By Aaron Y. Zelin
Last weekend, thousands of Salafis filled the streets of Avenue Habib Bourguiba demonstrating in support of the Qur‘an. It was overshadowed though by the actions of some climbing the clock tower and confronting a theater group staging a separate event at the Municipal Theater nearby. Some news that went unnoticed though was the return of Tarek Maaroufi, a Tunisian who had recently been released from Belgian prison after serving for a number of terror charges, who arrived and also attended the Salafi show of force last Sunday.
According to Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (better know as Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi), who co-founded the Tunisian Combat Group (TCG) with Maaroufi in June 2000 and currently the leader of the salafi-jihadi group Ansar al-Shari‘ah in Tunisia (AST), in an interview this past Friday with the Tunisian Le Temps newspaper, Maaroufi’s stay would only last ten days. Though it is possible that Maaroufi may be visiting family, he lived his entire adult life in Brussels and was stripped of his Belgian citizenship while imprisoned in January 2009. Therefore, it is highly unlikely Maaroufi will be returning to Belgium. This raises two important questions: (1) does Maaroufi still believe in the global jihadi worldview and (2) where does he plan to go after his stay in Tunisia (if he even decides to leave)? Answering these two questions may help determine what his future course is and what it may mean for Tunisia.
Regarding the first, when Maaroufi landed at Tunis–Carthage International Airport, ANSAmed reported that Maaroufi “was happy to have seen that jihad is also in the minds of Tunisians.” This suggests that even though he was imprisoned for nine years, he still had a zeal for jihadism. It is believed that Maaroufi’s jihadi career stretches as far back as 1991 when he first made contact with Rachid Ramda, currently serving a life sentence in France, who is linked to the 1995 Paris Metro bombings, and headed the various European Groupe Islamique Armé (GIA) cells.
While in Brussels, Maaroufi was known for being associated with the GIA and was the leader of the “Brussels cell,” a group of individuals that supported various jihadi fronts during the 1990s with money, recruitment, and the forgery of documentation. Maaroufi was originally arrested in 1995 and sentenced to three years along with eleven others for planning a terror attack in Europe. He would be released only a year later and was put on three years’ probation. The arrest and probation, though, did not deter further activities within the jihadi movement. He began to recruit individuals for the jihad in Chechnya against the Russians. Maaroufi later traveled to Afghanistan in 2000, where he formed the TCG with Abu Ayyad. After returning to Belgium, he would be implicated in many terrorist plots, and one of the most notorious attacks. He was linked to the US Embassy in Paris plot broken up in September 2001, the Kleine Brogel NATO Air Base plot in the fall of 2001, and the Philips Tower plot in 2002. Maaroufi was also associated with cells that were eventually broken up and whose members were arrested in Frankfort and Milan. Maaroufi’s claim to fame though is the facilitation and planning of the assassination of Ahmad Shah Mehsud, former leader of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, two days prior to the 9/11 attacks. Maaroufi would eventually be charged twice, first in 2003 and then later in 2004 for his involvement in terrorism activities and sentenced accordingly six years and then five years in prison, suggesting he was released two years early.
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.
Aaron Y. Zelin is a researcher in the Department of Politics at Brandeis University. He maintains the website Jihadology.net and co-edits the al-Wasat blog.