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anasar al sharia

The radical Muslim world is populated with acronyms, some of which are famous, while others are not; some of them only surface once to then disappear, while others, instead, are picked up from country to country. Some of these names, or logos, call for the supremacy of Islam, the imposition of its law and set of rules. Or, as a second option, they wave the flag of the holy sites, such as Jerusalem ('Al Quds' in Arabic or, in its poetic form, 'Beit al Maqdis, the house of holiness). Generally, these brands take the spotlight after an act of terrorism whose purpose is to publicize and emphasize their work and, at the same time, to gain fame in the galaxy of extremism.

ayman al zawahiri
Ayman al Zawahiri

Al Qaeda Inc.

There are of course some acronyms and names that openly declare their affiliation to better known groups, and this is the case of Al Qaeda, that can now count on a series of spin offs: Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula in Yemen, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb in Algeria and Mali, Al Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. In marketing terms, the franchising of a logo guarantees the quality of the product.

And even though it may not be literally mentioned in the appellation of a terrorist group, Al Qaeda still supplies, from time to time and through the statements of its current leader, Ayman al Zawahiri, certificates of legitimacy. We could debate at length about the emerging ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), that was initially sponsored by al Zawahiri (who later shifted his support to al Jahbat al Nusra, a group filled with militants that fought in Afghanistan and now fighting against Bashar al Assad) in order to exploit, in Islamic and terrorist terms, the space offered by the civil wars in Syria and Iraq.

The only true common denominator between these brand names and logos is terrorism per se, the armed struggle against the impious and the manipulation of Islam to justify any and all atrocities. Terrorism is a many-headed monster, without a unique or articulated plan, but feeding itself out of the same connivance and social unease, recruiting its executives out of the same spots, sometimes sharing common sources of financing and exchanging militants that hop from one war to the next, from one group to the other.

The latter are the sole transmission belt linking different terrorist groups, even though it has yet to be proven that the circumstances leads to synergies and, hence, to a unique leader coordinating or guiding different organizations. For instance, there are no proven links between Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb and the Somali al Shabab, even though they both operate in contiguous geographical areas. The same could be said of the Shabab and the other terrorist groups active on the other shore of the Red Sea, such as Al Qaeda in the Arab Peninsula and the Huiti rebels in Yemen.

An overall dispersion of motivations, resources – hindering their effectiveness – but, at the same time, an obstacle for those who want to fight them. Every groups has its own history, its leader, its objectives, its structures. This negatively impacts the leadership of al Zawahiri, but offers greater opportunities for the recruitment and expansion of Islamic terrorism. By now, Al Qaeda acts more like a brand for a product over which it cannot guarantee the quality anymore.

Confined and hidden in the tribal area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, for security reasons forced to communicate in a secretive and irregular manner, Ayman al Zawahir is left to manage what is left of what is emphatically still called Al Qaeda's Central Command. The truth of the matter is that al Zawahiri cannot move around freely, his contacts are limited as is his direct knowledge of the jihadist world, over which he still claims a moral leadership. He does not decide or release statements based on direct knowledge of people or events, but only through second hand information. This situation is slowly negatively affecting his prestige. By now the underworld of Islamic extremism and terrorism walks on its own, it doesn't require any tutelage, Al Qaeda is now just a thing of the past. It will hold its status and represent a common flag projecting an ideal continuity of intents and goals so long as it lasts.

abu muhammad al maqdisi
Abu Muhammad al Maqdisi

The case of Ansar al Sharia

As we've already stated, a name or an acronym that rises to fame in Islamic extremism triggers the competition to use the same brand. This approach resembles a marketing campaign or, in alternative, to a copyright violation. Nevertheless, a group's name that suddenly becomes popular among the fanatics, will be found in statements, claims of responsibility, even in places geographically distant from one another. One of the most striking cases is that of Ansar al Sharia ('The Partisans of the Sharia', that is Islamic law) that has claimed the responsibility for acts of terrorism carried out in Libya, Yemen, Tunisia, Mali, Morocco, Mauritania and Egypt.

Are we facing the same organization with branches all over the Middle East and North Africa? At this time the answer is no. Just like it happened with Al Qaeda's regional spin offs, Ansar al Sharia is a name, a brand, the naming of a product. In this specific case, its quality certificate is issued directly by Al Qaeda's current chief, Ayman al Zawahiri.

Ansar al Sharia is inspired by the philosophy and theories of Abu Mohammed al Maqdisi, a Jordanian of Palestinian origins, an intellectual and a writer, presently detained in Jordan. Al Maqdisi had already inspired the actions of Al Qaeda's man in Iraq following the US-lead invasion of the country: Abu Musab al Zarqawi, who shared the same Jordanian-Palestinian background and who was killed by the Americans in 2006. His philosophy supports the fight against the West, the impious, the apostates; it basically embraces the entire jihadist culture.

A number of writings were found in Osama Bin Laden's hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in which Al Qaeda's leader suggested the use of the name 'sharia' by terrorist groups because of its capability of immediately conveying the religious meaning of terrorist attacks and proclaims. Following this suggestion, the term suddenly appeared in statements allegedly issued by Al Qaeda itself. In his writings, Bin Laden also asked terrorist organizations to adopt a change of approach: no more fanaticism against Islamic masses in the imposition of moral and behavioral models, but greater tolerance and compassion. No more attacks that kill innocent bystanders, the collateral damage ought to be reduced to the minimum.

The various Ansar al Sharia's that have popped up in the Muslim world have acknowledged Osama bin Laden's guidelines, but also thoroughly applied Al Maqdisi's extremist theories and his idea of jihad. They have also been actively involved in proselytism and the Islamization of society. These are two only apparently contrasting souls that have lead to Ansar al Sharia being signed up for the United States' list of terrorist groups.

Far more than other groups, Ansar al Sharia represents a brand used by those fighting in the name of Islamic fundamentalism; this agenda is often adapted to the specific country context where these groups operate. To this effect, it is interesting to notice the diversification of behaviors from one place to the other: we go from politically motivated assassinations to social welfare activities, from terrorist attacks to the support to subversive activities. Ansar al Sharia is sometimes a real and autonomous organization, sometimes just a brand name, and is hence a typical example of an underworld where everything and its opposite are carried out using the same name.