Tunis — Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) warned Tunisia's interim government not to suppress or threaten Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia.
"We're still committed to the directives of our Sheikh and Emir Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri...to co-operate with [post-revolution governments] in applying sharia," Algerian AQIM leader Ahmed Abu Abdul-Elah Al-Jigli said in an audio message released Tuesday (May 21st), "I hope that the Tunisian government will correctly read this message," he added.
In the tape released by the Al-Andalus Media Foundation, Al-Jigli blamed the Tunisian interior ministry for imposing restrictions on preaching activities and for monitoring the movement of Ansar al-Sharia members.
"As if Ben Ali has returned to Tunisia," he commented.
Al-Jigli also warned Ennahda and its leader Rachid Ghannouchi of what he described as "injustice and its fatal consequences".
"We're prepared to discuss any issue with Ennahda directly without mediators," he said. "Meanwhile, the group reserves the right to defend itself and respond to any aggression targeting its strongholds and members regardless of its source."
AQIM's message followed deadly clashes on Sunday. After authorities prevented an Ansar al-Sharia congress in Kairouan, the salafists moved their meeting to Ettadhamen.
Fighting erupted in the poor Tunis neighbourhood, leaving one person dead and scores of salafists arrested.
Ghannouchi has recently been using a tougher tone against the salafists, blaming them for the violence that Tunisia has witnessed in the last two years.
The Tunisian opposition, a number of civil society organisations and ordinary citizens have blamed the government for the country's deteriorating conditions and what many described as its leniency with salafists.
Ennahda's leniency with radical religious groups "has allowed them to have more outreach and spread that went as far as tightening their grip on certain places, carrying weapons and planning terrorist acts", journalist Mondher Bedhiafi noted.
"This was clear from controlling public spaces; their attempts to impose their own social patterns, whether in dress, practices or dealings; and their control over mosques and turning them into venues for spreading their radical and provocative speech calling for imposing sharia," he added.
"A hundred mosques are still out of the state's control and controlled by radical religious groups," Foreign Affairs Minister Noureddine Khadmi said in a press conference on Wednesday.
He added that the state would seek to regain control over these mosques, given that manifestations of violence and extremism are prohibited in Tunisia.
Ansar al-Sharia was formed in Tunisia after the revolution. Their leader Abou Iyadh is wanted by the Tunisian police. He is accused of planning the US embassy attack in Tunis in mid-September 2012.
Last Saturday evening, AQIM declared its support for Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia. However, al-Qaeda urged the radical Islamists to be more patient in realising their goals.