Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda: two sides of same coin?

Men loyal to Jalal al-Blaidy, also known as Abu Hamza, leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, gather in a valley in the vicinity of Zinjibar, Abyan province. [Stringer/AFP]

Men loyal to Jalal al-Blaidy, also known as Abu Hamza, leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, gather in a valley in the vicinity of Zinjibar, Abyan province. [Stringer/AFP]

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In the past few years, a string of groups said to belong to the Salafi jihadist movement have emerged in several Arab countries, most operating under the name "Ansar al-Sharia".

Members of these groups, or individuals suspected of belonging to them, have carried out violent acts and strict applications of sharia law, raising questions about whether there is a connection between them and al-Qaeda. Members of the latter had admitted prior to the death of Osama bin Laden that the al-Qaeda brand had become associated with violence, killing and bloodshed, and that it might be better to change that image.

Can it be said today that any Ansar al-Sharia groups active in the Arab world are actually al-Qaeda operating under another name? Or is it an over-reach to connect groups active in specific countries with an organisation that has become disjointed and largely confined to a geographic area -- the tribal region on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan?

There is no definitive yes or no to answer this question, but it is likely a combination of both.

First, it must be noted that Ansar al-Sharia groups did not emerge in a prominent way until after the Arab Spring, particularly in North African countries like Libya and Tunisia, and to a lesser extent in Egypt and Morocco.

But before they surfaced in those countries, Ansar al-Sharia had risen in Yemen and was widely considered a front for al-Qaeda, which used the name to gain supporters in the Arabian Peninsula who instinctively rush to support any group that claims to want to implement sharia law, but would not necessarily support such a group if they knew it was actually al-Qaeda recruiting them.

Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen

It was clear, in Yemen in particular, that Ansar al-Sharia was active where al-Qaeda was prevalent, expanding and contracting whenever Yemeni authorities expanded or contracted their confrontations with al-Qaeda.

The belief that al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen are two sides of the same coin is also reinforced by what is known about the communication between leaders of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in Yemen and the general command of the organisation in tribal areas of Pakistan, from documents seized from the home of bin Laden in Abbottabad.

Al-Qaeda's leadership would have asked its branch in Yemen to distance itself from Ansar al-Sharia had they been two different organisations, which did not happen. Also, it is believed that al-Qaeda's leadership favoured working within the framework of groups that do not operate under its name, because of the organisation's image problems.

Ideology and actions

While the conclusion that al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia are two sides to the same coin can be easily reached in the case of al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen, the same conclusion may prove harder to reach in other Arab countries.

An ideal approach to tackling this problem might be to compare the ideology and actions of Ansar al-Sharia in the Maghreb with al-Qaeda's ideology and actions, to determine if indeed such a link exists, or existed, between leaders in the two groups.

It is worth noting that Ansar al-Sharia groups in the Maghreb do not operate as a unified organisation in the region, not even within a single country. Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is not the same as Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia, and neither is it a homogeneous and unified group within Libya itself.

Ansar al-Sharia in Libya is a loose configuration of various groups from different regions in eastern and western Libya. These groups unified their forces earlier this year at a conference held in Benghazi, the capital of eastern Libya, in June, to demand that sharia be implemented in the wake of the fall of the regime of former Libyan leader Col. Muammar Kadhafi.

Under this loose configuration, the groups active within Ansar al-Sharia in Libya are in all probability operating independently of one another, each implementing its own interpretation of sharia law in its respective region. Accordingly, some Salafi jihadist groups demolished Sufi shrines, while others attacked "infidel" foreigners and destroyed gravesites marked with crosses of World War II soldiers in eastern Libya.

And while the investigation into the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi on September 11th, 2012, is still on-going, it was striking that Ansar al-Sharia denied having any connection to the attack, as a group or as individuals (as asserted by the official spokesperson of the Ansar al-Sharia battalion in Benghazi, Hani al-Mansouri). Initial reports had pointed to the involvement of Islamists affiliated with the group.

Regardless of whether elements of Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi were involved in the September attack, the group's ideology with regard to democracy and elections indicates that at the very least, it has intellectual and ideological affinity with al-Qaeda, even in the absence of a direct link between the two.

A BBC report quoted a brief statement by Ansar al-Sharia --written on a piece of paper with a letterhead depicting two symbols, the Qur'an and a Kalashnikov rifle -- saying that democracy is a human condition in which laws are made by people. But, it said, only God has the authority to make laws, and "that is why Islam and sharia are incompatible with democracy".

In this context, Mohammed al-Zahawi, the commander of Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, rejected any political process that is not subject to God's law and launched a scathing attack on the new government headed by Ali Zaidan in an interview with Aljazeera, saying that some government members are "agents and acolytes", and that secularists are trying to reach power in the new Libya.

This position -- which is similar to that of al-Qaeda -- differs from the position held by many Libyan Islamist groups that believe in the democratic process and pluralistic elections, and even some former jihadist groups, which had candidates in the recent Libyan elections.

Despite the absence of a direct link between Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia and Ansar al-Sharia in Libya, the former holds many of the same positions the latter does. The Tunisian group, led by Seif Allah Ben Hassine (Abu Iyad), said to be the founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG) in Jalalabad in 2000, held protests that were accompanied by violent acts in past months, including those that took place in front of the US Embassy in September, as well as demonstrations against local artwork deemed to violate the teachings of Islam.

The Tunisian government, led by the Islamist Ennahda party, arrested many supporters of this Salafi jihadist movement, which officially announced its formation in April 2011 at an Ansar al-Sharia congress held under the slogan "Hear us, do not hear about us."

However, the problem in Tunisia, as it is in Libya, is that these Salafi jihadists seemingly operate within a loose configuration of groups that fall under the umbrella of Ansar al-Sharia, but each works independently. This opens the door for al-Qaeda members to infiltrate these groups or work within them under a different name so they do not alarm ordinary citizens, who joined these groups because they claim they seek to implement sharia law.

In fact, hardly a day goes by without incidents involving Salafi jidhadists in Tunisia. This suggests that many of them could subscribe to a single ideology, but they are more likely disparate groups, some of which al-Qaeda could have infiltrated so it can operate under a different name.

As is the case in Tunisia and Libya, similar groups are active in Egypt, where authorities recently uncovered armed cells, some of which included former officers, despite the fact that an Islamist government runs Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood is in power.

Syria as well has various active jihadist groups, including Jabhat al-Nusra, which, according to reports, is not very different from al-Qaeda in terms of ideology and modus operandi: bombings that primarily consist of car-bomb "suicide" attacks.

Are all these groups linked to al-Qaeda and in reality no more than fronts for the organisation? This may not be true about all of them but al-Qaeda might seek to work within some of them. It knows that this approach would give it access to supporters, who would otherwise be repulsed if al-Qaeda sought to recruit them under its "tarnished" name.

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  • READER COMMENTS

    فتحي الاهدل

    2013-2-17

    This is a wonderful comment and I would have preferred if it had been more detailed.

  • أبو إسحاق

    2013-2-15

    The Takfiri thought is dangerous as it considers that killing all those who do not belong to it lawful. Unfortunately, some religious institutions in the Arab world failed in confronting this thought intellectually, but were even affected by some of its thoughts. Some states have even sympathized with it.

  • سيف الخلافة

    2013-2-12

    Let us fight the waves of life to make a bright future that copes with our hopes and aspirations. Despite of the pain, there would be hope. The Islamic caliphate is coming, God willing. Let us work together until we implement the 2018 plan.

  • نور الشمس

    2013-2-5

    O God! Have mercy upon our youth. I am an Egyptian woman who regrets over the conditions of Egypt's youth. May God save us from the suppression and tyranny of Morsi.

  • الهارب نفدي أرواحنا للعراق

    2013-2-4

    Unfortunately, some Muslims are so.

  • حسن الشرع الموسوي

    2013-1-31

    I would like to say briefly after greeting you and invoking peace and blessings upon the Prophet, peace be upon him, the leader of humanity that the Muslims should know that those infidels are responsible for the defamation of Islam because they have no relationship with Islam. Those infidels deserve a divine punishment like what happened with the People of the Elephant who tries to demolish the Ka’bah, as came in the Quran. Thanks and peace be upon the Muslims.

  • المهاجرة

    2013-1-31

    Stop your disagreements because I swear that the victory and honor can only be achieved through Jihad, especially in this time, when the enemies have gathered to attack Islam and Muslims from all corners. This nation will never achieve victory without following the methodology of the Prophet, peace be upon him, who wished to die as a martyr and as a Mujahid. Stop this hatred against this group, which sacrifice their souls to support and defend the religion. Come on to Jihad.

  • ابراهيم سلامه ابراهيم

    2013-1-30

    Dear brothers, I support jihad, but jihad against our souls and desires about which, the Prophet, peace be upon him, said on his way back from a battle, “we returned from the minor jihad (fighting the disbeliever) to the major jihad (human desires)”. First, you have to fight your souls and we will be with you in the face of the enemies. However, we have some reservations. If you want to fight honorably, then do not use car bombs in markets or crowded areas because there is an enemy near them. You can shoot the enemy in the heart to kill him alone. In this way, you will be a true Mujaahid because the innocent people committed nothing wrong to be killed by the dozens just to get to an enemy, who usually escapes. I reject the bombings that you call jihadist acts or martyrdom operations, while they are actually suicide attacks. You commit suicide and kill Muslim children. This does not satisfy any reasonable person. Hence, I wish to differentiate between the martyrdom and suicide. Peace be upon you…. God knows the best.

  • sheek

    2013-1-24

    "There will always be a group of my Nation who will cling steadfastly to the truth, until the Hour is established." The acts and behaviors of the rulers and the security forces, supported by the scholars who are loyal to the rulers is prohibited fro them and allowable for us. They have started terrorism and we learned from them.

  • محمد

    2013-1-23

    In the name of God the Most Merciful the ever Merciful. I support my brothers and Ansar al Sharia and I ask God to bless them and make me one of them. Do not let anyone dishearten you. Whoever forsakes you, will be abandoned in this world and hereafter. I swear that they only fight to support the religion of Allah and to return to the Sharia for judgment. They are not terrorists, but they are the most compassionate people and whoever considers that he is their enemy, I see that he is an enemy to God and his messenger and the believers. The West is a disbelieving aggressor and oppressing crusader.

  • محمد المصرى

    2013-1-18

    The Supporters Of Sharia are the cause of the failure of the Syrian revolution.

  • مهاجر

    2013-1-12

    In the name of God the Most Merciful the ever Merciful. Those who follow their fancies are astray. Your brothers in Ansar al-Sharia are the best example of the blessed Jihad on the land of the Arabian Peninsula. May God protect its strong men who sacrificed this world and sought to win the hereafter. May God bless and reward those Mujahidin.

  • عبدالله الجبلي

    2013-1-8

    I see that the civilized communities reject all forms of violence and the people have the right to express their opinions in a peaceful way away from killing souls, which contradicts all religions. These conflicts made the societies backward and we achieved nothing other than deepening the hatred and the grudges, let alone confirming the fake claims about Islam and Muslims such as terrorism. I also see that these acts crippled the efforts of development in all fields and I call on those people to avoid these acts.

  • صد التغييرى

    2013-1-7

    Unfortunately, the Arabs and the Muslims accept all that is said about the Islamic groups, which opposed some regimes after the Arab revolutions.

  • ابوو سعدون

    2013-1-3

    This is something that makes us proud, that Ansar al-Sharia is linked to al-Qaeda or carries their concept. Let everybody know that, at this time when all the Muslims are disgraced, a group of monotheistic people went out to support them. This is a source of dignity and pride.

  • ابو سامح

    2013-1-1

    God is The Helper! Whoever kills people you call him Mujahid? Jihad is there, in the land of fighting, Palestine.

  • سلطان

    2012-12-29

    Al-Nusra Front are the supporters of the religion.

  • hhffttaa

    2012-12-28

    Islam is sweet, fruitful underneath and lavished on top. If Islam was not a religion that touches one's heart deeply, the overwhelming majority of Muslims would have converted to other religions due to the malpractices of various groups in the name of Islam.

  • محمود محمد

    2012-12-28

    Our leader forever is Muhammad the Prophet, peace be upon him. Our leader forever is Muhammad the Prophet, peace be upon him. Our leader forever is Muhammad the Prophet, peace be upon him.

  • مدحت شاكر

    2012-12-25

    O people, there is difference and similarity. They may be considered two faces of one coin because both of them speak in the name of the religion. However, the Ansar al-Sharia rule according to sharia, while Al-Qaeda rules according to their own law and for the sake of their own interests. The Ansar al-Sharia believe that God forbade killing the souls out of the course of justice, which is not the case with Al-Qaeda. Hence, they are different and we ask God to guide them and have mercy upon us all.

  • عبد المجيد عبد الله

    2012-12-25

    Of course, there is a big difference between Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda, because the former try to apply the sharia while the latter speak up their own thoughts and legalize everything or prohibit it as they like.

  • محمود البرجيسي

    2012-12-25

    Of course, the Ansar al-Sharia and Al-Qaeda are two faces of one coin. They do not work for the benefit of the sharia, but for their own interests. They legalize whatever they do and prohibit things according to their whims under the name of the region. With regard to Al-Qaeda, it legalizes all the operations that are carried by its members under the name of the religion. In this way, they are not different from each other.

  • سامح

    2012-12-23

    It is possible that they are two faces of one coin. We have to make sure that those who call of the application of sharia want to do this for God’s sake before we judge them as terrorists. However, those who exploit sharia to achieve personal interests are terrorists.

  • باسم

    2012-12-23

    This is terrorism indeed. Those people consider us as disbelievers, while they cannot enter the people’s hearts to judge whether they are Muslims or not. Our God is the God of hearts and if the people are Muslims or disbelievers, this does not matter because God would judge them. They should first apply sharia to themselves.

  • محسن

    2012-12-23

    I think that the difference between them is great and this might be two faces of one coin because the Ansar al-Sharia want to apply it on the ground, but the terrorists exploit the sharia to serve their own interests in order to kill and loot. This is the difference between the first people and the latter, who only see God’s satisfaction and the others who work for their own interests. Anything else are rumors and you should not believe them.

  • محمود

    2012-12-23

    We seek God's help against them as they claim to be Muslims while they in fact they are not. Even the Jews and the disbelievers do not do this and we ask God to take revenge upon them and destroy them. They take religion as a cover and claim that they are Mujahidin, while in fact, they are terrorists and murderers. They are deprived of emotions and they do not know any way of dealing other than blood, and murder is their weapon; blood has become their favorite drink. Even the children and the women were not saved from their suppression. They could not defy the honorable men who put their lives at stake in order to defend their country and land and honor, so they showed off their courage against the women. They kill their wives and children. We heard about hundreds of cases of murdered women and children who belong to the families of those who protect the country. They target their homes in order to deter them and prevent them from confronting them.

  • احمد

    2012-12-20

    I have never seen in my life anyone more hypocritical, lying, and deceitful than the Islamist groups that demand the enforcement of the Sharia law. Of course, I don’t mean religious Muslims who keep themselves away from politics. I mean those hypocrites who are shouting at countries that granted them full rights, dignity and humanity thanks to the civil or secular constitutions of these countries. These people have deserted their countries which most of the time enforce Islamic Sharia, so isn’t this a double-standard behavior, hypocrisy, deceit and fraud? I ask honorable nations and countries – and I definitely do not mean Arab and Muslim countries – to come up with laws that categorize people into two categories. Those who are productive and preserve the nation’s culture and identity are welcome. On the other hand, those who enjoy the conveniences of the nation but try to alter its culture to a pathetic, racist one are better off if they could go back to their countries so that they can establish their believes and ideologies. This will divide the world into two sides, one that believes in coexistence, diversity, knowledge, development, mutual respect and equality, and one that comprises extremists who want to enforce the Sharia law and rule their countries with religious books and appoint Caliphs that enforce the Sharia. This will help people choose on which side they want to live and which one is safer and more stable.

  • أبو عبيدة المهاجر

    2012-12-20

    O God! Grant victory to the Mujahidin and Ansar al-Sharia. O God! Make them rulers everywhere on earth and disgrace their Jewish and Christian supporters as well as their treacherous Arab tails in the misleading media which never stops defaming jihad and its people. I would like to tell you that you are exposed, because you lie and continue lying until the people believe you.

  • حوده اجزار

    2012-12-15

    The religion of my Lord is one, just like God, so do not divide the servants.