The name “Ansar al-Sharia” (Supporters of Islamic Law) has become ubiquitous, as a number of political Salafist groups, connected primarily by their allegiance to the legal opinions of a select number of controversial clerics of the jihadist bent such as the Jordanian Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, throughout the MENA region, and particularly in Arab Spring countries, have taken up the label. This most likely has something to do with one of the final directives of Osama Bin Laden for his al-Qaeda organization to rebrand itself with a name that more clearly expressed its connection to the Islamic world. Of the ten names he offered as suggestions, none of them mention the word “sharia.” The majority of them emphasize unifying the Muslim community with three explicitly identifying the liberation of al-Aqsa mosque as the ultimate goal.
But more important than the mere changing of names for marketing purposes is the very clear change in strategy that Bin Laden had been calling for and that Ansar al-Sharia International (ASI) represents. Within the documents found in the Bin Laden compound in Abbottabad, one can find harsh criticisms of the Pakistani Taliban and other regional jihadist groups affiliated to al-Qaeda Central (AQC) for their obsession with fighting local enemies and their exaggeration of the “barricade” argument. The barricade argument refers to a debate within classical Islamic Law regarding to what extent collateral damage leading to the death of non-combatants is allowable in proportion to the importance of a specific enemy target. Bin Laden argued for revisions that would take into account the exponentially higher number of civilian casualties that modern warfare causes as opposed to pre-modern warfare. Doubtless, most of these criticisms find their origins in the reckless tactics used by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi in Iraq and Jordan.
Bin Laden’s directive that his followers learn to deal with the Muslim masses with “kindness, forgiveness, patience” and to “not tax them beyond their ability” is reflected generally in the methods and approach used by ASI. Whereas the “Islamic State of Iraq” (ISI) might have been forbidding music and cigarettes, ASI, for the most part, have steered clear of hisba (enforcement of public morality) activities involving the use of force, instead handing out literature, providing food, water, clothing, and other basic necessities to the neediest of their respective countries. While they have used similar methods in Yemen, Tunisia, and the other countries where they have appeared, the results have been different depending on the varied circumstances existing within each country. What follows is a discussion of the origins of and most recent developments within each branch of ASI, concluding with an analysis of what role the Ansar al-Sharia franchises, and politically activist radical Salafists in general, play in the larger picture of the MENA region post-Arab Spring.
The last official communiqués from Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen (AAS) came in October and December of last year with all major 2013 statements being produced under the banner of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The late-2012 statements from AAS discussed US plans to “occupy” Yemen, a clear implementation of Bin Laden’s order to AAS that they focus on American military and other US targets instead of bogging themselves down in clashes with Yemeni security forces or the Shiite Houthis, along with a denial of the authenticity of any social networking accounts other than those under the title of their production arm, the Madad News Agency. The document released by AQAP this past March concerned the negotiation of a truce between them and the Yemeni government as mediated by the senior Yemeni clerical establishment. These negotiations failed when, after the emir of both AQAP and AAS, Nasir al-Wuhayshi, signed the agreement to cease fighting for two months and acceded to all conditions placed by the head of Yemen’s Political Security Organization (PSO), the government pulled out from talks. The clerical establishment of Yemen has placed full blame for the breakdown in negotiations on the state.
The oldest and most effective of the various Ansar al-Sharia groups, leaders of AQAP openly acknowledge the fact that AAS is, for all intents and purposes, an alternative label for al-Qaeda. With the name “Supporters of Islamic Law,” and through marriage and tribal alliances, al-Qaeda was able to recruit other militant groups and large numbers of Yemenis into the fold. From March 2011 to June 2012, AAS was able to establish several emirates throughout Abyan and Shabwa provinces, providing water, electricity, sewage pipes, trash collection, policing and security, and a number of sorely needed provisions to one of the most impoverished and neglected parts of the nation. By mid-2012, AAS had withdrawn from direct control of the area and reverted to guerilla warfare, after a surge from the Yemeni military supported by US drones strikes. The reason they gave for their withdrawal, that they wished to prevent the further destruction of Abyan and murder of its people at the hands of Saleh’s army and its US backers, was a prime piece of propaganda handed to them by the state, the credibility of which was only heightened by the fact that, after more than 2 billion dollars worth of property damage and thousands displaced, many of the basic services provided by AAS are not being provided by the central government. As late as May of this year, towns in southern Abyan have seen a spate of hit and run attacks on security forces as AAS slowly increases its public presence, ready to retake control of the areas that remain neglected by the current coalition government, taking the Afghan Taliban’s resurgence as a model.
After the May 19 clashes between police and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST) during the group’s third annual conference, arrests of Tunisian Salafists and suspected members of AST have increased. Previous confrontations include what started as a demonstration outside the US embassy in September of 2012, degenerating into violence between police and AST with both sides claiming that the other side provoked the violence. Prior to this, clashes broke out between the two during a protest of the televised airing of the film Persepolis, with AST again blaming police for instigating the altercation. Anyone who has ever dealt with Tunisian police, who have a long history of excessive brutality, should not take the claims of their initiating violence lightly.
Founded in early 2011 by Abu Ayad al-Tunisi, an ally of Tarik Maaroufi who had ties to the two Tunisian al-Qaeda assassins of Afghan Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Masoud two days before the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, AST is about the same age as its Yemeni counterpart, making it, along with AAS, the oldest of AS organizations. Through its publications and video releases, showcasing their humanitarian activities, AST laid out the format in which most other AS groups would operate. Early on, the leadership of AST emphasized the fact that post-Ben Ali Tunisia was a place of preaching the message of a “purified” Islam and not armed rebellion. Abu Ayad, now in hiding, discouraged Tunisian Salafis from leaving the country to participate in the Syrian Civil War, calling on them to remain in Tunisia and join AST in their charity work, developing an Islamic-oriented trade union to counterbalance the leftist unions that are currently dominant, and organizing public demonstrations for the release of Tunisian detainees in Iraq imprisoned for having participated in the Sunni insurgency. Even Abu Yahya al-Shinqiti, an elder Mauritanian of the Sharia Committee of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib, just before the clashes of May 19, 2013, warned AS Tunisia against falling into violence provoked by police brutality, calling them to “patience and wisdom,” a type of satyagraha Salafi-Jihadism.
Algeria, unlike Tunisia according to AQIM, is a dar al-harb (land of war) and not a dar al-dawa (land of preaching) and therefore, no Ansar al-Sharia in Algeria has been formed. One could argue that, like al-Qaeda in Yemen, the Algerian franchise could use an AS Algeria to represent a political and humanitarian face to the Algerian population. However, unlike AQAP, AQIM has never held any territory for any period of time with the intent of governing, nor does that seem to be a goal of theirs, and Algeria is not a failed state as is Yemen, and so the situation is not analogous. AQIM has, on the other hand, increased its ties with Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, and have released videos, showcased on its new blog and official Twitter page, in which they call on the moderate Islamist Tunisian Ennahda party to end its harsh stance towards Salafi-Jihadists and to negotiate not only with AST, but also AQIM itself. These videos and written statements barely hide the fact that, while AQIM has no intention of launching attacks against the government of Tunisia, as they did in 2007 not long after Algerian Salafi-Jihadists, who had been waging an insurgency in Algeria since the early 90s, pledged their allegiance to al-Qaeda Central, they do intend to use parts of Tunisia as a base to launch operations against the Bouteflika regime.
Ansar al-Sharia in Mali, founded by Omar Ould Bou Hamaha in December of 2012, is comprised primarily of its leader’s fellow Arab tribesmen, the Barabiche, as well as other Arab tribes from in and around Timbuktu. From the beginning, Bou Hamaha denied any ideological differences behind his founding of a new group after having fought alongside all other major Jihadist groups in Mali, such as AQIM and its splinter group the al-Mulathimin Brigades, Ansar Dine, and the Movement for Unity and Jihad. According to Bou Hamaha, the only reason for the creation of AS Mali was to concentrate on recruiting the Arab tribes for the jihad in Mali as Ansar Dine was composed almost entirely of Tuareg militants.
AS Mali is said to have close links with its Libyan namesake as well as ties of marriage with members of AQIM. So far, outside of its ethnic composition, it has not distinguished itself from any of the other groups operating in the area. The adoption of the name Ansar al-Sharia seems merely to have been a way of capitalizing on the popularity it has attained in other countries and in compliance with the orders of former al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden. It was not followed by major work in providing aid and resources to impoverished Malians or with preaching, the typical modus operandi of ASI elsewhere. With the French intervention, jihadist groups have been moving into neighboring Niger and launching attacks there, though AS Mali has not been credited with participating in any of them.
Ten months after the deadly attack on the US Consulate and CIA annex in Benghazi, the Battalions of Ansar al-Sharia (ASB), continue to patrol the streets, providing security and humanitarian aid that the Libyan army is incapable of providing. Reports of their flight, no more than a brief detour to the Green Mountains along with some time in the Sahara to coordinate with AS Mali, have been greatly exaggerated. ASB grew out of the militias engaged in the 2011 Libyan Civil War. Later that year, they sparked controversy by demolishing Sufi shrines in Benghazi and Tripoli where practices such as praying to the deceased saints for intercession with God, a practice anathema to purist Salafism, were said to have been taking place. In actuality, it seems that many of these sites were no longer the widely attended loci of folk Islam that they once were. ASB, since that time, have not performed any more demolitions, most likely due to the negative attention it brought upon them and the general unpopularity of the demolitions themselves. Instead they have focused on the main tactics of Ansar al-Sharia International, providing charitable services to the community. So long as the Libyan government is unable to provide basic services to the citizens of Benghazi, it is difficult to imagine that a well-armed, well-trained and well-funded militia that does not tax residents, neither financially nor through enforcing strict public morality, will be driven out any time soon.
The last major event regarding the Ansar al-Sharia of the Islamic Maghrib was in late October and early November of last year, when a number of AS members were arrested on charges of plotting to attack government buildings, public figures, and tourist attractions. Two weeks earlier, October 21, 2012, a leader of AS Morocco, Hassan Younsi, had been arrested after leaving the home of Sheikh Omar al-Haddouchi, a preacher labeled by Moroccan media as one of the leaders of so-called Salafi-Jihadi trend. The group had only announced its formation a month earlier, on September 17, via the Internet, opening an official Facebook page and posting a brief document outlining their doctrine and goals. According to the document, their focus would be only preaching for full and immediate implementation of Islamic Law and against secularism. Armed action against the Moroccan government or infrastructure was deemed illegitimate. They appeared in a few, rather small, demonstrations calling for the release of Islamist prisoners and protesting prison torture. Keeping the document in mind, and being aware of the underlying goals of ASI, it is highly doubtful that the charges of planning domestic terrorist attacks are nothing more than fabrications. However, allegations of recruiting Moroccan youth for joining conflicts in other areas like Syria, Algeria, and parts of the Sahara are most likely factual.
Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco does not seem to stand a chance of surviving. The senior Afghan veterans (as well as Moroccan veterans from a number of other jihadi arenas including Iraq), Salafist prisoners and torture victims, and politically activist Salafi scholars threw all their support behind the Committee for the Defense of Islamist Detainees (CCDDI). Al-Haddouchi, after his meeting with Younsi, denounced the formation of AS Morocco as divisive and called for activist Salafists to join the CCDDI. Hasan al-Kattani and Abu Hafs al-Rafiqi denied having any involvement with the group and went so far as to denounce the use of the name “supporters of Islamic Law” as insinuating that only those who are part of the movement truly support sharia to the exclusion of the rest of Moroccan Muslims. The CCDDI focuses all their attention on protesting the torture of Islamist prisoners and not on changing the nature of the state or on calling for a pan-Islamic Caliphate, which is the primary focus of AS Morocco, though not through force of arms.
With its July 6th announcement to train and arm itself in response to the ouster of Egyptian President Mohammad Mursi, Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt (ASE) has been touted as the newest group to take on the name. This is both true and false. While this current armed formulation of ASE, centered in the Sinai, can be called “new,” Ansar al-Sharia Misr has been the alternate name of al-Taliah al-Salafiyah al-Mujahediyah (The Struggling Salafist Vanguard) since, at the latest, mid-2012. ASE was founded by Afghan-Arab veteran Ahmad ‘Ashush after being released in 2011 along with a number of Salafi-Jihadists in the wake of the Arab Spring. Upon the release of Muhammad al-Zawahiri, younger brother of al-Qaeda Central’s leader Ayman, al-Zawahiri immediately became the more prominent and visible figure of the group. The Sinai branch of ASE, perhaps ironically, most likely finds its origins during the 2012 negotiations for a truce between the Egyptian army and armed Sinai Salafists that were mediated by none other than Muhammad al-Zawahiri himself, as per the decision of government officials who helped facilitate al-Zawahiri’s travel to the peninsula.
Without much charity work to their credit, ASE has focused on publishing written and video statements through their media outlet, al-Bayyan Media. Public demonstrations organized by ASE concentrate on calling for the establishment of an Islamic State and criticizing other Salafi trends, like Hizb al-Nur (The Light Party), the political arm of the Salafi Call Society of Alexandria, for participating in the political process. Statements by Muhammad al-Zawahiri, following the Egyptian army’s ousting of Mursi, called not to armed confrontation but to mass rallies and “a jihad of the pen” through the press. A strong reading of the statement released by the Sinai branch shows that there is no contradiction between the two documents. ASE in the Sinai claims that the purpose of training and arming themselves and fellow religious Egyptians is for the sake of self-defense against attacks initiated by the army and the “baltagiya.” As the military and violent gangs continue to refine and perfect the recipe for radicalization, through the massacre of protesters in Cairo and now the brutal murder of the 78-year-old father-in-law of popular and politically quietist Salafi Sheikh Abu Ishaq al-Huwayni, who had actually called on Mursi supporters to return to their homes, the argument of self-preservation gains a semblance of validity.
One of the latest groups to use the name, Ansar al-Sharia fi Bilad al-Shinqit announced its formation publicly late last month, after having been founded by Ahmed Salem Ould al-Hasan and several other jailed Islamists in the central prison of Dar Naim last February. Their stated goals are the same as all other Ansar al-Sharia groups: the combatting of secularism, the full and complete establishment of an Islamic Law untainted by the influence of secular legal codes, and the promotion of (Salafist-Jihadist) ulama to positions of leadership in the government. An event was held in Nouakchott on Friday, June 21st, attended by politician and Vadhila Party leader Cheikh Outhmane Ould Cheikh Abi al-Maali. The following Sunday, Ansar al-Sharia member Khalid Ould Semane called upon all Mauritanians to support the group and their cause.
The Arab Spring has not affected Mauritania, unlike Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya where the Ansar al-Sharia groups have found more fertile ground for recruitment. It is difficult to discern how much of an impact this group will have in the country, the only nation in North Africa to refer to itself as an Islamic republic. It might be possible for the group to play on certain ambiguities found in the language of the Mauritanian religious establishment that make it difficult to define the precise nature of the relationship between religion and the state. For example, the response of Mauritanian mufti Ahmedu Ould Lemrabott Ould Habib al-Rahman to the demands of AS Mauritania argued that anyone who desire the application of the sharia ought to remove themselves from political activity, arguing that al-amr bi’l maruf wa-l-nahy ‘an al-munkar (commanding towards good and the forbidding of vice) is an action outside the sphere of politics. This only begs the question as to whether or not Mauritania is a truly Islamic state; a question that Ansar al-Sharia would resolutely answer in the negative.
If ASI has as its long-term goals, after the current dawa stage, hisba followed by jihad against Western hegemony in the MENA, and it undoubtedly does, then the question arises as to how are they to be dealt with. All three terms used to define the strategy of ASI are filled with a religious import that is sacred to a much larger portion of the Muslim population than just those who identify with the label “Salafi.” Were all those who have been lumped together under this term to openly disavow it, as many have, then what one is left with are a large number of organized, ultra-conservative Sunni Muslims angered by the very real corruption, repression and brutal torture that Arab regimes inflict upon their opposition as well as what they view as a campaign by the US and its allies to inflict as much death and destruction as possible upon Muslim countries. Eliminating Salafism or Salafi-Jihadism will not eliminate these sentiments. The fact that the largest Islamist opposition group in Morocco is the Sufi-oriented Justice and Benevolence Party shows this to be the case.
The only realistic means of mitigating further radicalization and escalation of violence by Salafist groups is in the curbing of violence and torture inflicted by the governments and security agencies of the MENA region against its citizens. False confessions extracted from men, women, children, and the elderly through torture has been a matter of fact in Mauritania for years, particularly from the Dar Naim prison where AS Mauritania was born, as well as in Morocco, against both Salafis and non-Salafis, along with every other country where the Supporters of Islamic Law are present. Political Salafists and Islamists have been at the forefront of making the public aware of prison torture, providing them with a level of cultural capital that they can use to position themselves as the inheritors of those martyrs and preachers who suffered for their faith in the early years of Islam.
According to one of the earliest biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, the first martyr of Islam was said to have been a woman named Sumayya, an African slave and the seventh to embrace the new faith in Mecca. After enduring torture at the hands of Abu Jahl, leader of the opposition to the new religion, she was stabbed in her genitals whereupon she died (Ibn Ishaq, Sirat Rasul Allah). Today, we find similar stories emanating from prisons throughout the MENA region. Another hadith reports the Prophet Muhammad telling his followers in Mecca at a time when the oppression and torture of the fledgling religious community had reached its height, “Among those who were before you (the Christians) a man would be seized, a pit would be dug for him and he would be placed in it. A saw would be brought and put on his head, which would be split in two. His flesh would be combed with iron combs and removed from his bones, and yet, all that did not cause him to revert from his religion” (Bukhari 4/56/809). The story is said to be of a 6th-century Christian missionary in pre-Islamic Yemen whose martyrdom eventually led to the Yemen becoming a Christian land; a land dominated by the “true believers” of that time. State torture fuels the political culture of self-sacrifice, monopolized by Islamists, and makes Arab regimes the counterparts of Islamic history’s earliest villains, while Salafis become the most worthy successors of Islam’s greatest heroes. Any escalation in state violence, torture, and imprisonment without trial can only lend credence to the worldview espoused by ASI, with the potential to greatly increase the number of supporters of the Supporters of Sharia.