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In 1997, employees of the Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation (AHIF), a Saudi-based charity, were mulling how best to strike a blow against the United States in East Africa. According to the U.S. Treasury Department, one employee indicated that the plan they hatched ”would be a suicide bombing carried out by crashing a vehicle into the gate at the Embassy.” A wealthy foundation official from outside the region agreed to fund the operation.

The employees’ plans would go through several iterations, but AHIF would eventually play a role in the ultimate attack. In 1998, simultaneous explosions ripped through the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya — attacks eventually traced back to al Qaeda operatives. Prior to the bombings, a former director of AHIF’s Tanzanian branch made preparations for the advance party that planned the bombings, and the Comoros Islands branch of the charity was used, according to the Treasury Department, “as a staging area and exfiltration route for the perpetrators.” The ultimate result was deadly: 224 people killed and more than 4,000 wounded.

This was, of course, before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent crackdown on wealthy Islamist charity organizations such as AHIF, which provided a large portion of the funding that made international terrorism possible. As a monograph produced for the 9/11 Commission noted, prior to 9/11, “al Qaeda was funded, to the tune of approximately $30 million per year, by diversions of money from Islamic charities and the use of well-placed financial facilitators who gathered money from both witting and unwitting donors.”

But despite all the efforts made to shut down such groups, Islamist-leaning international charities and other NGOs are now reemerging as sponsors of jihadi activity. In countries like Tunisia and Syria, they are providing the infusion of funds that have allowed extremist groups to undertake the hard work of providing food, social services, and medical care. Jihadists, meanwhile, have discovered that they can bolster their standing within local communities, thereby increasing support for their violent activities. And governments are struggling to keep up.

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A month ago, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Benghazi (The Supporters of Islamic Law; ASB), on its official Facebook page via its official media outlet al-Rayyah Foundation for Media Production uploaded a poster (see above) promoting a demonstration on Sunday December 16 in Tripoli and Benghazi. The demonstration is in support of Libyans currently imprisoned in Iraq. In the past few months there have been other protests in support of Libyans in Iraq, too. Similarly, Ansar al-Shari’ah in Tunisia (AST) has also held demonstrations in the past for Tunisians that are imprisoned in Iraq. What’s fascinating in this case is that the promotional poster contains names of ten individuals. At the suggestion of the blogger/tweeter that goes by the name of Around the Green Mountain I cross-checked these names with the Sinjar Records to see if there were any matches.

For background on the Sinjar Records see the Combating Terrorism Center’s description in their report that first analyzed these records: “In November 2007, the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point received nearly 700 records of foreign nationals that entered Iraq between August 2006 and August 2007 … The records contain varying levels of information on each fighter, but often include the fighter’s country of origin, hometown, age, occupation, the name of the fighter’s recruiter, and even the route the fighter took to Iraq.  The records were captured by coalition forces in October 2007 in a raid near Sinjar, along Iraq’s Syrian border.”

When the raw data was checked, four out of the ten names were a match (or had a part of the name): ‘Adil Jum’ah Muhammad al-Sha’lali, ‘Ali ‘Uthman Hamad al-‘Arfi, Hamzah ‘Ali ‘Awad, and Muhammad Saqr Muhammad. Some information about them:

  • All created their own kunyas: Abu ‘Umar, Abu Umar, Abu al-Qa’qa, Abu Hudayfah (listed in same order as regular names above)
  • Three were from Darnah while the other did not list a city of origin;
  • Three listed date of birth: 1981, 1982, and 1985;
  • Two of them mentioned when they arrived in Iraq: October 2006;
  • The same two brought with them 500 and 300 lira respectively;
  • And a different set of two of them stated the work they wanted when joining the Islamic State of Iraq: martyr (which has not obviously come to fruition yet)

Two of the individuals also contained pictures in their Sinjar application for the Islamic State of Iraq. Below, you can see a comparison of the application photo from 2006 on the left and what I am assuming is a relatively recent photo of the same individual in Iraqi custody, which is from the above flier. There are slight differences due to aging and likely poor conditions in Iraqi prisons and the second picture looks closer in similarity to the before and after than the first one. For those reading, what do you think (leave a comment below)?

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‘Ali ‘Uthman Hamad al-‘Arfi: Joining the ISI (left) and During Iraqi Imprisonment (right) 

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Hamzah ‘Ali ‘Awad: Joining the ISI (left) and During Iraqi Imprisonment (right)

It is likely that the other six individuals that ASB is calling for their release were also fighters in the Islamic State of Iraq, but joined at a different time period or were not part of the registration/orientation in Sinjar. Reports from the official Libyan news agency LANA suggest that after the most recent protests, Baghdad has been in negotiation with Tripoli to return the prisoners and have them serve out their time in Libya. Based on the current security dynamic in Libya, if these prisoners, among others I’m sure, are returned can their sentences in prison be preserved? There is a good chance that due to the unstable nature swirling in the country that these individuals could be broken out of jail or even worse are let free once back on Libyan soil due to the weakness of the government in the face of Islamist militias. Time will of course tell.

The above highlights that although some parts of the history of the jihadi movement and US understanding/interaction with these sources seems somewhat dated, as Leah Farrall always notes ‘what’s old is new again.’ In other words, trends/older players return to the fore even if forgotten by analysts. This is especially the case in the post-Arab uprising societies where individuals from the 1990s scene have once again gotten back on the stage. All of this of course illustrates the importance in understanding the history, context, and evolution of the jihadi movement. Only focusing narrowly on the most recent developments will rob many of appreciating how and why events are occurring or repeating themselves.

Ever since the attacks on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi and U.S. Embassy in Tunis in September, there has been a large spotlight on the Islamist groups viewed as the main culprits — Katibat Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB) and Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST). While much of the understandable focus has been on the violent actions of individuals in these organizations, much of the scope of their activities lies outside violence. A large-portion of the activities of these groups is local social service provision under their particular dawa (missionary) offices. This broader picture is crucial to better understanding emerging trends in societies transitioning from authoritarian to democratic rule.

ASB and AST can broadly be considered jihadi organizations based on their ideological outlook. However, these jihadis are different than past incarnations. Jihadis have a good track record in fighting and less so in governing or providing social services. The only example of jihadi governance has occurred when the Somali-based Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin and Yemeni-based al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) held actual territory. What sets ASB and AST apart is that they are providing aid to local communities in a non-state actor capacity, which has been unheard of previously.

While many analysts view jihadism only through the prism of al Qaeda, it misses the influence of independent jihadi religious scholars. Since the excesses of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and al Qaeda in Iraq last decade, Minbar al-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (the Pulpit of Monotheism and Jihad), a library of jihadi primary source material founded by Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi who is currently imprisoned in Jordan, has attempted to steer the jihadi community to a more “pure” jihad. To do this, Maqdisi established a sharia committee of like-minded scholars in 2009 for Minbar that provide fatwas answering questions along a range of topics from the mundane to political to jihad. This has been well documented by Dutch scholar Joas Wagemakers.

One of the main critiques Maqdisi presents, and hopes to create a course correction within the jihadi movement, is his differentiation between the idea of qital al-nikayya (fighting to hurt or damage the enemy) and qital al-tamkin (fighting to consolidate ones power), which he expounds upon in his book Waqafat ma’ Thamrat al-Jihad (Stances on the Fruit of Jihad) in 2004. Maqdisi argues the former provides only short-term tactical victories that in many cases do not amount to much in the long-term whereas the latter provides a framework for consolidating an Islamic state. In this way, Maqdisi highlights the importance of planning, organization, education, as well as dawa(calling individuals to Islam) activities. As Wagemakers has noted, the creation of the Minbar sharia committee was to forward these views to “protect” the jihad and to better advance the pursuit of a true Islamic state based on the sanctity of the tawhid (monotheism) of God.

The formation of Ansar al-Sharia groups in Benghazi and Tunisia are likely a logical conclusion and implementation of Maqdisi’s ideas, changing emphasis on the groups’ actions. One of the main avenues for advancing ASB’s and AST’s ideas has been through their social services programs. This provides an outlet for advancing the consolidation of a future Islamic state that cultivates followers in a broader fashion than the more vanguard-oriented organizations that have been involved in jihadism in a local, regional, or global capacity over the past 30 years.

Click here to read the rest.

The investigation of the devastating Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed American ambassador Christopher Stevens — limited as it is by security concerns that hampered the FBI’s access to the site –h as begun to focus on a Libya-based Egyptian, Muhammad Jamal (a.k.a. Abu Ahmad al Masri). As a detailed Wall Street Journal report explains, Jamal is notable not only for having fighters under his command and operating militant training camps in the Libyan desert, but also for having recently gotten out of Egyptian prison.

This latter fact makes Jamal part of a trend that has gone largely unremarked upon in the public sphere since the beginning of the “Arab Spring” uprisings: prisons in affected countries have been emptied, inmates scattering after being released or breaking free. In many cases, it is a good thing that prisoners have gone free: the Arab dictatorships were notorious for unjustly incarcerating political prisoners, and abusing them in captivity. But jihadists have also been part of this wave of releases, and we are now beginning to see the fruits of the talent pool that is back on the streets.

Many commentators have remarked that the jihadist movement has shown increased vigor recently, including al Qaeda’s North African affiliate and the various Ansar al Sharia groups that emerged in multiple countries, but the prison releases have been an important part of this story that analysts have generally ignored.

Prisoners have gone free for a variety of reasons. Muammar Qaddafi’s government used these releases as an offensive tactic early after the uprisings, setting prisoners free in rebellious areas in order to create strife there. As the rebellion continued, some prison governors decided for their own reasons (perhaps as a way of defecting) to empty prisons they were charged with guarding. Chaos allowed some escapes, as guards afraid of reprisals fled their posts; in other cases gunmen attacked prisons in order to release the inmates. And regimes that experienced less chaotic transitions, including Tunisia but especially Egypt, have been hesitant to continue imprisoning virtually anybody jailed by the old regime, including violent Islamists with blood on their hands.

The potential for danger was actually apparent very early in the events of the Arab Spring. In January 2011, even before Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was toppled from power, it was widely reported that thousands of prisoners had escaped from Egyptian jails, including militants. A lengthy hagiographical account of how “the mujahedin” had escaped from the Abu Za’bal prison soon appeared on the Ansar al Mujahedin Network, a jihadist web forum.

After Mubarak’s fall, many people imprisoned by the old regime were let back on the streets. Hani al Saba’i, a figure with deep ties to the jihadist movement who runs the London- based Al Maqrizi Center for Historical Studies, published several lists of names of militant figures who had been released, beginning in February 2011. As he wrote on February 27, “This release is one of the positive outcomes of this popular Egyptian revolution that we hope to conclude with the application of the Islamic sharia.”

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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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The tragic death of U.S. ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other diplomatic personnel in yesterday’s attack on the American consulate in Benghazi was the latest episode of violence attributed to Islamist extremists in Libya. A small contingent of local jihadists has emerged since Muammar Qadhafi’s ouster, and they have applauded the recent attacks, though it is not clear how much responsibility they bear for carrying them out. The growth of such groups is a worrisome development that reinforces the importance of active U.S. engagement with the new Libyan authorities.

LIBYAN JIHADISM BEFORE THE WAR

Prior to the 2011 uprising, the country’s main organized jihadist movement, the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, had already deradicalized and retired. Founded after the anti-Soviet jihad, the LIFG attempted to overthrow the Qadhafi regime in the mid-1990s but began to move away from armed conflict in 2006. In 2009, the group’s shura council members — some in Libyan prison, others in exile in Europe — negotiated an end to conflict with the regime via Qadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam. The minority that disagreed with that decision joined al-Qaeda in Pakistan, leaving no organized presence in Libya. Therefore, on the eve of last year’s war, organized violent jihadism in Libya was more or less extinct.

Once the uprising began, the LIFG stuck to its word and did not return to jihadist activities, even changing its name to the Libyan Islamic Movement for Change. As the rebellion unfolded, however, many members of the group joined the armed resistance, where they drew on their prior combat experience; most prominently, LIFG figure Abdul Hakim Belhaj became head of the Tripoli Military Council.

Following Qadhafi’s fall, the LIFG split into two political factions that contested the July 2012 legislative elections: the broad-based moderate party Hizb al-Watan (HW), which Belhaj joined, and the smaller, more conservative and Islamist-tinged Hizb al-Umma al-Wasat (HUW), which most other LIFG members joined under the leadership of prominent figure Sami al-Saadi. HW did not win any seats in the election, while HUW garnered one, which was allocated to Abdul Wahhab al-Qaed, brother of the late Abu Yahya al-Libi, a senior al-Qaeda figure.

NEW LOCAL GROUPS

Even as LIFG put down its arms after the war and joined the political process, new jihadist groups began to emerge once the dust settled. One of the largest is Ansar al-Sharia in Benghazi (ASB), led by Muhammad Zahawi. In addition to online connections with the Ansar al-Sharia group in Tunisia, ASB has ties to several smaller Salafi-jihadistkatibas (battalions) in Libya, including the shadowy Ansar al-Sharia in Darnah (ASD), led by former Guantanamo Bay inmate Abu Sufyan bin Qumu. Many of these katibas participated in the ASB’s first “annual conference” this June; based on photos from the event, as many as a thousand individuals attended.

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