Ansar al Sharia Egypt has published its founding statement online. The group says that “preaching and jihad are two wings that are indispensable to the spread of Islam,” according to a translation prepared by the SITE Intelligence Group. And the group outlines 16 goals with that two-pronged approach in mind.
In addition to calling for the implementation of sharia law, and the resurrection of the Caliphate, the organization says it will work toward “the liberation of the Muslim lands from foreign invasion” and resist “modern colonialism, especially the Zionist-Crusader colonialism that is led by America and the West.”
Ansar al Sharia Egypt also says, according to SITE’s translation, that it will support “the mujahideen and their movements and groups in the different lands of the Muslims so as to resist the Zionist-Crusader colonization, and this comes at the head of our priorities.”
The founding statement is signed by Ahmed Ashush, a high-profile jihadist who has longstanding ties to al Qaeda. During a recent television appearance, Ashush criticized Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi for not imposing sharia law. Ashush has consistently denounced the democratic process as well.
On Sept. 16, less than a week after the Sept. 11 protest at the US embassy in Cairo, Ashush released a fatwa online calling for the makers of the film “Innocence of Muslims” to be killed. “He who kills them is due the reward given to a mujahid from Allah, Glorified and Exalted be He,” Ashush claimed, according to a translation by SITE. “So, hurry, hurry, O Muslim youth in America and Europe, and teach those filthy lowly ones a lesson that all the monkeys and pigs in America and Europe will understand.”
BBC Monitoring reported that Ashush’s fatwa “was advertised prominently on the main page of the key pro-al Qaeda website Shumukh al Islam, which has promoted the works of Ashush in the past.”
After Ashush’s fatwa was released, the Associated Press reported that he is an “al Qaeda-linked Egyptian jihadist…who was believed close to Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda’s current No. 1, Ayman al Zawahiri.”
According to the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI), Ashush was a “close friend of Muhammad ‘Atef, aka Abu Hafs Al-Masri, one of al Qaeda’s most prominent military commanders.” Abu Hafs was killed during the US-led bombing campaign in Afghanistan in late 2001.
Ashush traveled to Afghanistan in 1989 to wage jihad, MEMRI reports, and he lived in Abu Hafs al Masri’s home. Ashush also became “acquainted with Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawawhiri” before returning to Egypt to found a jihadist group. Ashush was imprisoned during the 1990s and released after Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power.
Openly praises and defends al Qaeda
In 2007, a prominent jihadist ideologue named Sayyid Imam al Sharif (also known as Dr. Fadl) published a critique of al Qaeda’s approach to waging jihad. Al Qaeda has been criticized by outsiders repeatedly, but Sharif’s critique was especially powerful given his longstanding relationship with Ayman al Zawahiri.
A group of jihadists who were then imprisoned came to al Qaeda’s defense. Ashush was among them. A statement signed by Ashush and seven others rejected Sharif’s attempted reformation. Their statement read:
“We support all jihad movements in the world and see in them the hope of the nation and its frontlines toward its bright future. We say to our Muslim nation that no matter how long the night may last, dawn will emerge.”
Ashush’s cosignatories included Mohammed al Zawahiri, the younger brother of al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri, and another al Qaeda-linked jihadist named Sheikh Tawfiq al ‘Afani. Both the younger Zawahiri and al ‘Afani helped incite protesters on Sept. 11, 2012 in Cairo. Muhammad Jamal al Kashef, an Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) terrorist who was reportedly involved in the attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi later that same day, also signed the rebuke of Sharif.
After Mohammed al Zawahiri was acquitted by an Egyptian military court in March 2012, Ashush congratulated Ayman al Zawahiri and the jihadist movement on the younger Zawahiri brother’s release. Ashush praised Mohammed al Zawahiri for withstanding the “pressures” of the Mubarak regime. Ashush also asked God to grant Mohammed al Zawahiri “success in word and deed, [to] use him and not replace him, and grant him strength.”
It didn’t take long for Mohammed al Zawahiri and Ashush to begin working together publicly.
Mohammed al Zawahiri (right, in front of an al Qaeda in Iraq flag), Sheikh ‘Adil Shehato (center, bottom), and Ahmad Ashush (center, speaking on microphone), from an As Sahab video released on Sept. 10, 2012.
In April 2012, Al Faroq Media posted a video of Mohammed al Zawahiri and Ashush proselytizing in Cairo. The video also showed Sheikh Adel Shehato, a longtime Egyptian Islamic Jihad official who was recently arrested on terrorism charges and who also attended the 9/11 Cairo protest, as well as Murjan Salim, a senior Egyptian jihadist who has his own ties to al Qaeda.
Ashush told the crowd that the Salafist-jihadist movement led the way in “revolting against the apostate regimes.” Ashush then called on those in attendance to pay respect to the leaders of the movement: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.
The Al Faroq Media video shows Ashush, Mohammed al Zawahiri, and Shehato chanting, “Take a picture, Obama, all of us here are Osama.” (A similar chant was heard during the Sept. 11 protest in front of the US Embassy in Cairo.)
In a June 2012 message addressed to Egyptians, Ashush praised the true jihadists who “are still on the path” and “cannot be defeated by desires because they raise the banner high regardless of who agrees or disagrees with them.” Ashush dismissed a video that claimed the Egyptian jihadist movement supported Ahmad Shafiq, a former official in Hosni Mubarak’s regime, for president of Egypt.
Ashush said that the members of the “jihadist trend” are “led by the brave jihadist Ayman al Zawahiri and all of his comrades, God protect and watch over them.” The Zawahiri-led jihadists “are a good example and the model to follow because of their commitment to the principles and sacrifice of the soul and everything precious in support of this religion.”
“On the path you will find the leader of the mujahidin Osama bin Laden, the brave leader Abu Musab al Zarqawi, and many other brave and honorable examples,” Ashush said in the June 2012 message.
The following month, in July 2012, Ashush published a criticism of Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi. Ashush took issue with Ghannouchi’s criticism of Ayman al Zawahiri, who Ghannouchi described as a “disaster to Islam and Muslims” and an “example of Islamic extremism.” Ashush responded by accusing Ghannouchi of hypocrisy and of falling into the trap of democracy, which he claims the US uses to lead Muslims astray.
Ayman al Zawahiri, Ashush said, understands the true meaning of dawa, or Islamic proselytizing, as taught by the Muslim Brotherhood’s Sayyid Qutb, a mid-20th century ideologue who is widely regarded as the intellectual forefather of al Qaeda. Ashush praised Zawahiri for his “truthfulness and dedication.”
In his harsh response to Ghannouchi, Ashush summarized Ayman al Zawahiri’s life, portraying the al Qaeda leader as a humble servant who was willing to cede leadership of al Qaeda to Osama bin Laden. Zawahiri is “not a man of the world, seeking a position or leadership, but rather a jihadist, who does his part wherever he is,” Ashush wrote.
Ashush also attempted to credit Ayman al Zawahiri for sparking the Arab Spring, a fanciful reading of recent history. It was Zawahiri, Ashush said, who “planted the seed of rebellion against tyranny” by supporting the “Arab revolutions.”
In the same July 2012 message, Ashush praised Ansar al Sharia Tunisia and its leader Abu Iyad al Tunisi, as well as “all those who work for Islam in Tunisia.”
Ashush concluded his rebuke of Ghannouchi by asking God to “protect our sheikh, Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri, and all the mujahidin.”
In another message published in July 2012, Ashush offered Salafist-jihadists in Gaza advice on how to combat “smear[s]” branding them as “terrorists.” Ashush cited al Qaeda’s leader, saying that “we must clarify the truth about our approach and how it represents purity, adherence to Islam, and compatibility with the view of the righteous forefathers, and as Dr. Ayman al Zawahiri called it: ‘The Battle of the Book’.” (Zawahiri and Ashush were referring to the Koran.)
One of al Qaeda’s favorite ideologues
Given Ashush’s penchant for praising Ayman al Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden, it is not surprising to see that al Qaeda has returned the favor. Al Qaeda has repeatedly spliced video of Ashush preaching in Egypt with clips of Zawahiri pontificating about Egyptian affairs. Zawahiri uses the clips of Ashush to reinforce his arguments.
Ayman al Zawahiri’s Sept. 10 video is a case in point. Timed to coincide with the eleventh anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, Zawahiri eulogized Abu Yahya al Libi, a senior al Qaeda leader who was killed in a drone strike several months earlier. Zawahiri called for jihadists to avenge al Libi. Zawahiri also claimed that while al Qaeda has suffered losses, the organization’s ideology is spreading. Therefore, in Zawahiri’s eyes, the US has not defeated al Qaeda.
“America realizes full well that the material power of al Qaeda cannot be compared to the material force of the Zionist alliance,” Zawahiri argued in the Sept. 10 video, “but it understands that the message of the mujahideen in general and al Qaeda in particular is a warning to its end and defeat.” According to a translation provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, Zawahiri claimed that al Qaeda’s “message has spread amongst our Muslim Ummah, which received it with acceptance and responded to it.”
Immediately after Zawahiri spoke these words, the al Qaeda video cuts to a clip of Ashush.
“And there were honorable men who offered everything dear, cheap and precious in this cause, and offered to us an example,” Ashush says, according to SITE’s translation. “Therefore, we find it incumbent upon us to offer them greetings on this day, the day when we move all of these Muslim masses towards the desired goal, towards the Islamic State – those men who sacrificed for the sake of Allah, and on top of them, Sheikh Osama bin Laden, may Allah have mercy on him and may Allah, Glorified and Exalted be He, accept him among the martyrs.”
Sitting beside Ashush as he lionized bin Laden in the video clip were Sheikh Adel Shehato and Mohammed al Zawahiri.
Shortly after Ayman al Zawahiri’s Sept. 10 eulogy of Abu Yahya al Libi was released online, Ashush published his own tribute. Ashush praised the fallen al Qaeda leader as a “hero,” asking that God accept al Libi “among the noble ones, martyrs, and righteous ones for he is their companion.” Ashush promised that the jihad would continue even after al Libi’s martyrdom. “Carrying out jihad is a duty until we conquer Rome and transform the Churches in America to mosques, in which the Koran flourishes,” Ashush said.
Since the Sept. 10 video, al Qaeda has continued to trumpet clips of Ashush.
A two-part video starring Ayman al Zawahiri that was released on Oct. 24 includes nine video clips showing Ashush and other Egyptian jihadists, including Mohammed al Zawahiri.
Al Qaeda rebranding
Ashush’s message dovetails neatly with Ayman al Zawahiri’s. Both have called for the immediate implementation of sharia law inside Egypt and they have criticized the Muslim Brotherhood-led government for not aggressively seeking to impose it.
The call to be ruled according to sharia has become a key pillar of al Qaeda’s post-Arab Spring agenda, and provides the group with a wedge issue it can use to criticize other, politically ascendant Islamists.
Al Qaeda’s brand has also been tarnished throughout much of the Middle East and North Africa as the organization’s principal victims have been Muslims.
As a result, al Qaeda-linked groups have adopted the Ansar al Sharia (meaning “Partisans of Islamic law”) brand in other countries. In Yemen, for instance, Ansar al Sharia is simply an alias for al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Ansar al Sharia militia groups with links to al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb have been established in Libya. Earlier this month, the Moroccan government broke up an Ansar al Sharia cell that it said has ties to al Qaeda. And Ansar al Sharia Tunisia is led by a terrorist whose ties to al Qaeda have been recognized by the United Nations.
It is not a coincidence, therefore, that a jihadist whose vision has been endorsed by al Qaeda in its videos, and who openly praises al Qaeda’s leaders, is the head of Ansar al Sharia Egypt.