Monday, July 22, 2013

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


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



Banner Icon Arab Spring 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.


CONTEXT Bassem Aly: Salafists are lucky


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.




The last communiqu├ęs 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



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.




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



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.”




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.




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.




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.




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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