Tunisian hardline Islamists attend a meeting in January, 2012
© Fethi Belaid
Tunisian hardline Islamists attend a meeting in January, 2012
Last updated: July 21, 2013

Ansar al-Sharia International and the politics of self-sacrifice

Banner Icon Jibreel Delgado offers an overview of the emerging Islamic powerhouse Ansar al-Sharia, warning that any escalation in state violence, torture and imprisonment without trial can only lend credence to the Supporters of Sharia.

The name “Ansar al-Sharia” (Supporters of Islamic Law) has become ubiquitous as a number of political Salafist groups throughout the MENA region, and particularly in Arab Spring countries, have taken up the label. They are 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. 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.

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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.

State torture fuels the political culture of self-sacrifice

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.

Yemen

The last communiqués from Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen (AAS) came in October and December of last year, discussing US plans to “occupy” Yemen, a clear implementation of Bin Laden’s order that AAS focus on American military and other US targets instead of bogging themselves down in clashes with security forces or houthis. With the name “Supporters of Islamic Law,” and through marriage and tribal alliances, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) 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 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 by the military campaign, 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.

Tunisia

After the May 19 clashes between police and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), 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 provoked the violence. Founded in early 2011 by Abu Ayad al-Tunisi, AST is about the same age as its Yemeni counterpart, making it, along with AAS, the oldest of AS organizations. Through its 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 Salafists 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. Abu Yahya al-Shinqiti, an elder Mauritanian of the Sharia Committee of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghrib (AQIM), on the eve of the May 19 clashes, warned AST against falling into violence provoked by police brutality, calling them to “patience and wisdom.”

Libya

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. 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. 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 ASI, 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 will be driven out any time soon.

Morocco

The last major event regarding Ansar al-Sharia in Morocco (ASIM) was in 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. The group had announced its formation on September 17, posting a brief document online 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 was deemed illegitimate.

Keeping the document in mind, and being aware of the underlying goals of ASI, it is doubtful that the charges of planning domestic terrorist attacks are anything more than fabrications. However, allegations of recruiting Moroccan youth for combat in actual conflict zones are probably true. ASIM does not seem to stand a chance of surviving. The senior Afghan veterans, Salafist prisoners and torture victims, and politically activist Salafi scholars have thrown all their support behind the Committee for the Defense of Islamist Detainees (CCDDI). 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 ASIM.

Egypt

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. Though 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 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, he 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, with government officials facilitating al-Zawahiri’s travel to the peninsula. Statements 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. 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 mobs continue to refine and perfect the recipe for radicalization through the massacre of protesters in Cairo, the argument of self-preservation gains a semblance of validity.

Conclusion

ASI has as its long-term goals, after the current dawa (preaching) stage, hisba followed by jihad against Western hegemony in the region. All three terms are filled with a religious significance 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, one is still left with 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. 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.

Mitigating further radicalization and escalation of violence by Salafist groups requires the curbing of violence and torture inflicted by the governments and security agencies of the MENA region against its citizens. False confessions extracted through torture have been a matter of fact in Morocco, against both Salafists and non-Salafists, along with every other country where ASI is 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.

The first martyr of Islam was said to have been an African slave woman named Sumayya. After enduring torture at the hands of the Meccan polytheists, she was stabbed in her genitals whereupon she died. Today, we find similar stories emanating from prisons throughout the MENA. 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.

The views expressed are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Your Middle East. A version of this article was originally published on SISMEC.

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Jibreel Delgado
Jibreel is a PhD student in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies at the University of Arizona (MENAS), where he teaches introductory courses in political Islam, Islamic thought, and Middle Eastern humanities. His research interests include Islamic law and theology, comparative religion and politics, the sociology of torture and state violence, and the political culture of self-sacrifice and martyrdom.
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