ANSAR AL SHARIA AND ITS RAMIFICATIONS
Investigating the genesis and presence of the various “Ansar al Sharia” ramifications throughout the Islamic world:
The group appears in Morocco in September 2012 with a public statement on the internet and the opening of a page on Facebook. Following the announcement, the Moroccan authorities carry out the first arrests even though, officially, the Moroccan Ansar refutes the armed struggle as a way to impose the application of the sharia.
In practice the group has never carried out destructive activities, save for a few demonstrations in favor of detainees and public accusations of torture against the police. The Moroccan branch of Ansar has kept a very low profile so far, perhaps because of the scarce following that it has within the Moroccan social context. Another reason lies maybe in the existence of another extremist group, the “Committee for the Defense of Islamic Detainees”; the group includes former Afghan veterans and focuses its action on the defense of detainees and on the establishment of a Caliphate. All in all, the fact that Morocco is governed by a monarchy that claims to be the progeny of the prophet himself makes the struggle for extremism in the country more difficult and less credible.
Algeria is a case apart because the group Ansar al Sharia has never surfaced on its territory. The reason for this could be the fact that Islamic terrorism has been present in Algeria since 1991 with a myriad of names: GIA (Armed Islamic Group), AIS (Islamic Army of Savior – the armed branch of the FIS), the GSPC (Salafite Group for Preaching and Combat) from which originated the AQIM (Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb). There were already enough groups scouring the country and no need to add a new one. Also, the appearance of Ansar al Sharia in northern Mali made the southern Algerian territory readily accessible to them.
The founding of Ansar al Sharia in Mali dates back to December 2012 in Gao, in the north of the country. The group was founded by Omar Ould Hamaha, also called “Hakka” (a name which derives from his Kalashnikov: AK 47) and “Redbeard” (from the color of his hair). Before founding Ansar al Sharia in Mali, Ould Hamaha joined the ranks of many other terrorist organizations that operate in northern Mali: AQIM, Ansar Dine (where he served as spokesman), the Movement for Unity and Jihad in Western Africa (MUJAO, where he was chief of staff). The most qualifying aspect of Ould Hamaha is his relationship with Mokhtar Benmokhtar (Ould married Mokhtar's daughter) who, in the name of AQIM (but practically on his own) continues to be the most important terrorist in the region (although reports of his death are quite frequent).
In the Malian case, the creation of a new terrorist group is dictated by aesthetics rather than practicality. Perhaps it was a consequence of Hamaha's desire to have his own group rather than always having to serve as second-in-command. The decision to found Ansar al Sharia in Mali immediately won Hamaha a three million dollar bounty placed on his head by the United States.
The Mauritanian branch of Ansar al Sharia is called “Ansar al Sharia fi Bilad al Shinquit” (Ansar al Sharia in the country of the Shinquits, from the name of the main Mauritanian extremist ideologue Sheykh Abu al Mundhir al Shinquiti, who has quite an impressive following in the extremist milieu). The group is said to be captained by Mokhtar Benmokhtar, who also serves as the link between the Mauritanian group and Ansar al Sharia in Mali.
The most resounding action attributed to the group is the attack against the Israeli embassy in Nouakchott in February 2008. At first, AQIM claimed responsibility for the operation, which was later attributed to Ansar al Sharia when the group first surfaced in 2013 (it is worth noting that, at the time, Mokhtar was a member of AQIM and was successively expelled from the group because he did not get along with its commanders).
Officially the head of Ansar al Sharia is a Mauritanian national called Ahmed Salem Ould al Hassan, who has already been in prison because of his militancy in radical Islamic groups. It is in the prison of Dar Naim that Ansar al Sharia was originally conceived. Their declared objectives are presently internal to Mauritania, where the group is attempting to carry out a progressive 'Islamisation' of society. Ansar al Sharia in Mauritania has ties with Islamic extremism and has claimed responsibility for a terrorist attack that happened before its founding (their involvement thereof is more of a moral than of a practical nature); presently, the group is faced with a society where tradition and conservationism prevails, but where Islam has been interpreted in a modern fashion.
Ansar al Sharia appears in Tunisia in April 2011. The recognized head of the group in Tunisia is Seif Allah Benahssine ibn Hussein, who also goes by the name of Abu Iyadh al Tunsi, a longtime terrorist with a history in Afghanistan. He appeared on the Tunisian political scene in April 2011, when he founded Ansar al Sharia following his release from prison thanks to an amnesty. He had been sentenced to 68 years in prison for terrorism; a sentence that had been inflicted against Abu Iyadh by the former dictator Ben Ali in 2003.
Abu Iyadh had left Tunisia in 1991 to study law in Morocco. He had returned to Morocco in 1994 only to flee to the UK where he was granted asylum and became a refugee. He then traveled to Afghanistan where he fought against the US army until his arrest in Turkey in 2003 and his extradition to Tunisia. In the year 2000, while staying in Kandahar, Afghanistan, Abu Iyadh met Osama bin Laden and joined the ranks of Al Qaeda, a circumstance which he always publicized and never denied.
Abu Iyadh's theological studies make him more than a mere combatant; a man of thought, capable of justifying his actions and initiatives according to the sacred scriptures. In the beginning, Abu Iyadh and his group preached non-violence and dedicated their time to social initiatives, saying that Tunisia was a grounds of proselytism, not jihad.
The attack against the American embassy in Tunisia in 2012, the violent demonstrations and sermons, even against Ennadha itself, have pushed the Tunisian authorities to ban the movement and to accuse them of being in collusion with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. Ansar al Sharia in Tunisia is also suspected to be involved with the recent murder of two Tunisian politicians, Chokri Belaid and Mohamed Brahmi. During the investigations on their murders, Tunisian authorities allegedly found a long list of politicians to be eliminated, including members of Ennadha.
Today Abu Iyadh is a man on the run or, according to some unverified reports, was arrested in Misurata, Libya, in December 2013 by the Americans and successively extradited to Tunis.
Ansar al Sharia, which has fought alongside Khadafi during the civil war, has become famous in Libya for their attack against the US consulate in Benghazi and for the murder of the US ambassador in Libya. Among its high-profile initiatives there is – always in the line of Salafist integralism, which does not tolerate the veneration of subjects other than Allah – the destruction of places of worship dedicated to Sufi saints in Benghazi and Tripoli.
Presently in Libya there are two organizations that go by the name of Ansar al Sharia. They operate in two distinct territories, Derna and Benghazi; it is not clear whether they share a unique command.
The Ansar in Derna, a mix of banditry and terrorism, was headed by Abu Sufian bin Qumu, who was killed in April 2013. Qumu was a longtime terrorist who had also experienced Afghanistan. He was captured, sent to Guantanamo, then handed over to the Libyans in 2007, where he was granted an amnesty, together with other exponents of the Islamic Fighting Lybian Group to which Qumu belonged, by Khadafi.
The Benghazi Ansar al Sharia is headed by Ahmed Abu Khattalah. This is the group that materially led the attack against the US consulate on September 11, 2012. During Khadafi's reign, Khattalah had reached notoriety in 2011, when his militia had managed to murder a former interior minister, Abdel Fattah Younis. Khattalah's militia adopted the name Ansar al Sharia after the civil war. Khattalah's fancy for Al Qaeda and his contacts with AQIM from Mali are known facts. Khattalah has been known to be very outspoken in public, dispensing interviews and public menaces; he adopted a more prudent profile after the capture in Tripoli of Abu Anas al Libi in October 2013 by the US special forces and his extradition to the USA.
The Lybian Ansar al Sharia assists the local population, supports charity organizations. They provide services to the people of Benghazi that the central government is not able to provide. Despite being hunted down by the US, Kattalah is considered very highly and very well protected in Cyrenaica.
Mohamed al Zawahiri
After the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime in Egypt and thanks to the greater condescension of the Muslim Brothers towards the Islamic fringes, there emerged in the country two organizations that drew their name from the Islamic law: one, the “Gamaat Ansar Al Sharia” (Association Ansar al Sharia, founded in October 2012), dedicated its efforts to reforming Egyptian society through the strict application of the sharia; the other, which surfaced a few months later, called “Al Taliah al Salafiyah al Mujahediyah Ansar al Sharia” (The Combating Salafite Vanguard of Ansar al Sharia), is more internationally oriented and admittedly closer to Al Qaeda. One of the members of the latter is Mohammed al Zawahiri, the brother of the renown Ayman; Mohammed was released from Egyptian prison in March 2012, where he was detained because he belonged to the Egyptian Islamic Jihad.
After the ousting of Morsi and the reinstatement of the military regime, the Gamaat Ansar al Sharia has dropped its social and humanitarian aims and converted itself, following an official statement in July 2013, to the armed struggle; it has also moved its headquarters to the Sinai. Its leader, Ahmad al Arush, is a former Afghan combatant who was also released after the Arab Spring. The Al Talyah Ansar al Sharia has traveled in the opposite direction: upon indication by the leader of Al Qaeda, the group has abandoned the armed struggle and has dedicated itself to propaganda and proselytism. In other words, the two Egyptian Ansar al Sharia are complementary and interchangeable.
Following a terrorist attack against a bus of South Korean tourists in the Sinai, there has emerged a new organization: Ansar Beit al Maqdis. In this case too, it is likely that the use of terms that are recurrent in the Islamic-terrorist lexicon is meant to convey the impression that distinct terrorist organizations operate in the Sinai (where an organization called Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula has already appeared). These are likely to be alternative names for the same group. Some analysts think that this group is the military arm of the Muslim Brothers; others say that it has ties with Hamas in Gaza; others believe it to be directly linked with Al Qaeda; finally, there are those that claim that the group is a direct product of the above-mentioned “Al Taliah al Salafiyah al Mujahediyah Ansar al Sharia”.
Either way, with the ousting of President Mohamed Morsi and the persecution of the Muslim Brothers the group has laid claim to numerous attacks, even outside of the Sinai: the attack against the interior minister; the one against the National Security Headquarters in Cairo and Mansoura; the killing of several policemen.
In Yemen, Ansar al Sharia has issued many statements, combined or alternated with those of Al Qaeda in the Arabic Peninsula (AQAP). This circumstance suggests that the two names are both used by the same operative structure. Many analysts think that this is a proven and incontrovertible fact. It is what the directives of Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad dictated. We must not forget that the family of the leader of Al Qaeda was from the north of Yemen, near the border with Saudi Arabia. The theory is also indirectly confirmed by the fact that the operative defeats suffered by AQAP at the 'hands' of the US drones have had serious repercussions in Ansar al Sharia as well.
The name Ansar al Sharia first appeared in Yemen in 2011, during the popular revolts, when the group occupied a seat of the governatorate of Abyan in the south of the country and declared the creation of an Islamic emirate. After being defeated by the armed intervention of the Yemenite security forces, Ansar al Sharia (or AQAP) has continued to voice proclaims and threaten operations in Yemen, but has not managed to occupy part of the territory anymore. Notwithstanding, during the year 2013, the name AQAP was the most frequent signatory of such proclaims.
The recognized leader of Ansar al Sharia in Yemen is Nasir al Wuhayshi, a former secretary of Bin Laden in Afghanistan who was arrested by the Iranians, sent back to Yemen, where he managed to escape from prison and, once on the loose, dedicated his time to the re-organization and re-unification of Al Qaeda structures in Yemen and Saudi Arabia.
In 2013, through the mediation of local religious leaders, Ansar al Sharia/AQAP had managed to negotiate a cease fire with the local authorities. The government then decided to scrap the accord.
The operations of Ansar al Sharia in Yemen were initially aimed against the population that did not abide by the Islamic code. Today their targets are mainly the Americans and, to a lesser extent, the Yemenite security forces which, with the help of US drones, are fighting terrorism successfully.
The behavior of the local Ansar al Sharia was last year the object of an ideological dispute between two leading Sheykhs: the Syrian Sheykh Abu Basir al Tartusi and the Mauritanian Sheykh Abu al Mundir Shinqiti. The former accused Ansar of not changing its strategy of attacking the local population, even after the ousting of the dictator Ali Abdullah Saleh; the latter adopted a more extremist stance.