Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) and a visiting research scholar in the Department of Politics at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. All of us, scholars of jihadi studies or those who simply have a passionate interest in this field, know him also as the founder of Jihadology.net, a fundamental source and archive of global jihadi primary materials.
By reading Zelin’s book, Your Sons are at Your Service: Tunisia’s Missionaries of Jihad, one has the opportunity to learn so much. Actually, the book should be studied and not just read, since reading it would not be enough to absorb the huge amount of knowledge provided by this study.
The book reflects nine years of in-depth research into the topic of Tunisian jihadism, which was also the basis for Zelin’s PhD dissertation. It analyzes the evolution of Ansar al-Shari’a Tunisia (AST) from the January 2011, the time of the Tunisian revolution against the secular ruler Zine al-Abedine Ben Ali, until the group became illegal in the country in August 2013. The book does not end there, and a significant quantity of information is presented through mid-2019, bring the reader nearly up-to-date on AST.
The book goes well beyond simply providing information on recent events to present a masterful historical contextualization of the pre-2011 past, which is crucial to understanding the present and its trends.
The author’s decision to choose a single country is not so common in jihadi studies. Narrowing the focus to the Tunisian case paradoxically allows Zelin to not only go deeper but wider in situating AST within the Ansar al-Sharia franchise across North Africa. As such, the book makes vital contributions to the discussions around jihadism, the Arab uprisings, and foreign terrorist fighters (FTFs), while being one of the masterpieces of scholarship on Tunisia and Islamism in Tunisia.
One of the crucial starting points of Zelin’s investigation is that, contrary to narratives common within the scholarly community and media, Tunisian society has never been completely secular and cosmopolitan. While the secular layers of society are stronger in Tunisia than in other neighboring countries—even the main Islamist movement, Harakat al-Nahdah, is regarded as moderate (and not just by comparison)—describing Tunisia as secular tout court is highly misleading.
Al-Qaeda had once worried it would be eclipsed by the “Arab spring” and the lack of major jihadi involvement in instigating and sustaining these protests, which toppled four governments reasonably quickly, seemed to vindicate this view. But the jihadists were able to capitalize on the aftermath of these revolutions — both the chaos and the improvements in freedom (prisoner amnesties, greater freedom of expression, etc.).
Zelin adumbrates the ways these unprecedented political and social environments were put to use by the jihadists, allowing such groups to operate in ways that were previously impossible, including applying their lessons-learned from past mistakes.
AST put its emphasis on dawa (missionary activity), which at the beginning represented a momentous departure from the conventional tactics that were being used by the global jihadi community. Later, other groups took on the model AST pioneered, placing dawa at the centre of their activities. So it was with the Ansar al-Shari’a groups in Libya and Egypt, various jihadist groups in Syria, and some of those in the orbit of Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).
A second theoretical milestone of the book, which Zelin shares with the American political scientist Erica Chenoweth, is that transitioning and relative fragile democracies with internally inconsistent institutions are more likely to experience domestic terrorism than advanced democracies and authoritarian regimes. Undoubtedly, Tunisia’s trajectory has borne this out.
The introduction hosts an excellent literature review on the growth in jihadi social services and the debate about leader-led versus leaderless jihad, triggered by the academic querelle between Marc Sageman and Bruce Hoffmann that began in 2008 after the publication of Sageman’s book, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the Twenty-First Century. More broadly, Zelin’s status quaestionis analyzes the evolution of jihadi studies, a field that is still very much a work-in-progress.
The book has eleven chapters and, according to the author himself, the content could be effectively split into three different blocks.
First, it analyzes the historical post-revolution conditions that helped the development of AST.
Second, it addresses AST’s strategic approaches and source mobilization patterns, such as the group’s messaging and connections, thus adopting research methodologies that are typical of social movement theory and political process approaches.
Finally, it scrutinizes the developments after AST was designated as a terrorist organization in the summer of 2013, the mobilization of those who were going to become FTFs, and the renewed domestic terror campaign.
The last chapter, “The future of the Tunisian Jihadi Movement,” proves to be particularly insightful as it raises a number of questions on crucial issues that will need to be addressed in the next few years, both from political and research perspectives. These issues range from the returning FTFs from Iraq, Syria, and Libya, to the radical movements within Tunisian prisons, and from the new countries and areas that Tunisian jihadists could reach in the future to the potential further evolution or mutation of the movement domestically from terrorism and insurgency to a social movement.
After its conclusions regarding the future of the Tunisian jihadi landscape, the books also includes a detailed note on terminology that addresses the most complex notions of jihadi studies, namely Islamism, Salafism, jihad, jihadi-salafism, dawa, and hisba, inserting them in a wide-ranging analyses of the diverse definitions provided by scholars from different backgrounds and theoretical perspectives.
From a methodological point of view, this historical research was informed primarily by qualitative analysis and process tracing, together with some basic quantitative assessments.
The book relies on an immense number of sources that had not previously been used, most of them simply unknown to most scholars, in particular old jihadi biographies from the 1980s and 1990s and a variety of court documents from the European Union, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Primary source material includes all what was publicly released by AST. Zelin was far-sighted enough to collect and archive more than 18,000 files over the years, since AST has used so far used ninety-four Facebook pages and more than ten Twitter accounts, as both Facebook and Twitter have tried to remove AST for violating their terms of service.
A further priceless source on which the book relies is a series of research trips to Tunisia that the author carried out between 2012 and 2019, where he met with members of AST in different cities and villages all over the country and with a returned foreign fighter from Syria.
The stupefying body of research contained in this volume, the precise but constantly engaging historical reconstruction, and the meticulous fieldwork from which it stems — along with the remarkable precision of the vocabulary — make it one of the best works in the field of jihadi studies in quite some time.
Your Sons are at Your Service should definitely be on the bookshelf of all scholars in both the terrorism field and of the Middle East more broadly.