The leader of Ansar al-Sharia, Saif-Allah Benhassine, nicknamed Abu Iyadh, is wanted by Tunisian police and has gone underground. Government officials blamed his followers for a mob attack on the U.S. Embassy in September in which four people were killed and embassy buildings were heavily damaged.
In addition, an armed band calling itself the Uqba ibn Nafa Brigade has been discovered training for jihad, or holy war, around Mount Chaambi in far-western Tunisia, near the border with Algeria. The Interior Ministry said paramilitary troops have made a number of arrests and are seeking 20 Tunisians and 11 Algerians known to be among the would-be fighters.
The 18,000-man Tunisian army, which has been scouring the mountainous region for more than a month to break up the camps, has suffered three deaths in roadside bombings. Another soldier died after being accidentally shot by a fellow soldier during an ambush.
‘We want the sharia’
Al-Qayrawan, an inland city 120 miles south of Tunis, has been the historical center of Islam here since the arrival in the 7th century of a conquering Arab general, Uqba ibn Nafi. The stately Great Mosque, which Uqba ordered built using columns lifted from Roman ruins, was a renowned seat of Islamic and secular learning and has become one of Islam’s major shrines.
More recently, al-Qayrawan has been like a political whirlpool, attracting the currents swirling over Tunisia as it seeks to define its new personality.
Up to a third of the 150,000 residents are Salafist to one degree or another, visible in the narrow streets with their full beards and black marks on their foreheads. One such resident, a heavyset accountant with a reddish beard who had just finished noon prayers at the Laforati Mosque, said the Salafist goal is to “finish what we started” with the coup against Ben Ali.
“We want the sharia. All Tunisians want the sharia,” said a companion, adding with a smile that his name was “Osama, but not bin Laden.”
Ansar al-Sharia tried to hold a convention in al-Qayrawan last month, thinking it would be on friendly ground. But the government banned it, saying Ansar leaders failed to get a required permit. Hundreds of soldiers were deployed, touching off violent protests in al-Qayrawan and Tunis during which, according to Prime Minister Ali Larayedh, about 200 Islamist radicals were arrested.