Researchers who study al-Qaeda in Yemen said the groups that control Zinjibar in Abyan province are terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda, but they are operating under a different name.
Dr. Saeed al-Jamhi, a researcher specialising in al-Qaeda affairs and president of Al-Jamhi Centre for Studies and Research, told Al-Shorfa that Ansar al-Sharia (Supporters of Sharia) is a terrorist group affiliated with al-Qaeda.
"It is an armed group operating under a local cover. It took on that name in May when it declared that it was in control of Zinjibar," he said.
Al-Jamhi added, "The al-Qaeda name conjures up terror and signifies violence and destruction. The organisation was compelled to hatch groups that operate under local religious-oriented names to persuade others to support them and move from under the spotlight that is cast on them as terrorist groups affiliated with al-Qaeda."
Osama bin Laden, al-Qaeda's former leader, expressed a desire to change the organisation's name, according to a letter he wrote on his personal computer which was confiscated from his house in Abbottabad, Pakistan upon his death in May. In the letter, bin Laden acknowledged the need to "re-brand" al-Qaeda, including changing its name so that the new organisation is not associated with the activities of al-Qaeda.
Al-Jamhi said that by changing its name to Ansar al-Sharia, the Yemeni group hopes to have an easier path to achieving its objectives and limit the opposition to al-Qaeda in Arab and Islamic countries that reject its methods.
He described the change as a "tactical and psychological shift" adding that the new label "carries an appealing connotation in Yemen's tribal society which holds religion as indisputable".
Al-Jamhi said the groups are trying to portray themselves as local organisations with religious legitimacy. He emphasised that Ansar al-Sharia "executes al-Qaeda's agenda using its (al-Qaeda's) methods and in accordance with its plans, which is evident in the methods it is using in the war in Abyan."
Al-Jamhi cited Qassem al-Rimi, nicknamed "Abu Huraira," a leader in the Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, who announced last year the imminent formation of the Islamic Aden-Abyan army. Al-Jamhi said, "This is evidence of Ansar al-Sharia's presence, which wants to launch its operations from Abyan upon seizing control of it."
Al-Jamhi said a connection between Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda was confirmed in a July 18th report in INSPIRE, al-Qaeda's online magazine. The report detailed members killed in clashes with the 25 Mika Brigade in Zinjibar. He said that report motivated the tribes to mobilise their forces to fight al-Qaeda in Abyan. Al-Qaeda countered by issuing a statement warning tribesmen about being "lured into a criminal scheme by the authorities to set the two sides against each other".
Dr. Saeed Abdel Mumin al-Ariqi, a researcher of Islamist groups, told Al-Shorfa that bin Laden's death, the delay in choosing a successor, and leaks that Anwar al-Awlaki, leader of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, was the strongest candidate to replace bin Laden, had hampered the operations of al-Qaeda's Yemeni affiliate.
He said that changing the name to Ansar al-Sharia gives it some autonomy to commence operations to build a state under an official cover and take control of a ready infrastructure including weapons.
Al-Ariqi said the group has set its sights on further expansion by capitalising on "the extreme weakness of the central government in Sanaa and local governments in Abyan and Aden", as well as the public's distrust of corrupt authorities and "their intense passion and affinity to religion."
The name Ansar al-Sharia emerged after the group seized control in Abyan and was adopted to gain more supporters, he said, adding that the leadership of al-Qaeda in Yemen, including Nasser al-Wahishi, founded the group.
Regarding the tribes' uprising against al-Qaeda, al-Ariqi said it is due to a number factors, including "Yemen's changing political map, the transformation of the opposition into an effective force, and the tribes sensing that al-Qaeda's control over the province could lead to violent conflicts and the imposition of a vision that is incompatible with their way of life and one that could prove detrimental to their interests."
Fadl al-Shabibi, the director of the official news agency Saba in Abyan, said, "The realisation of the tribes, albeit belated, that Ansar al-Sharia is a terrorist group that came to plunder, pillage and murder, and is inconsistent with the teachings of Islam, led to the tribal uprising."
Al-Shabibi, who hails from Zinjibar, said al-Qaeda initially treated area residents warmly in an attempt to curry favour.
"When those groups entered Jaar in late March, they were extremely amicable in their dealings with people and were begging for the sympathy of the indigenous population so they could obtain cover and gain new supporters in the name of religion," he said.
"But the plundering and looting of public and private property recently in Zinjibar by these groups against area citizens in the name of religion alienated the population and lifted the cover of the organisation," al-Shabibi said. "This led to confrontations between the two sides that resulted in the tribes expelling al-Qaeda elements from several directorates in Abyan province."