TUNIS - Overnight, the name of their organization, Ansar al-Sharia (Partisans of Islamic Law), became famous. They were brought into the spotlight after the deadly attacks on several U.S. embassies that they were accused of organizing after the broadcast of the Islamophobic movie “Innocence of Muslims.”
In 2011, in the course of just a few months, groups with the same name sprang up in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and Libya – four countries where the Arab Spring had taken place, and repressive governments had been toppled. They all shared the same goal: to establish an Islamic state in these countries freed from dictatorship.
The latest group to call itself Ansar al-Sharia, launched in North Africa, was nipped in the bud. Less than four months after it was formed, on November 5, the Moroccan police arrested eight group members. According to the Moroccan Interior Ministry, the group was getting ready to carry out destructive operations against vital targets, security headquarters and tourist sites in a number of Moroccan cities.
In northern Mali, which has been occupied by jihadists since spring, the Ansar al-Din group, headed by Tuareg leader Iyad Al-Ghali, is said to belong to the same ideological movement.
Who are they? Who are these "Partisans of Islamic Law?" "A new trend sweeping the world of jihadism" as the American researcher, Aaron Y. Zelin, writes in Foreign Policy? Or "a mutation of al-Qaeda," as Mathieu Guidère suggests, professor of Islamology at the University of Toulouse?
People started asking these questions after U.S. special forces seized documents and emails in Abbottabad – Osama Bin Laden’s last settling place in the north of Pakistan where he was killed on May 2, 2011. In the documents they found, Bin Laden was considering changing the name of his organization. His long list featured two names: Ansar al-Sharia and Ansar al-Din.
Yet the links between the Partisans of the Islamic Law and the infamous jihadist network seem very thin – except in Yemen, where links between Ansar al-Sharia and al-Qaeda have been reported since April 2011. Elsewhere, the reality is more complex, at least regarding the form and the method.
Despite the fact that they share the same goals, and are interconnected – something they deny – Ansar al-Sharia groups are quite autonomous and aren’t united by an authority or a leader. Some key players have emerged, but they remain very local.
In Tunisia, Abou Iyad, 43, whose real name is Seifallah Ben Hassine, has gained the most media exposure. Former co-founder of the Tunisian group in Afghanistan, he is suspected of being involved in the training of the two fake Tunisian journalists who assassinated Commandant Massoud on Sept. 9, 2001. Arrested in Turkey in 2003, then extradited to Tunisia, he was sentenced to 63 years in jail before benefiting – like many others – from the post-revolution general amnesty of March 2011.
In Egypt, the organization has ties to sheikh Ahmed Achouch who has been involved in the jihad movement since the 1980s. Arrested in the early 1990s, he was freed after President Mubarak was toppled.
In Libya, Mohamed al-Zahawi, 44, jailed in the sinister Abou Selim prison in Tripoli, is the leader of Benghazi’s Ansar al-Sharia branch, established by fighters from several katibas (brigades) after the fall of Muammar Gaddafi. In Libya, many people, especially youths, admire him. "He was the first one to use a Milan missile, the first to destroy a tank from Gaddafi's forces in Misrata,” said Sofiane, a 24-year-old student. "Except for sharia, Ansar doesn’t ask for anything. However, they possess three important things: sheiks, weapons and youths," worried Abdelkader Kadura, professor of law at the University of Benghazi.
“Talk globally, act locally”
None of the groups use al-Qaeda’s model of global jihad. "They talk globally and act globally," writes Aaron Y. Zelin. "Traditionally, Tunisia is not a breeding ground for jihad, it’s more of a breeding ground for preaching,” says Tunisian jihadist leader Abu Ayyad. Freed from jails or having returned from exile, Ansar al-Sharia’s leaders have decided to re-invest in their native countries to establish Koranic law with the help, or so they hoped, of new Islamic governments.
Everywhere, Partisans of the Islamic Law have infiltrated local politics. In Tunisia, they went as far as organizing "a congress" in Kairouan last May, where 5,000 Salafists shouted their favorite slogan: "Obama, Obama, we are all Osama!" They flew the black flags of radical Islam and faked combat scenes, under the approving gaze of Abu Ayyad. Their program also includes a section on… Islamic tourism.
To win over the reluctant hearts of the people, Ansar al-Sharia groups have given themselves a social role: In Yemen, they have supplied water, electricity and security. In Tunisia, they have helped struggling families, providing even the most isolated villages with gas and food. In Benghazi, the group has managed to keep al-Jela’s Hospital safe with surprising efficiency.
More or less organized, with a few hundred members – a few thousand at most – they appeal to new sympathizers through their actions (demonstrations, raids on stores selling alcohol) and their support among youths keeps growing.
"In Tunisia, there is a phenomenon of youth violence. These are the kids who wreaked havoc in the stadiums under Ben Ali’s rule, who took to the streets to overthrow him, who went to Lampedusa by boat and who became Salafists," explains Fabio Merone, an Italian researcher living in Tunis. "In working-class neighborhoods, youths socialize in mosques and through zamaktal – a very popular Islamic wrestling sport. They don’t have a "leader culture," but indirectly, leaders emerge.”
"If I take you to the gym, there, out of the 15 youths working out, 13 are Salafists," says Wael, who comes from a poor town in central Tunisia. "I will follow them all, al-Qaeda, and Ansar al-Sharia.” On Sept. 18, surrounded by police in Tunis' El Fata’s mosque, Abu Ayyad wasn’t worried: "You don’t scare this youth. The more you pressure them, the more their ideology will spread. The more you pressure them, the more liberal youths, delinquents, alcohol peddlers will turn to this ideology."
Unlike al-Qaeda, every one of these groups was operating out in the open, at least until now. But everything changed after the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Benghazi, Tunis and Cairo. Now hunted by police, Abu Ayyad has gone underground, which still allows him to get the word out through online videos. In Benghazi, Ansar al-Sharia’s katiba was forced out by the local population and had to abandon its headquarters. In Yemen, in June, the group was forced to leave the territory where they had settled. They haven’t waned though.
These last few weeks, their exchanges with the Islamic governments that have risen to power in Egypt and Tunisia, or with their former partners, have become tougher.
In a text obtained by Le Monde, former jihadist Adelhakim Belhadj condemned, without ambiguity, this "extremely small minority" of extremists and assured that "Libya was moving toward democracy and civil peace."
Meanwhile in Benghazi, the discourse was the opposite. "This is a conspiracy against the religious youth of the government, causing suspicion to fall on us," said Omrane Mohamed, one of Ansar al-Sharia’s spokesmen – who didn’t condemn the attack on the American consulate. "A message to the oppressors: We have been patient and we will still be patient, but beware the explosion of wrath," said Abu Ayyad on Nov. 2 after a group of Salafists had been arrested. In Egypt, new jihadists have received the support of Ayman al-Zawahiri, Bin Laden’s successor, who recently violently criticized the country’s new leader Mohammed Morsi in a video.
"All these Partisans of Sharia followed the same line. They first presented themselves as political groups," says an expert of Islam, Mathieu Guidère. "Their "leaders' have the same origins, but they were marked by the war in Iraq, rather than the one in Afghanistan. But for me, their initial hesitation, the politicization of the movement is ending and they are now moving toward armed groups." This evolution is yet to be confirmed but the new Arab Spring governments are now taking it seriously.
Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.
It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.
More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.
But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:
Cleaner aviation fuel
The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.
While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.
Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.
In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.
Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.
High-flying ambitions for the sector
Hydrogen and electrification
Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.
One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.
Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.
New aircraft designs
Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.
International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.
The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.
Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airportcommons.wikimedia.org
Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.
The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.
Data privacy issues
However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.
Auckland Airport, New Zealand
The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?
At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.
Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.
40% of Swedes intend to travel less
According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.
But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.
At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.
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