Intro and Analysis
Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia has traditionally been known as a pro-Islamic State outfit, something not entirely divorced from reality. When the dispute between what was then ISIS and Jabhat al-Nusra emerged in 2013, an official in the group put out a lengthy treatise affirming that it was obligatory for members of Jabhat al-Nusra to switch their allegiance to ISIS. Further, as has been noted many times before, the Islamic State features a disproportionate number of Tunisian fighters within its ranks.
However, I agree with my colleague Daveed Gartenstein-Ross that solely noting these points constitutes a one-sided narrative, as illustrated by some more recent evidence. Indeed, having been pro-ISIS last year or sympathising with ISIS when the wider infighting broke out with rebels does not automatically lead to accepting the Islamic State's demand that all Muslims pledge allegiance to leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi (cf. Jamaat Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis took ISIS' side in the infighting and appears to work with IS-aligned jihadis in the Gaza-Sinai area, but nothing actually points to a formal pledge of allegiance to the Islamic State as Egyptian press reports claimed relying on some Twitter account calling itself "Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis").
As regards Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia, we should first note that the group advertised recent operations by the al-Qaeda-in-the-Islamic-Maghreb (AQIM) linked Katiba Uqba ibn Nafi; second, Ansar al-Sharia on Facebook (though since deleted as the group has had to set up a new page) had apparently shared AQIM's July statement rejecting the Islamic State's Caliphate announcement. But finally, and most importantly, we have this Eid al-Fitr statement, which, as Gartenstein-Ross notes, points to an al-Qa'ida-alignment while wishing to stay anti-fitna. Not only does Ansar al-Sharia extend tribute to Baghdadi, Zawahiri and Jowlani, but the statement also begins by extending such tribute to Mullah Omar, to whom al-Qaeda recently reaffirmed its oath of allegiance, and then Zawahiri, and then Baghdadi. This order cannot have been a mere coincidence, especially when one considers that Ansar al-Sharia says that the leaders of the mujahideen across the world are "headed" by Mullah Omar.
It should be noted that Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia's stance has some parallel elsewhere: compare with this video message from Ansar al-Tawheed in Bilad al-Hind, in which the speaker appeals to both Aymenn al-Zawahiri and Baghdadi (among others; e.g. hails Baghdadi as "conqueror of the Nusayris") in glowing terms for help, but begins with Zawahiri's name first. To be sure, this message came before the announcement of the Caliphate, so attitudes might have changed now, but here we see the same kind of attempt to stay neutral while implicitly acknowledging al-Qa'ida Central as supreme.
More generally, I would say that this statement from Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia illustrates that one can be liable to overestimate the impact of the Caliphate direction. It is certainly true that the majority of foreign fighters who head to the Syria-Iraq arena join the Islamic State, but Al-Qaeda's main affiliates, while undoubtedly having pro-IS members, have officially remained loyal and rejected the Caliphate declaration. Also, none of the major groupings that have shown pro-ISIS tendencies from last year have made formal pledges of allegiance to the Islamic State. Thus, I stand by the assessment I gave to the Jerusalem Post that the overall trend does not definitely point one way or the other in terms of who is the leading global jihad brand, and at best, as I later indicated, the Caliphate declaration only reinforces existing divisions. This is so even if Ansar al-Sharia Libya eventually comes out with a formal pledge to the Islamic State.
In any event, below is my translation of Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia Eid al-Fitr message:
"Tribute from Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia in relation to the blessed Eid al-Fitr
It behooves us to congratulate the Islamic Ummah on the blessed Eid al-Fitr, and we single out from it its stars, its sires, and minarets of glory in it- the amirs of jihad, its leaders and sheikhs in every place, headed by Mullah Muhammad Omar Mujahid, Sheikh Aymenn al-Zawahiri, Sheikh Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Jowlani, Sheikh Abu Basir al-Wuhaysh,[i] Sheikh Mukhtar Abu al-Zubayr,[ii] Sheikh Abu Mus'ab al-Wadud,[iii] Sheikh Muhammad al-Zahawi,[iv] Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Shishani, Sheikh Abu al-Fadl al-Mali, Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi- may God protect and strengthen them- and Sheikh Omar Abdel Rahman and Sheikh Abu Qatada al-Falastini and Sheikh Sulayman bin Nasir al-Alwan- may God strengthen and release them.
Similarly we particularly extend our tribute to the families of supporters from among the martyrs and prisoners who outline in their endurance and torment the greatest of sermons, so may Eid help all of you, and may God perpetuate you as crowns on our heads and as the beauty of pride, heroism, and gallantry on the chest of every ansari as your sons guide for him the path and relate it to him with their blood and outline it for him with their skulls.
And we ask the Almighty to accept from us and from them force, jihad, abstinence, undertaking, and the rest of the commands and sacrifices.
Oh Muslims in the land of Qairwan:[v]
Last Eid had come upon you with more of the swelling of taghut and its following, and the unveiling of its face on its gentleness and ugliness; and there appeared its malice, its pain and hatred, but as long as there were the rituals of your religion irritating it [taghut] and its soldiers, and your gatherings and meetings were a thorn in its eye, and your firmness, patience and preparation were a nightmare making its bed rough, so it [taghut] was watching for one opportunity after another in which to massacre your brothers, take your youth prisoner and drive out your righteous sons, so that the greatest darkness from the unrighteous people has treated you with hostility for no reason except for the fact that you sought to relieve them in the shadow of God's law.
Indeed the inner portion that follows the remainder of the morsel has been denied to you, souls that refuse life except under the shade of servitude, and these same things choke you with the air of self-liberation and freedom, but there has remained with you the companion of glory that is not sought and the angel that does not vanish, so do not forsake its faithfulness before you, but before you there are return and withdrawal, then before you there is a choice of change and revolution or contentment with oppression and injustice….God is in your religion…
As for you, you stakes of tyranny and their soldiers and marshals:
Here you see your rulers are in an alliance with the Jews and Christians in the war on the Ummah in its religion, its world and nobleness but also its right to a dignified life and in the Ummah they are imposing non-Shari'a of God rule,[vi] and you see the state of the Ummah for its evil and the state of its overlords from wealth to wealth. So for how long will you be content with merely remaining seditious while your tyrannical overlords strike the sons of the Ummah? How long will you be content with death for the sake of the life of these criminal kuffar?
So wake up before it's too late, free your minds from fear and give support to righteousness and know that it will not hurt you except what God has prescribed for you; so wake up and return to your religion and Ummah, and you will find us as Khalid (may God be pleased with him) found the Messenger of God may God's peace and blessings be upon him.
As for you, you who announced war on Islam and Muslims, and have oppressed and humiliated the people and have been content to be lashes whipping the back of the Ummah:
Indeed you show your burdensome stupidity in the lack of use of eloquence that has been provided for you in a prior time, and also you interpreted our ambition concerning you as cowardice and the indifference of our youth concerning some who brought humiliation and servility on them. And the events that the land of Qairwan has witnessed since last May at the hands of the mujahideen brothers from AQIM centered in the mountains is proof that you only understand the language of force and you only listen to the voice of the rifle, so as long as you persist we say to you that you are not the first of tyrants, and you are not the first to have made war on God- Almighty and Exalted is He- so make your choice.
If you want peace and justice, so come to a common word between us and you, but if you choose war, that is what you want, and revenge for our martyrs and prisoners will continue, and indeed you have tested and known as war is days and states, but bear in mind the story of Hayyah bin Akhtab when he offered to kill in front of the Messenger of God (God's peace and blessings be upon him): Whosoever fights God, he is overcome.
To conclude, we take this blessed occasion to offer our blessings to the mujahideen in all arenas as regards the divine conquests that God has provided them in this blessed month, and we single out among them our heroic brothers in the mountains of the land of Qairwan, lying in wait among the enemy and districts, and our brothers in Ansar al-Sharia in Libya[vii] who have drawn out the most magnificent epic battles in the last 10 days of Ramadan with a series of raids (enter at their gate) that spilled over to the breaking of the partisan Sa'iqa forces of the figure of taghut Heftar in Benghazi…
[Remainder calls for God to aid Muslims in Gaza, Palestine, Central African Republic, Daghestan, and every place etc.].
[i] Leader of AQAP.
[ii] Leader of Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen
[iii] Leader of AQIM.
[iv] Leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Libya.
[v] The following is in reference to the de facto ban on Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia as a terrorist group since summer 2013. Qairwan is the locality where Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia was going to have its third annual meeting in 2013 until the Tunisian government barred the group from holding the meeting. Land of Qairwan also means Tunisia more generally.
[vi] Typical jihadi narrative in which the Muslim world's problems and decline are attributed to deviation from earlier periods of supposed adherence to Shari'a in public life and government in the totality.
[vii] Considering that many members of Ansar al-Sharia Tunisia took refuge with Ansar al-Sharia Libya, hardly surprising here to see the singling out for praise.