The List

Know Your Ansar al-Sharia

From Sanaa to Benghazi, Cairo to Casablanca, radical new jihadi groups have adopted the same name in recent months. Is it all just a coincidence?

There is a new trend sweeping the world of jihadism. Instead of adopting unique names, groups increasingly prefer to call themselves ansar, Arabic for "supporters." In many cases, they style themselves Ansar al-Sharia -- supporters of Islamic law -- emphasizing their desire to establish Islamic states. Yet despite the fact that these groups share a name and an ideology, they lack a unified command structure or even a bandleader like the central al Qaeda command (or what's left of it), thought to be based in Pakistan. They are fighting in different lands using different means, but all for the same end, an approach better suited for the vagaries born of the Arab uprisings.

The name Ansar al-Sharia shot into the news last week in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, when the local organization Katibat Ansar al-Sharia was accused of perpetrating it -- charges the group denied. Many reports seem to have confused Benghazi's Ansar al-Sharia with another Libyan group, based in Derna.

The naming trend actually started in Yemen, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the powerful and ambitious local al Qaeda branch, established the front group Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen in April 2011. It is possible this was born out of Osama bin Laden's musings over whether to rebrand al Qaeda. None of the names in the documents captured from the late al Qaeda leader's compound mentioned Ansar al-Sharia as a potential example, however. More recently, one of the preeminent global jihadi ideologues, Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, put his stamp of approval on the new wave of Ansar al-Sharia groups.

Shinqiti, who is of Mauritanian origin, published an article in mid-June titled "We Are Ansar al-Sharia," calling Muslims to establish their own dawa (missionary) Ansar al-Sharia groups in their respective countries and then to unite into one conglomerate. It should be noted that most of the Ansar al-Sharia groups were already created beforehand. The most prominent of these organizations are the ones in Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya, along with newer versions in Egypt and Morocco to a lesser extent.

The rise of these Ansar al-Sharia groups points to an end of al Qaeda's unipolar global jihad of the past decade and a return to a multipolar jihadosphere, similar to the 1990s. One key difference, however is that jihadi groups are now more ideologically homogenous -- in the 1990s, jihadis thought locally and acted locally, while many now talk globally and act locally. These newer groups are also more interested in providing services and governance to their fellow Muslims.

Distinguishing between these differing groups is crucial for better understanding the new landscape of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the trajectory of new salafi-jihadi groups that are not necessarily beholden to al Qaeda's strategies or tactics. Although there are no known formal or operational links between these disparate organizations, it is possible they may try to link up in the future based on ideological affinity and similar end goals. For now, though, conflating them would be premature. Here's a guide to the major groups going by this name.

Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen

While the other Ansar al-Sharia groups have no known operational links to al Qaeda, the Ansar al-Sharia group in Yemen (ASY) is part of a rebranding effort by AQAP. Shaykh Abu Zubayr Adil bin Abdullah al-Abab, AQAP's chief religious figure, in April 2011 first voiced this change by explaining that "the name Ansar al-Sharia is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals." The group has since become a major local player in southern Yemen, having taken over parts of the southern Yemeni governorates of Abyan and Shabwa in the late spring of 2011 and only relinquishing its emirate in June 2012 after a counteroffensive by the Yemeni government and local militias, backed by U.S. airstrikes. While ASY was driven out of the cities, it is not dead and will likely come back.

One of ASY's greatest successes was its ability to provide services, filling a vacuum left by the central government's inability or unwillingness to do so. ASY boasted about providing electricity, water, security, justice, and education in its newsletter and video series "Eyes on the Events," which it released via its news wire service Madad News Agency. Although ASY's law and order was based on a very narrow and rigid interpretation of the sharia, its provision of governance was reasonably popular. So while ASY's extremist message may not always resonate in cities like Azzan or Zinjibar, desperate citizens might welcome the group nonetheless.

Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia

In March 2011, after the ouster of President Zine El-Abdine Ben Ali, a variety of political prisoners and convicted terrorists were freed in a pardon by Tunisia's transitional government. One of the individuals was Sayf Allah bin Hussayn (better known as Abu Iyyadh al-Tunisi), formerly the co-founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group in Afghanistan, which helped facilitate the assassination of Ahmad Shah Messud two days prior to the Sept. 11 attacks. After being freed from prison, Abu Iyyadh organized the first of what is now an annual conference in April 2011 that founded Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). The conference attendees grew from a few hundred in 2011 to upward of 10,000 in 2012, suggesting its popularity has grown, though still at the margins.

Since its founding, AST has had a schizophrenic ideology: calling people to the "correct" path of Islam in Tunisia and inciting individuals to join jihad in foreign lands. It appears that while AST has not claimed responsibility for the embassy attacks this past Friday, many of its members were at the very least participants in the protests. AST had been involved in some of the more aggressive Salafi actions in Tunisia over the past year and half, including the "Day of Rage" over a local channel's decision to air the film Persepolis; some AST members were also involved with the attack against the U.S. Embassy in Tunis and an American school nearby. AST has also provided services in many Tunisian cities, from water to clothes to Ramadan gifts.

Ansar al-Sharia in Libya

In Libya, a number of groups use a variation of the name Ansar al-Sharia. Two of the more prominent groups are Katibat Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB), which is viewed as the prime suspect in the recent attack on the consulate and the more shadowy Ansar al-Sharia in Derna (ASD), led by former Guantánamo Bay inmate Abu Sufyan bin Qumu. Both groups were established after the death of former Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi, but are not connected to one another. ASB first announced itself February 2012 and is led by Muhammad al-Zahawi, who had previously been an inmate of Qaddafi's infamous Abu Salim prison. ASB hosted the first of what it hopes to be an annual conference in June, whose roughly 1,000 attendees included a number other smaller militias, all calling on the Libyan state to implement sharia. A few hundred of those attendees are likely members of ASB.

Like the Tunisian Ansar al-Sharia, ASB has been providing local services. ASB members have cleaned and fixed roads, provided aid during Ramadan, and most recently were helping with security at a hospital in Benghazi. Although the group admits to destroying Sufi shrines and graves in Benghazi, ASB has attempted to carve out a niche locally as defenders of a strict interpretation of Islam, while helping with the basic needs of the community. Based on its statements -- which evolved from suggestions that members were involved in an individual capacity in the attack to flat-out denials of any involvement -- ASB seems it understands it overreached and is attempting to salvage its reputation.

Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt and Morocco

Unlike the groups in Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya, Egypt's Ansar al-Sharia (ASE) has not publicly announced itself as an organized group on the ground, while the Moroccan organization was only created a mere 10 days ago. ASE has only used the Ansar al-Sharia name online when providing releases for al-Bayyan Media Foundation, which is connected with the jihadi ideologue Shaykh Ahmad Ashush, who recently published a fatwa calling for the death of those involved in the making of the film Innocence of the Muslims. Ashush has a deep history in the jihadi movement, having been involved with the anti-Soviet jihad in the 1980s as well as being a member of the Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ). He was arrested in the early 1990s in an anti-terror sweep against 150 members of EIJ and was only released from prison after the fall of Hosni Mubarak's regime. Based on known evidence, it would be premature to consider ASE a fully fledged group yet.

Ansar al-Sharia in the Maghrib (ASM) is a nascent organization that is only interested in dawa activities. ASM noted in its first and only statement thus far that it is not connected with the groups in Yemen, Tunisia, Libya, or Egypt. ASM's raison d'être is to spread the word of God and his law, provide social and economic services to the downtrodden, and expose the West's decadence and to free society from its grip.

Like the other radical groups across the region that share the Ansar al-Sharia name, it is very much worth watching carefully.


The List

A Palestinian Spring

Here's what you need to know about the protests in the West Bank.

It has been a week of protest across the Middle East. Beginning in Egypt and Libya, then spreading to Yemen, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Sudan, angry crowds took to the streets to protest an anti-Islam film that few had likely ever seen. The protesters weren't too fickle about their targets: They not only attacked U.S. missions in Cairo and Benghazi, but also set the German embassy in Sudan aflame and burned down a Kentucky Fried Chicken in Lebanon.

Amidst this furor, you might have missed a slew of protests that occurred for a more tangible reason. Protesters demonstrated across the West Bank earlier this week, prompting speculation that the Arab Spring has finally arrived in Palestine. In recent days, from Bethlehem to Hebron to Ramallah, the Palestinians have taken to the streets. Only this time, they're not protesting against the Israeli occupation -- they're denouncing their own leaders.

As the Palestinian protests rage, here are eight things you need to know:

1.      It's a rough economy. The protests first began as an angry response to a regional hike in fuel prices. But as the Washington Post notes, "the demonstrators are also upset about the costs of basic goods, including dairy products and cooking gas, which are also imported from Israel and sold at prices similar to those charged there, although the average income in the West Bank is far lower."

Palestinians feel squeezed economically. As one protest sign -- creatively hung on a donkey -- read: "Only in Palestine: The Gulf weather, Parisian prices, and Somali wages." Meanwhile, foreign aid has fallen significantly. As punishment for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's unilateral statehood bid at the United Nations, the United States has withheld $200 million in assistance. Arab states, meanwhile, have consistently failed to fulfill their pledges. As a result, the Palestinian Authority faces a financial crisis, with debts of $1.5 billion and a cash shortfall of $500 million.

These financial woes have forced the government to delay paying the salaries of some 153,000 civil servants on several occasions over the past few months. Add to this widespread charges of corruption and nepotism among the ruling elite, and you've got an unsustainable economic situation.

2.      It's political. Economic issues notwithstanding, these protests are the product of political frustration. This has become abundantly apparent by recent protests against the Paris Protocol, an economic agreement signed as an annex to the Oslo Accords that tethers the Palestinian economy to Israel's. In rejecting the agreement, despite very tangible benefits from economic cooperation with Israel, the Palestinians show how little hope they have in the Oslo framework.

Abbas, meanwhile, refuses to negotiate with the Israelis unless they institute a complete freeze on settlements -- a step Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists is a non-starter. In lieu of diplomacy, the Palestinian leadership has vowed to revive its bid for statehood at the United Nations. However, this will likely yield only non-member observer status at best. In the meantime, the world has lost interest in the Palestinian cause, as the U.S. presidential elections, global economic jitters, and the threat of a nuclear Iran all take center stage.

But the Palestinians know their problems start at home. The split between the Fatah leadership in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza continues to undermine the very concept of Palestinian national identity. This internecine conflict has repeatedly prevented elections, leaving West Bankers keenly aware of the fact that their ossified and corrupt government is past its expiration date.

3.      The Palestinian Authority is in the crosshairs. This is the biggest domestic challenge the PA has faced in its 18 years of existence. Palestinians cannot ignore the fact that their quasi-government has squandered one opportunity after the next, from the Yasir Arafat's failure to make peace with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak at the 2000 Camp David summit to the mysterious implosion of the 2008 talks between Abbas and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, which could have also brought an end to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The PA was always supposed to be an interim body to pave the way for an actual Palestinian state. In the absence of a peace process, it has lost its raison d'être. That's why some are calling for the PA to be dismantled. The PA's economic and security cooperation with Israel, critics claim, only serves to benefit the Israelis. Of course, Israel provides a range of critical services to the PA -- but this only underscores the fact that the governing body has yet to assume all the responsibilities of governing.

Mounting allegations of corruption have challenged the PA's legitimacy long before its security forces began clashing with local residents. The ongoing protests are only making matters worse. Don't forget that the PA was crafted in the image of an Arab autocracy -- think Hosni Mubarak's Egypt -- not exactly the most revered form of government these days.

4.      Salam Fayyad is in trouble. One of the figures most closely associated with the PA is Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. The former World Bank official, once a darling of the West for his efforts to combat corruption and increase transparency in Ramallah, has become an object of Palestinian ire. Protesters called for his resignation and chanted "Let's go, Fayyad get out" on the streets during the recent round of demonstrations. On Sept. 8, an angry mob surrounded Fayyad's entourage as he finished a radio interview in Ramallah, and on Sept. 10 protesters threw shoes at a poster of the premier.

Fayyad promised to step aside if there is a "real public demand" -- but his departure would be a loss for the Palestinian movement. He is still among the PA's best bets to enact political and economic reform. However, the fact that he is an independent who never joined Fatah has earned him many political foes -- including Mahmoud Abbas. The fact that he has strong ties with the United States and Israel doesn't exactly earn him street cred in Ramallah, either. Some Palestinians quietly speculate that Fatah figures are helping to organize anti-Fayyad rallies, as pro-Fatah elements have made their voices heard at a handful of demonstrations. Fatah central committee member Mohammed Shtayyeh and former PA intelligence chief Tawfiq Tirawi have reportedly egged on the protests.

5.      Mahmoud Abbas is in trouble, too. If Fatah figures are behind the anti-Fayyad protests, they're playing with fire. If Fayyad goes, Abbas could be next. Protesters are already calling for the president's resignation.

Abbas has tried to get out in front of the protests, declaring early on that "[t]he Palestinian Spring has begun." But his recent travel to India amidst this unrest underscores his utter lack of respect for public opinion. It's worth noting that Abbas's term officially expired in January 2009. In the age of the Arab Spring, leaders who cling to power past their sell-by dates have become a rare breed.

6.      Gaza is safe...for now. On Sept. 3, a young man in the Gaza Strip immolated himself, mimicking Tunisian produce merchant Mohammed Bouazizi, who set off the Arab Spring in late 2010. The Palestinian Maan News Agency quoted Hamas leader Mousa Abu Marzook as saying that the protests in the West Bank may soon spread to Gaza, but Hamas has since denied this. For the time being, however, Gaza appears insulated from the protests. Hamas, after all, draws no Western aid, and consequently has few qualms about crushing dissent.

Meanwhile, it's safe to say the Islamist faction is watching the West Bank with bated breath. Ever since Hamas won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006, its leaders have believed they are the rightful heirs to the Palestinian Authority. The current unrest, not to mention the assault on the PA's leadership, would appear to vindicate the Islamist group.

7.      Nonviolence turns to violence. Much has been made of popular or non-violent resistance in recent years as a means of challenging Israel. As it turns out, the Palestinians are now employing these very tactics against the PA. While the first few days of protests were marked largely by transportation strikes and chanting crowds, some protesters have forgotten to channel the spirit of Gandhi and Martin Luther King. In one demonstration on Sept. 10, Palestinians even smashed windows and attempted to storm a municipal building in Hebron before clashing with police. Eighty people were injured in those clashes. Imagine what could happen if protester violence instigated a determined crackdown by PA security forces. Can the Palestinian protesters maintain discipline?

8.      "Intrafada"... for now. With more protests planned throughout the West Bank, the Palestinian Spring shows no signs of abating. Although palpable anger against the Israelis is a common theme, the protests appear to be primarily aimed at the Palestinian Authority. This is, to borrow from analyst David Pollock, an "intrafada" -- not an intifada against Israel.

Of course, that could change. If the Israeli military gets caught up in a clash that results in Palestinian casualties, it could quickly spark a new round of violence that could quickly get nasty.  

Would the PA leadership welcome the opportunity to unleash the angry crowds on Israel?  It certainly could create some breathing room for them by redirecting their rage elsewhere. Anger at Israel is the lowest common denominator on the Palestinian street. But that does not mean the people of the West Bank don't want to put their own house in order. It might be a bit late in the day, but it's still the Arab Spring.