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.