In the free space created by the revolutions of the Arab Spring, radical Islamists are forming a number of new groups to push their agenda.
At the forefront of the salafist surge in Tunisia, Libya, and Yemen are groups rallying under the banner of "Ansar al-Sharia". At first, many analysts believed that these groups were an attempt by the salafist current to adapt to the new conditions and that they would eventually renounce violent jihadist ideology.
However, as Moroccan researcher Abdellah Rami explains, the Ansar al-Sharia groups are now serving as "the ideological face, the human reservoir and money provider for the armed al-Qaeda". Magharebia sat down with Rami, a political analyst at the Moroccan Centre for Social Sciences specialising in Islamic groups, to discuss this new phenomenon and its prospects.
Magharebia: Do you consider the appearance of a number of new salafist groups calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia just a coincidence or part of a larger plan?
Abdellah Rami: I don't think it's a coincidence. It's definitely the result of deliberation and planning aimed at re-acclimatising the jihadist salafist current to the new condition that was created by the Arab Spring revolutions in the region.
This is confirmed by many indicators, including the meetings that were held, and the leaders who were behind these initiatives, who are mostly jihadist symbols who have a jihadist history in Afghanistan and elsewhere.
As to the name, I think it responds to Osama Bin Laden's will before he was killed, in which he asked his group to change the name of al-Qaeda and choose a new name that is close to the conscience of Muslims. It seems that the name "Ansar al-Sharia" is very suitable for this purpose, given its symbolic nature and strong impact on religious feelings in the Muslim society. Therefore, the name was not chosen haphazardly, but was the result of planning and consensus. It was chosen based on the strong significance and symbolism of the name.
However, we should also note that the name itself is not new, given that Abu Hamza al-Masri, who is currently detained in Britain and is wanted in Yemen and America in connection with terrorist crimes, has already given the name to his group which he founded in London after he returned from Afghanistan in 1994. Abu Hamza was aspiring to make Ansar al-Sharia a global organisation with branches in many countries.
Magharebia: Is this just a rebranding of al-Qaeda, as Bin Laden suggested, or do these new groups indicate a break between salafists and the global terrorist network?
Rami: No, there is no break. In my opinion, Ansar al-Sharia groups and al-Qaeda are two sides of the same coin. Ansar al-Sharia poses an evolving threat, given that it is a dawa (preaching) extension of al-Qaeda. I mean it can be part of what we can consider to be a re-drafting of relations between jihadist salafism and Muslim societies.
Al-Qaeda's absolute tendency in totally depending on violence and armed action has led to its recession and deterioration.
Ansar al-Sharia, meanwhile, came exactly to get rid of this restriction and isolation which al-Qaeda is now suffering from. This is the significance of Bin Laden's will in which he called on his followers to think about a new name for the organisation that would enable it to return to society with a new face that would be popularly accepted, but without renouncing the jihadist salafist ideology, i.e. without making any ideological revisions.
Magharebia: What are the reasons for this decline in al-Qaeda support?
Rami: The most important reason is that the media stopped promoting al-Qaeda, and then there is the tight military and security siege on al-Qaeda's structures and symbols. At its beginnings, al-Qaeda heavily depended on satellite channels' coverage of its operations as a main method for presenting its name, sending its messages and promoting the organisation in Muslim countries, and through that, it expanded the circle of sympathisers and supporters in these countries. This is in addition, of course, to the role of al-Qaeda's literature on the internet.
However, the blows that al-Qaeda has been dealt, the tight military, security and media siege on it, and the drop of its operations made the central organisation increasingly recede as of 2005, and as a result, the circle of sympathisers and supporters became more active than al-Qaeda itself.
Based on that, they thought about the need to create a new formula for the organisation betting on dawa as a means for expanding, penetrating and consolidating its roots in society through the use of pulpits, social and charitable work opportunities which are close to populations. The Arab Spring has significantly contributed to this shift by providing a greater margin for salafist groups with the growing margin of freedom after regional societies ridded themselves of the strong security fist of former dictatorships.
Magharebia: What is the nature of ties between al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Sharia? Are there organisational relations with central leaders?
Rami: The major connection between the two is the ideological compatibility. Ansar al-Sharia groups ideologically intersect with al-Qaeda, and all of them declare their loyalty to al-Qaeda command in Waziristan, although there are no organisational links.
This is clear, such as the case in Yemen, where al-Qaeda has a presence alongside Ansar al-Sharia. In fact, they are similar and very close, but do not work within the same frame. In sum, it can be said that Ansar al-Sharia represents the structured ideological arm to the wider current of jihadist salafism, while al-Qaeda represents its armed military arm. In other words, Ansar al-Sharia is the ideological face, the human reservoir and money provider for the armed al-Qaeda.
Magharebia: What are the political prospects for Ansar al-Sharia?
Rami: The political system which these groups promise is the establishment of a Taliban-style caliphate system through jihad. The salafist logic rejects all aspects of civil politics and civil rule. Ansar al-Sharia can't accept democracy, because democracy can bring a woman to rule, and can also bring a liberal or a Christian; something that the salafists can never accept.
They wouldn't accept anything other than the rule of Sharia, and the rule of Sharia in their concept is the approval of a Taliban-style pattern.
This can be noticed in the areas which the salafists controlled in Mali, Somalia and Yemen because of the weakness of central government and precariousness of political regimes. In those areas, they are exactly like the Taliban-style government and administration, the same formula, and nothing new.
The most important thing for them is to create a moral police force for the promotion of virtue and prevention of vice, then set ablaze videocassette shops and liquor stores, separate men from women, interrupt education programmes, destroy religious burial sites and remove any aspect which they consider to be in contradiction with Sharia.
This means that we are faced with the same features of Taliban rule.