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Ansar al-Shari`a in Egypt

Unfortunately, this article, which can be found here, is behind a pay wall. If one is interested in reading it, send me an email (azelin@jihadology.net) and I can probably get you a copy.

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Jihadist groups are emerging as a major threat in Egypt because of three developments: the permissive atmosphere for Islamist mobilization in general since Hosni Mubarak’s February 2011 ouster, the ruling Muslim Brotherhood’s tolerance toward its fellow Islamists, and the weakness of the Egyptian state. To help inhibit violence by such groups, Washington should approach Cairo with a mix of economic inducements, diplomatic pressure, and intelligence sharing.

KEY JIHADIST GROUPS AND FIGURES

Following the 2011 revolution, the military junta that replaced Mubarak granted amnesty to many Islamists, including individuals with blood on their hands. Many of these figures renounced violence, and some established political parties, but others remain completely unreformed. These latter jihadists are radicalizing Egypt’s domestic political scene and threatening U.S. interests.

Two Egyptian “Ansar al-Sharia” groups, whose names echo those of other regional jihadist organizations, are particularly worth noting. Gamaat Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt (ASE), which was founded in mid-October 2012, focuses on internal “reform,” including application of sharia, compensation for the martyrs of the revolution, purging the judiciary and media, allowing bearded officers, and not relying on riba (usury) in financial transactions. Similar to the Ansar outfits in Tunisia and Benghazi, Libya, ASE runs local community services such as distributing sheep for ritual slaughter during the Eid al-Adha holiday and providing food for the needy.

By contrast, al-Taliah al-Salafiyah al-Mujahediyah Ansar al-Sharia (TSM), which was formed this month but officially declared in mid-November, is more internationally focused. Run by former members of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) who post their press releases to al-Qaeda-affiliated online forums, it emphasizes liberating foreign-occupied Muslim lands, supporting foreign mujahedin, resisting the foreign ideologies of liberalism and communism, repelling the implementation of secular laws from Europe, and stopping the “Christianization” of Egyptian education. Unlike ASE, TSM does not publicize any social services that it provides; much of its public profile since Mubarak’s ouster has been in the form of articles, books, and fatwas regarding the Egyptian transition.

Meanwhile, the emergence of former EIJ figure Muhammad al-Zawahiri, brother of al-Qaeda leader Ayman, has given these groups a public face. Zawahiri was released from prison in March 2012 and has since promoted the global jihadist worldview through local and international press interviews. While he denies being an al-Qaeda member, he agrees with its ideological outlook and, through Twitter, instigated last year’s September 11 protests outside the U.S. embassy in Cairo that culminated with the breaching of the compound’s walls and desecration of the U.S. flag. He also cooperated with TSM’s Ahmed Ashoush to plan Salafi jihadist participation in an early November demonstration in support of sharia. And in December, he catalyzed a boycott of the constitutional referendum, criticizing the Muslim Brotherhood’s “sharia sins” and arguing that the new charter was insufficiently Islamist.

While these groups and figures have only small followings — as evidenced by the unimpressive turnout at their occasional Tahrir Square sharia protests — there is substantial risk that they will gain followers in the coming months. The relative openness of post-Mubarak Egypt has afforded them unprecedented opportunities for proselytizing. Moreover, they will likely draw followers away from Salafist political parties, whose members may become disillusioned with a political process that they already view as a “necessary evil.”

Egypt’s declining internal security will give jihadists ample recruitment opportunities as well. Instability in the Sinai could also provide them with new training grounds, allowing them to return to their Nile Valley communities with newly developed skills for attacking civilians or the state. In addition, instability in northern Sinai and attacks against Israel could jeopardize the bilateral peace treaty.

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There is a new trend sweeping the world of jihadism. Instead of adopting unique names, groups increasingly prefer to call themselves ansar, Arabic for “supporters.” In many cases, they style themselves Ansar al-Sharia – supporters of Islamic law — emphasizing their desire to establish Islamic states. Yet despite the fact that these groups share a name and an ideology, they lack a unified command structure or even a bandleader like the central al Qaeda command (or what’s left of it), thought to be based in Pakistan. They are fighting in different lands using different means, but all for the same end, an approach better suited for the vagaries born of the Arab uprisings.

The name Ansar al-Sharia shot into the news last week in the aftermath of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, when the local organization Katibat Ansar al-Sharia was accused of perpetrating it — charges the group denied. Many reports seem to have confused Benghazi’s Ansar al-Sharia with another Libyan group, based in Derna.

The naming trend actually started in Yemen, when al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), the powerful and ambitious local al Qaeda branch, established the front group Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen in April 2011. It is possible this was born out of Osama bin Laden’s musings over whether to rebrand al Qaeda. None of the names in the documents captured from the late al Qaeda leader’s compound mentioned Ansar al-Sharia as a potential example, however. More recently, one of the preeminent global jihadi ideologues, Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti, put his stamp of approval on the new wave of Ansar al-Sharia groups.

Shinqiti, who is of Mauritanian origin, published an article in mid-June titled “We Are Ansar al-Sharia,” calling Muslims to establish their own dawa (missionary) Ansar al-Sharia groups in their respective countries and then to unite into one conglomerate. It should be noted that most of the Ansar al-Sharia groups were already created beforehand. The most prominent of these organizations are the ones in Yemen, Tunisia, and Libya, along with newer versions in Egypt and Morocco to a lesser extent.

The rise of these Ansar al-Sharia groups points to an end of al Qaeda’s unipolar global jihad of the past decade and a return to a multipolar jihadosphere, similar to the 1990s. One key difference, however is that jihadi groups are now more ideologically homogenous — in the 1990s, jihadis thought locally and acted locally, while many now talk globally and act locally. These newer groups are also more interested in providing services and governance to their fellow Muslims.

Distinguishing between these differing groups is crucial for better understanding the new landscape of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the trajectory of new salafi-jihadi groups that are not necessarily beholden to al Qaeda’s strategies or tactics. Although there are no known formal or operational links between these disparate organizations, it is possible they may try to link up in the future based on ideological affinity and similar end goals. For now, though, conflating them would be premature. Here’s a guide to the major groups going by this name.

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