Analysis by Imrane Binoual in Casablanca for Magharebia - 18/04/2014
Having long relied on dawa, the Ansar Al-Sharia movement has replaced peaceful preaching with violence to assert its vision of the future.
The movement's links to terrorism put them in the cross-hairs of Maghreb governments.
Last August, Tunisia officially designated Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist organisation tied to al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Tunisian authorities recently identified fifty associations with links to Ansar al-Sharia. The leaders of about twenty of these are either fighting amongst terrorists abroad or have despatched young recruits to areas of instability.
The banned group is indeed fertile hunting ground for foreign terror entities.
When the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) declared its intention a fortnight ago to recruit Maghreb jihadists for the Syria conflict, it specifically noted its interest in attracting members of Ansar al-Sharia.
Ansar al-Sharia is equally determined to establish its own presence across North Africa.
A recent report by the International Centre for Counter-Terrorism (ICCT) documents the development of the organisation, especially in Tunisia.
The Tunisian branch is taking a very strategic approach, ICCT director Peter Knoope says.
"Those in charge deemed it necessary to take a low profile and stay within the legal limits set by the state - for a time. At first, it engaged in dawa, before gradually switching to hesba (applying the rules of Sharia law to people). Only later did it turn to jihad," he explains.
"In other words, it has transitioned from peaceful methods to more violent ones in order to assert its vision of the future," the security expert tells Magharebia.
The ICCT report highlights how ideological, political and strategic factors have spurred the Tunisian government to step up its efforts to tackle Ansar al-Sharia. It contains new revelations about the organisation and its links to international jihadism.
It also describes Ansar al-Sharia's strategic efforts to damage the country's economy. This marks a clear shift in the thinking of the terrorist group.
The description is confirmed by Abdellah Rami, an expert on salafist and jihadist movements. He says that radicalism is more explosive in Tunisia than anywhere else in the region.
"The level of salafist jihadism is higher in Tunisia," he claims.
This is demonstrated, he says, by the large number of Tunisian fighters in Syria. Tunisia intercepted some 8,000 young jihadists trying to go to Syria, Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou said last month.
"This is a very alarming figure and no one could have predicted it previously," Rami tells Magharebia.
He says: "This is happening in a country which, at one time, no one would have expected to produce jihadists. But after the Arab Spring, it turned out that young people were attracted by the ideology of salafist jihadism."
"Ennahda, which tried to contain the salafist movement - including Ansar al-Sharia - has seen it blow up in everybody's faces," he adds.
Circumstances have enabled Ansar al-Sharia to make the transition from preaching to jihadist activity.
As for Ansar al-Sharia's increasingly violent stance, Rami suggests that this is closely linked to the war in Syria.
"These people have become more radicalised as their experience and resources have grown, thanks to the war in Syria. These resources are held by the armed wing, not the missionary wing, of Ansar al-Sharia," he explains.
The analyst charts the path: "At first, they relied on the context of acceptance by focusing more on preaching. The changes that happened in Libya, Mali, Egypt and Syria, and in particular the emergence of an armed Tunisian salafist faction in Syria, gave the group in Tunisia more experience and led it to adopt a more violent posture."
"The Libyan branch of Ansar al-Sharia has changed in a similar way," he adds.
The ICCT report states that Ansar al-Sharia's dawa activities were based on traditional methods, such as holding events at markets or universities, staging public demonstrations, and maintaining a strong presence in public places such as cafés close to places of worship.
But Ansar al-Sharia changed tactics, turning to weapons to impose its ideology. The question now is whether there will be a showdown with the authorities.
According to the ICCT chief, this will depend to a great extent on the government's ability to tackle certain elements within the group and to address their aspirations at the same time.
"It is essential to make a distinction between violent and non-violent figures and between their actions. Irreproachable governance systems and a very active civil society are needed to do this rigorously," Knoope says.
As for how the group will develop in North Africa, the expert is unable to give any clear-cut answers. "All that is very difficult to predict," he says. He posits that these organisations are working to magnify people's grievances and foster a sense of alienation.
"What we are seeing is a quest for perspective and identity among the population. A forum that is sufficiently open to debate, to enable critical voices to make themselves heard, is necessary in these times of uncertainty. Only then will the support base for violent messages be eroded," he argues.
He also warns that the new strategic approach adopted by Ansar al-Sharia should not be underestimated.
The best response, he says, is "international co-operation aimed at cutting off this organisation's finances and stopping it from operating in other ways, while working to make society more resistant".
Amel Boubekeur, a French Algerian expert on political Islam, says the Maghreb faces yet another threat.
"The estrangement of AQIM in the region may give hope to other jihadist movements, such as 'Daesh' (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), that they might be able to gain control of the pool of young people to recruit," she cautions.
But even though "it is one of these jihadist movements that wants to take advantage of local Arab conflicts to extend their influence", it will not be easy, she tells Magharebia. Especially in Libya.
"To establish itself directly in Libya," she says, "it would need to be able to buy off the other armed groups in the country."