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.
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.
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.