Nouakchott — Libyan extremists are reportedly linking up with jihadists in Mali, creating a new branch of Ansar al-Sharia.
Malian Islamists last Sunday (December 9th) announced the creation of their own "Ansar al-Sharia" group in Gao, the largest city in northern Mali.
Most of the new group's leaders hail from the Barabiche tribe in Timbuktu and are close to Ansar al-Din official spokesman Sanad Ould Bouamama.
According to Mauritania's al-Akhbar, the announcement raises the number of armed groups in the region known as Azawad to five: Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb's Sahara emirate, the Movement for Tawhid and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), al-Qaeda's El Moulethemine Brigade, Ansar al-Din and now Ansar al-Sharia.
Creating such a group at this time came as no surprise, since the terrorist groups and allied movements believe that Ansar al-Sharia, whose influence has been growing in the Maghreb, represents a real solution for the northern Mali crisis.
According to Djazair News, new intelligence reports have confirmed that al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) leaders in northern Mali are exerting concerted efforts to establish links with Ansar al-Sharia in Libya so they can set up a base to hit Western interests in the region in response to calls for waging a war on terrorist groups in Mali.
The Daily Telegraph reported on December 4th that AQIM leaders "regularly travel to Ghat, a desert town in south-western Libya near the border with Niger".
"Their aim is to establish a foothold in Libya from which to launch attacks against Western targets, as well as gaining access to the large stockpiles of weapons - including Russian-made anti-aircraft missiles - that were looted by Libyan rebels during the fall of Colonel Moamer Kadhafi's regime at the end of last year," the paper reported.
"In return, AQIM is offering to provide Libyan Islamist groups with training and finance," The Telegraph added.
A number of weapons from Kadhafi's arsenal have made their way to Islamists in Algeria and Tunisia, Tunisian President Moncef Marzouki recently told World Today magazine.
At the same time, the leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia called for waging jihad against those whom he described as enemies of religion in Tunisia.
Ansar al-Sharia first appeared in Yemen in April 2011, where the group was established by al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP). The group is largely believed to have been created in response to Osama Bin Laden's request to rebrand al-Qaeda.
"The armed Islamist groups now take promotional names through which they seek to win the sympathy of general Muslim populations," explained Abdallah Ould El Nah, a researcher in security and defence affairs.
"Such armed groups present themselves as supporters of Islam, whether as a religion or Sharia, although they are far away from its tolerant teachings and peaceful call," he added.
Ansar al-Sharia in northern Mali is just one part of an organisation that is expanding virally. In addition to branches in Tunisia and Yemen, similar groups have sprung up in Morocco and Libya, where Ansar al-Sharia was blamed for the terror attack on the US consulate in Benghazi.
All of the groups share a common jihadist ideology, according to a document written by a Mauritanian salafist preacher and posted to online forums.
Abu Mondhar al-Chinguetti wrote last May that the new groups were based on certain principles, such as "opposition to democracy, jihadist salafist ideology, the dream of establishing Islamic emirates as per their own unilateral views, and attempts to impose restrictions on freedoms".
Mauritanian journalist al-Neji Ould Mohammedu believes that Ansar al-Sharia "will be expanding over time, mainly in countries and societies lacking political stability".
For his part, Hamadi Ould Dah, a Sahel terrorism analyst, said the extremist groups in Mali could adopt a strategy of providing social services to residents as a way to build local support, much as was done in Yemen.
"They adopted the same approach in a number of Tunisian cities by providing assistance to populations, but at the same time they foment chaos and spread violence in the street in an unprecedented way," he said.
"In Tunisia, for example, the number of Ansar al-Sharia elements increased from hundreds of extremists to tens of thousands in 2011. We're faced with a phenomenon that is about to get out of control, and therefore, must be dealt with very early on," he added.