

Unfortunately, both posts fail — as I see it — to address what affect these parties’ activities might have on Islamist politics in their countries and some of the less functional and more ideational aspects of their behavior. Both posts under-emphasize the parties’ own agency within the structural limits of Mauritanian and Algerian political society, which is admittedly limited. Continue reading

Mauritanian Islamists: Political Islam beyond the “War of Ideas”

Tawassoul, Mauritania’s principle Islamist political party, announced this week that it would join forces with now ruling Union for the Republic, the party of president General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz. Tawassoul’s leader, Jamil Mansour, spent the better part of the last year in opposition to Ould Abdel Aziz, who came to power in a coup last August, as a member of the Front for the Defense of Democracy (FNDD), along with other opposition heavy weights. Of those men, Ahmed Ould Daddah, Messaoud Boulkheir, Badreddine and Mansour, he was the first to make moves to “defect” following defeat in the July presidential election. After last week’s senatorial elections, in which the opposition was dealt a certain defeat — Ould Daddah’s RFD lost in its traditional stronghold of Boutlimit — Mansour was seen to be making his best efforts to attach Tawassoul to the new ruling clique.

Tawassoul is, of course, the local affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood. It is similar to the Algerian and Jordanian branches in that it has seen fit to join government and participate in electoral processes of dubious legitimacy and to join forces with governments of equally problematic natures. As an entity it represents an organization as politically minded as any, and unconcerned with long-term political reform inside Mauritania. Its primary interest is to occupy office, for their popular appeal is limited and their survival is reliant on the patronage and favors of sitting authorities and powers. Its political maneuverings bear little resemblance to its platform or stated intentions. This post is the follow up to a previous post addressing the role of the Algerian Brotherhood, the Movement for a Society of Peace (MSP), in that country’s post-conflict politics. This post examines the role of Mauritania’s Brotherhood in the country’s “transitional” politics. Continue reading

Brainstorming the Geopolitics of AQIM’s Moorish Appeal

Some short weeks ago, the Wall Street Journal filed a report regarding the spread of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The report was timely, coming on the heels of Mauritania’s first suicide bombing and an uptick in the group’s attacks in Algeria and its activities elsewhere. The report noted that its newest recruits were coming especially from the peoples of northern Mali and Mauritania, people linked by their Arabic dialect (Hassaniya) and kinship. The report notes that AQIM is attempting to recruit both “the young Muslims of the region — white ones and black ones,” but seems to indicate that it is having greater success with the “white” Muslims from the Mauritanian Arabophone majority and the Arab minorities in Mali and Niger. See here for alle’s criticism and commentary on the WSJ piece.

While AQIM was founded on the infrastructure of the GSPC, an Algerian rebel group whose leadership hailed almost entirely from the northern, sedentary and urban metropole, its metamorphosis in the Sahara has meant that its most recent classes of foot-soldiers have been local to that region, thus complicating things not only for those interested in combating it, but also for its leadership. The situation raises important questions as to the extent and meaning of AQIM’s appeal to young Arabs in the Sahel, mostly of bidhani (lit. “white”; more eloquently called “Moorish” in English) stock. Before this can be addressed it must be said that while, like many nomadic and semi-nomadic populations (including their non-Arab Tuareg neighbors), the Arab bidhan have a traditional social division between “warrior” and “zawiyya,” or religious tribes, with the former traditionally responsible for the protection of the latter. While this means that there is a martial tradition among the tribes in the region, it does not mean that their traditional Islamic canon, based on the Maliki madhhab is at all proximate to the variety of Salafist-ideology carried by AQIM. While there is a history of the bidhan practicing martial jihad against other local Muslims and non-Muslims (mostly to the immediate south), the local mentality discourages violence against Muslim leaders and views outside ideologies and Arabs with, if not suspicion, then certainly with a grain of salt (or, perhaps more fittingly, “sand”). The tendency away from violence against Muslim rule (one might call it fitnaphobia) is stronger among Moors than Tuaregs for a whole complex of reasons that are best explored in another instance. Furthermore, the bidhan/Moorish groups outside of Mauritania must be viewed in the context of a minority population that, much like the Tuareg, views their sedentary, southern, Francophone and black central governments (e.g. Mali and Niger) with suspicion, as antagonistic elements threatening to their way of life as pastoralists. This has been a fundamental element in the tension between the Tuaregs of Mali and Niger and their central governments since independence till the present; it has also been a bone of contention with the Moorish communities, who have often held affections or sympathies with Mauritania, the Moorish dominated state presently suffering rule-by-general and a rather active AQIM infection. Analysis of AQIM’s appeal to these populations must necessarily, then, consider the place of historically pastoralist/semi-nomadic peoples in the political economy of the Sahel, an area where settled and roaming people are both by and large Muslim.

In any case, AQIM may appeal especially to the Moors of the Sahel for the following reasons, though this is surely not an exhaustive or perfect survey. The reasons are, as anywhere, complex, but are basically logistical, situational and fiscal in nature. [ This writing does not propose to assume that the Moorish communities in the Sahel are at all predisposed toward collaboration with AQIM on a communal or tribal basis any more than others. It intends to focus specifically on one element of the problem broadly, and if it seems the emphasis is too specific on the particular issue it is not to discount other important questions or challenges. ] Readers ought to keep in mind the dutiful and wonderfully useful analyses of AQIM’s appeal in the region here and here. Continue reading

On Obama’s Cairo speech

Official and unoffficial reactions to Barack Obama’s speech at Cairo University are out, and the minds of many have been made up. Here are this blogger’s reactions to some of its major points, thematically, with emphasis on criticism, not genuflection (for the former is more valuable than the latter). Continue reading

On Lebanon

“I saw him without a gun, shooting at me, and his bullets pierced me
just like all the other bullets.”

Rashid al-Daif, Passage to Dusk.

There is a very real possibility that tension over Abkhazia will
escalate, so understanding the nature of the conflict is key.
Unfortunately, Applebaum’s analysis sheds no light on the situation,
but rather points to a disturbing trend in American mainstream media:
presenting simplistic and therefore misleading analysis of
foreign-policy issues.

Turning Abkhazia into a War,” Brooke Leonard, The National Interest, 9 May, 2008. Continue reading