Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia issued a statement Tuesday declaring their long-standing loyalty to “jihadist groups” and warned that the authorities are “dragging the country into a bloodbath.”
The statement was posted on a Facebook account identifying itself as the group’s official page.
The five-page release comes in response to government accusations last week that members of the group were involved in the assassinations of two opposition politicians this year, as well as in violence by armed fighters in western Tunisia that has claimed the lives of a number of Tunisian soldiers.
The group accused the government of creating a pretext that would allow the United States to “directly intervene” in Tunisia by designating it a terrorist organization.
The government has asserted a connection between Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, but Tuesday’s statement left its relationships with outside groups uncertain.
The group asserted its “organizational independence” and stated that it is “not linked to any group abroad.”
The statement did, however, reference a “loyalty” to other organizations outside Tunisia.
“Our loyalty to qaeda al-jihad and all jihadist groups in the world has been declared since day one,” the statement read.
Aaron Zelin, a researcher on Muslim extremist groups at the Washington Institute, said the phrase “qaeda al-jihad” references al-Qaeda’s official name in a Twitter post on Wednesday.
However, the phrase can also mean “principle” or “base” of jihad, which has many meanings, including individual moral struggle and violence against those not conforming to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islam.
Prime Minister Ali Laarayedh declared Ansar al-Sharia a terrorist organization on August 26, formally criminalizing all of the groups’ activities. The group has been considered illegal since May, when it was banned after refusing to file for a permit to hold its annual conference in Kairouan.
Since then, the government has conducted multiple raids, including some on mosques, arresting people they claim to be “extremists.” The Ministry of Defense has also escalated anti-militant operations, including on Chaambi Mountain near Tunisia’s border with Algeria. Areas around the southern borders with Algeria and Libya were declared restricted security zones last week.
“This oppressive government and its ministry of terrorism want chaos and to drag this country into a bloodbath,” Ansar al-Sharia said.
The group also referred to current political negotiations and the prosecution of members of the Ennahdha movement under the government of former President Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali. Ennahdha, which is now Tunisia’s ruling party, has an Islamist ideology.
The government is classifying Ansar al-Sharia as a terrorist group in an attempt to divert attention from the “catastrophe” of the “alliance with Essebsi,” the statement said, referring to the leader of the Nidaa Tounes opposition party.
“Ennahdha in the 1990s preferred to lead their sons like sheep into prison,” the statement said, adding that Ansar al-Sharia will not do the same.
Despite the official ban on its activities that was announced in May, Ansar al-Sharia has continued to conduct charity activities, heavily promoting them on its Facebook page.
Asma Smadhi contributed reporting