Ansar al-Sharia: Al-Qaeda's Response to Arab Spring

Ansar al-Sharia is the post-Arab Spring face of militant Islamism and has adapted to the times in a unique way, writes Mohammed Abu Rumman and Hassan Abu Haniya.

Topics covered


Jan 7, 2013

The emergence of Ansar al-Sharia [Partisans of Islamic Law] in several Arab countries as democratic uprisings sweep across the Arab world represents a new phase of the Salafist-jihadist movement and its strategic goals.

Al-Qaeda ideology — based on assumptions that close and distant enemies of Islam must be fought and that armed actions are the only way to make political change and that "globalizing jihad" is necessary to win over public opinion — has failed to meet the expectations of democratic revolutions. Indeed, in the heat of the Arab uprisings, al-Qaeda's violent preaching proved to be inconsistent with needs of the revolutionary climate.

Thus, the leaders of the Salafist jihadist movement in the Arab world decided to restructure the group's priorities, options and goals through what can be described as the process of "ideological adaptation." On the one hand, this process has been necessary to bridge the large ideological gaps and to launch a new phase that would not conflict with the new reality in the Arab world, on the other.

However, this ought to be done without renouncing the "backbone" of the group's ideology, which is based on imposing Sharia law, and rejecting the democratic game.

"Jihadist" perception of the democratic revolutions

According to some analysts, the death of Osama Bin Laden "brought down the curtain" on al-Qaeda, which emerged as a result of mismanagement and failures on the part of the different Arab regimes over the past decades. They believed that democratic uprisings in the Arab world dealt a heavy blow to the founder of the group and his militant organization. They say that the revolutions provided the Arab youth with a more strategic option, far from al-Qaeda's jihadist path, in confronting the Arab regimes.

However, Salafist-jihadist advocates had something else to say in the matter. They saw these Arab uprisings as a means to rescue al-Qaeda from a fierce and lurking enemy: the Arab regimes.

They believe that the revolutions paved the way for the Arab people to enjoy higher degrees of freedom, independence and dignity, allowing them to choose their own governments as was the case in Egypt and Tunisia, where previous regimes were strongly hostile to al-Qaeda and like-minded Islamist movements in general.

From these disparate perspectives, one can begin to assimilate al-Qaeda's reading of the revolutions and their repercussions in the Arab region. Hence, one ought to pay close attention to the rhetoric of al-Qaeda’s influential and prominent leaders regarding the democratic revolutions, in order to better understand the group's view of the uprisings and their implications on the global level.

In this context, the messages of Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda's main theorist and No. 1 man at the moment, on the Arab uprisings in Egypt in particular, are seen as significant "documents" on the matter. Most importantly one must mention Zawahiri's message of "Hope and Glad Tidings to Our People in Egypt," dated Rabi' al-Thani 1432 [March 2011].

There is also an article by Abu Yahya al-Libi, a mufti and another prominent figure of al-Qaeda, titled "People's Revolutions: Between Impressions and Effects,” which appeared in the 18th issue of “Vanguards of Khorasan” Magazine.

Vanguards of Khorasan magazine is the most influential magazine of the organization, voicing the stances of its most prominent leaders. Finally, an article titled "Tsunami of Change," by Anwar al-Awlaki, another leading figure in the militant organization, appeared in Inspire Magazine, which is issued in English by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula [AQAP].

Zawahiri is seen as al-Qaeda's theorist, thinker and ideologue. Thus, his writings about the Arab revolutions are of great import and influence in the organizations' trajectory and ideas. Zawahiri's view may reflect al-Qaeda's newly adjusted narrative. In his message, Zawahiri focuses primarily on Egyptian affairs, dwelling on the following points in particular:

• He considered the Arab upheavals to be an integral part of the war waged by al-Qaeda in Iraq and Afghanistan against the West and its allies, in order to liberate the nation from tyrannical regimes and occupation forces. "Our nation is fighting a battle against Crusader invaders and their proxies, our tyrannical and corrupt rulers," he said.

• Zawahiri warned against the American and Western agendas, questioning their support for the Egyptian revolution. He even stressed that the West does not seek to establish legitimate free rule in the Arab world; one that represents an Islamic regime, rejects the occupation and stands firm against Israel's designs for the region. Zawahiri believes that the United States merely seeks "a regime that spares the people few freedoms, without threatening its interests and without jeopardizing Israel's security."

• Most importantly, in his message, Zawahiri warned against the "hijacking of the revolution." He is wary lest the Islamic law not be imposed and Islamic identity lost in Egypt. Zawahari urges Egyptians and Islamists everywhere to push for the application of Sharia, rejecting democratic rule as a substitute. He also draws attention to the difference between the Islamic Shura and Western democracy.

Abu Yahya al-Libi, one of al-Qaeda’s top leaders, was killed in a U.S. air strike. Libi appeared to be more precise and clearer than Zawahiri. In his article, "tThawrat al-shu'oub baina taathur wal-tathir" [People's Revolutions: Between Impressions and Effects], Libi spoke plainly and laid out the goals of the group's advocates with regard to the revolutions, so as not to adversely affect their loyalty and adherence to the militant group, both as an ideology and an organization.

Libi considered these revolutions to be"a window of opportunity" that must be seized, but without getting carried away by the "winds of change."

"The Mujahideen must involve themselves in the events which are unfolding, but at the same time they ought to take care in preserving jihadist principles. They should beware of the infiltration of deviant concepts into their minds in the heat of the sweeping and swift changes taking place. Above all, the Mujahideen ought to remain focused on their principles and doctrine, which must be strongly instilled in their minds, preserved and consolidated no matter the circumstances," he said.

The third document is an article by Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed last year in an U.S. air strike. Awlaki was a preacher, thinker and a leading figure in al-Qaeda in Yemen. He has a particular ability to influence Ansar al-Sharia and the Muslim generations in the West. For this purpose, Awlaki established Inspire, an online English-language magazine.

His life in the U.S. and his interaction with events in the West allowed him to refine his special ability to influence Muslim communities, particularly via the internet. Awlaki played a major role in the recruitment of Nidal Malek (who killed a number of soldiers in a military base in Texas in 2010), Omar Farouq (who attempted to blow up an commercial plane in Detroit), among many others influenced by his ideas.

In his article "Tsunami of Change," which appeared in the fifth issue of Inspire magazine, Awlaki sounded more "pragmatic" than his former companions, and even more aware of the American reading of the revolutions, and al-Qaeda's impact on them. He also cited the views of U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, terrorist affairs expert Peter Bergen and writer Fareed Zakaria.

The emergence of Ansar al-Sharia

The concept of Ansar al-Sharia began to spread in several Arab and Muslim countries through groups and movements affiliated with Salafist jihadism and al-Qaeda. The idea first emerged in Yemen, then in the Maghreb, Egypt and Mali. Jordan is likely to embark on the same path.

The idea of Ansar al-Sharia reflects the adjustment of Salafist jihadism’s traditional narrative in light of the democratic Arab upheavals and in response to the unfolding situation and the new reality in the Arab world. Democratic uprisings toppled former autocratic regimes and brought in new governments by election, as was the case in several Arab countries (Egypt, Yemen, Tunisia). This has led to more freedom and fewer restrictions on democracy, as seen in Morocco and Jordan among other countries. However, it also allowed al-Qaeda to take control of several areas and impose Sharia [due to the lack of full state control].

Democratic revolutions in the Arab world have challenged the ideology and strategy of al-Qaeda and many like-minded Salafist-Jihadist movements.

Thus, as mentioned above, during the past few years, assumptions about al-Qaeda's ideology and preaching have become clear.

First, the only way to effect change in the Arab and Islamic world is through armed actions, while the peaceful democratic means will not bring about results. This was proven wrong with the success of the peaceful revolutions that toppled tyrannical regimes in Tunisia and Egypt.

Second, the only goal of political change is to establish a caliphate, or an Islamic state, not a democracy.

Third, enemies of Islam, whether the U.S. or secular-minded Arab regimes (close and distant enemies) must be fought. This was not obvious in the democratic revolutions, as the majority of the Arab people were focused on domestic affairs, demanding that democracy be established, corruption fought and justice served. There were no anti-West slogans.

Hence, the Salafist-jihadist movement was forced to adjust its political rhetoric to better fit the new reality. So Salafist thinkers sought to reshape their perspective toward the Arab uprisings. Instead of perceiving the uprisings as a challenge to their ideology, they decided to view them as a "historic opportunity" to get rid of the Arab regimes allied with the West. Salafists were also keen to take advantage of the new large compass of freedom to propagate jihad, pushing for the application of Sharia by stirring up people's religious sentiments.

This "customization," or adjustment of the rhetoric of al-Qaeda and the Salafist jihadism, the organization's ideological movement, came in the form of Ansar al-Sharia. Al-Qaeda has never relinquished its demands to establish an Islamic state instead of a democracy (this is the case of democratic Islamists and Muslims). It has not abandoned the armed struggle (jihad) as one of the options of the political change (as proved by the actions of Gama'a al-Islamiyya and the Jihad Group in Egypt). Likewise, the Islamist organization has not joined the democratic and political game norr participated in the ballot box (as was the case of Egypt's Salafists, particularly al-Nour Party and al-Asala Party, among many others).

Through Ansar al-Sharia, Salafist jihadism managed to use the option of civil and peaceful change to its advantage, while preserving the pillars of its ideology. It continues to seek the establishment of Islamic governance through "legitimate" armed action (jihad). The Islamist group took advantage of the newly available freedoms and democracy to pressure the Islamists involved in the political process and push them toward the application of Sharia and calling for the adoption of Salafist concepts.

One of the main goals of Ansar al-Sharia is to put immense pressure on Islamists who came to power through democratic means, emphasizing the necessity of "imposing Sharia."

Geography and Ideology

The name "Ansar al-Sharia" first emerged in Yemen, with the beginning of the uprising in the Arab world. This group is considered to be part of AQAP "manifestations" in the region. AQAP is the most powerful and active branch of al-Qaeda. It has even become more influential than its main branch in Pakistan, since the unification of the Yemeni and Saudi branches in the beginning of 2009.

It remains unknown whether this name was decided upon following deliberations with the group's central branch or not. This matter is yet unconfirmed, as the name has never been mentioned in the writings and messages of Osama bin Laden and his successor Ayman al-Zawahiri.

The group's name first emerged when an official AQAP operative, Adel bin Abdullah Bin Thabit al-Abab, alias Sheikh Abu Zubair, declared the establishment of Ansar al-Sharia on Apr. 12, 2011.

"This name was chosen in order to push people into embracing Sharia in al-Qaeda-controlled areas," he said. The group seeks to attract local tribes in Yemen to adopt the Salafist-jihadist ideology, "thus turning the mission of spreading Sharia from an elitist job to a populist one."

The group then emerged in Tunisia, following the overthrow of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. In March 2011, political prisoners [in reference to convicted Islamists] and other detainees convicted on terrorism charges were released from prison, following amnesty granted by the transitional government Tunisia.

Among the released prisoners was a man called Seif bin Hussein, alias Abu Ayyad al-Tunisi, who had previously participated in the establishment of "The Tunisian Fighting Group in Afghanistan." The group helped in the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud [a political and military leader in Afghanistan], two days before the September 11 attacks.

Abu Ayyad is dubbed the jihadists' Sheikh in Tunisia. He was born in 1970 and was one of the apprentices of the widely-known jihadist, alias "Abu Qatada," who lived in Britain, and then travelled to Afghanistan to perform jihad.
In 2000, Abu Ayyad was designated Amir [prince] of the Dawa and Jihad Brigades, an armed and organized group he established alongside Salafist members seeking to impose Islamic rule in Tunisia.

Abu Ayyad travelled to several countries, remaining wanted for many years by several governments (Tunisia, Britain, Turkey, among others) until he was captured in Turkey. He was handed over to the Tunisian authorities, which sentenced him to 43 years in prison.

When he was released from prison, Abu Ayyad organized what has come to be known as the annual conference of the Ansar al-Sharia foundation in Tunisia in April 2011. While those who attended the conference in 2011 numbered only a few hundred people, their number reached 10,000 in 2012. This is a clear indication that the group's popularity has increased considerably.

Ansar al-Sharia have been involved in acts of aggression over the past year and a half. Most importantly, they took part in the protests of the "Day of Wrath," which erupted following a decision by the local television channel to broadcast the film titled "Persepolis." Some the group's members were also involved in attacks against US and Western interests in Tunisia.

Abu Ayyad, the leader of the Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, became the state's number one enemy. He was accused of inciting Friday's demonstrations in front of the US Embassy in Tunisia. These protests did not take long to degrade into riots, killing four people and wounding dozens, not to mention that 60 cars that were set on fire inside the embassy campus. The US flag was taken down to be replaced with the flag of the caliphate.

In Libya, following the fall of Qaddafi's regime, several Salafist groups emerged under the name of Ansar al-Sharia. There are two main groups affiliated with al-Qaeda in Libya. The first is known by the name of "Ansar al-Sharia Battalion," which is the prime suspect in the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, which killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens along with three other diplomats. The angry demonstrations erupted following the broadcast of an anti-Islam film.

Ansar al-Sharia in Libya espouses the same methods as the main group. Adherents to Sharia provide social services, and the group's members usually clean and repair roads. They also give alms during the month of Ramadan and have been recently helping to provide security at the Benghazi hospital.

Although the group admitted that it was behind the demolition of Sufi shrines and tombs in Benghazi, it justified its acts by claiming that it espouses a puritanical interpretation of Islam. Nevertheless, the group is keen to provide basic needs to the community, and is pushing in the next phase towards the application of Sharia.

Abu Mundhir Shanqeeti: The theorist

Abu Mundhir Shanqeeti is one of the most prominent theorists of Ansar al-Sharia. He is a Mauritanian preacher and is active via the website "Minbar of Tawheed and Jihad."

On Nov. 29, 2012, Shanqeeti wrote an article titled "We are Ansar al-Sharia," in which he provides a justification for his call to change the name of the Salafist jihadist movement into Ansar al-Sharia. He published this name to become the new banner, which will include the group's adherents across the world.

In his article, Shanqeet determines the features of the group's new political role in the era of democratic revolutions in the Arab world.

He believes that Ahl al-Tawhid [the people of the tawhid, or the doctrine of Oneness of God] must come together under the same banner and purpose. They must join hands to push their able leader to the forefront through organized work in order to face "Satellite Sheiks," who have emerged during the era of former regimes. He urged that these Sheikhs must not be given free rein, especially now after the fall of the regimes that used to back them.

Shanqeeti also stressed the need to impose Sharia through legitimate means, but not through democracy, calling for the establishment of a legitimate Islamic entity to compete with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafist parties, and find alternative to deflect people from "deviant concepts."

Shanqeeti concluded his article by saying: "While many associated their names with terms such as justice, freedom, development, reform, Nour and many others, we will associate our name with Sharia, for we are Ansar al-Sharia."

The strategic turning point in Shanqeeti perception of Ansar al-Sharia is primarily reflected in his quest to turn the Salafist jihadist movement from an underground action to a public populist work. He seeks to replace random actions with clear organization and one main goal: "the application of Sharia."

Although Shanqeeti's name has not been known among observers interested in Salafist jihadist movements, and despite the lack of detailed knowledge of him — aside from his articles and publications with Sheikh Wagdy Ghonim (a well-known Egyptian preacher) — he rose quickly to stardom on websites embracing Salafist doctrines, namely Minbar of Twaheed and Jihad, among other jihadist forums. This is not to mention that Shanqeeti preaches on behalf of the Sharia Committee on Minbar of Twaheed and Jihad.

More from  Mohammad Abu Rumman, Hassan Abu Haniya

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