Geopolitics

From The Ashes Of Arab Spring, A New Generation Of Global Jihad Emerges

Abu Ayyad, leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia
Abu Ayyad, leader of Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia
Isabelle Mandraud

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.

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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.

[*Italian]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."

🇸🇩💥  IN OTHER NEWS

Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

#️⃣  BY THE NUMBERS

471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world! info@worldcrunch.com!

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