Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), an official branch of al Qaeda’s international organization, has released a video calling on the rival jihadist factions in Iraq and Syria to set aside their differences and jointly confront the West. The video, which was released online on Sept. 30 by AQAP’s Al Malahem Media, features Sheikh Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, a leader in the group.
Al Ansi connects the fighting in Iraq and Syria to events in Yemen, saying that all of the fronts are part of a common war involving Iran’s proxies and allies as well as the West.
“What the Islamic ummah [worldwide community of Muslims] is witnessing today by way of developments in Iraq and Sham is the enabling of Iranian agents running parallel to a fierce war waged on the mujahideen as well as aerial, land, and sea bombardment on our brothers, the mujahideen in the Islamic State and [the Al Nusrah Front] and the other jihadi factions,” al Ansi says.
“This is the same plan that is being executed in Yemen by enabling Iranian agents and handing over the capital Sana’a to them without any resistance mentioned from the military,” the AQAP ideologue adds.
Al Ansi says the jihadists must unite to face the West. “As for the Crusader coalition that has shown its teeth in Iraq and Sham, in the face of this plan and plot the Muslims must forget their differences, unite their efforts, and join their ranks against their Crusader enemy.”
The jihadists “must form a coalition to strike the leader of invalidity and the head of disbelief,” al Ansi says, referring to the US. No “conditions” must be placed on the fight against the US, and “every faction must strike America and its interests everywhere.”
“For we have come to know the main enemy, and America has for decades supported the occupying Jews in Palestine,” al Ansi says. “And American drones bomb Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Pakistan, and Yemen. And they have killed mujahideen and their leaders as well as many among the Muslim public, and destroyed houses and terrorized children and women.”
Al Ansi refers to the US in the same terms used by Osama bin Laden, Ayman al Zawahiri, and other al Qaeda leaders. “It must be known that America is the head of the snake,” al Ansi says. “She is the one who mobilizes against the mujahideen and their Islamic project … and if the head falls, its tails fall as well.”
The infighting between rival jihadist groups in Syria has pitted the Islamic State, which was once part of al Qaeda’s international network, against the Al Nusrah Front and its allies. Al Nusrah is al Qaeda’s official branch in Syria. Ahrar al Sham, which fights alongside Al Nusrah regularly, is also an al Qaeda-linked organization. Ahrar al Sham is the most powerful group in the Islamic Front, a coalition of several rebel organizations that is opposed to both Bashar al Assad’s regime and the Islamic State.
According to al Ansi, all of the jihadist factions should now form a “coalition” to counter the West and move beyond the vicious infighting of the past.
Al Qaeda’s messaging: Attacks in Syria are part of “crusade” against Muslims
Al Qaeda officials and groups have previously called for unity in light of the US-led bombing campaign in Syria. They have used language similar to al Ansi’s, portraying the bombings as part of a US-led conspiracy against Muslims.
In mid-September, AQAP and al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) issued a joint statement denouncing the bombings in Syria, saying they are part of a “Crusader campaign to fight Islam and the Muslims.”
The two al Qaeda branches went on to urge the warring jihadist factions to “[s]top the infighting between you and stand as one rank against America’s campaign and that of its satanic alliance that lies in wait … to break us stick by stick.”
Some media outlets have incorrectly reported that AQAP, AQIM, or both have sided with the Islamic State in its rivalry with al Qaeda. However, this is clearly not the case, as both groups remain loyal to al Qaeda emir Ayman al Zawahiri. And al Ansi’s video should not be viewed as a break from al Qaeda in favor of the Islamic State either.
Even some of the Islamic State’s rivals in the Al Nusrah Front are calling for unity against the jihadists’ common enemies. They have not, however, gone as far as to say that they are willing to set aside their differences entirely.
In a series of tweets in September, a top al Qaeda and Al Nusrah Front sharia official known as Abu Sulayman al Muhajir criticized the US-led bombing campaign in Syria. Abu Sulayman has been highly critical of the Islamic State, and he made it clear that all would not be forgiven between the groups. “Our stance against the U.S and the global crusade alliance does not mean others have been acquitted of their crimes,” he wrote. But Abu Sulayman also portrayed the airstrikes as part of a conspiracy against all Muslims, and not specific jihadist factions.
“Those that believe that the new coalition is against one particular group are sorely mistaken,” Abu Sulayman wrote in one tweet. He wrote in another: “The US is not fighting [the Islamic State] as they claim. It is a war against Islam, the latest sequel to their crusade. Muslims must stand united!”
More recently, another senior al Qaeda and Al Nusrah Front leader in Syria, Sanafi al Nasr, argued on his Twitter feed that all Muslims need to unite against the West. “The Arab and non-Arab tyrants have gathered together to wage war on the Muslims,” Nasr wrote in a tweet on Sept. 29. “When will we gather?”
“I will stand beside any Muslim in the war against the Crusaders, whether he be Sufi or Mughal,” Nasr wrote in another tweet.
Like Abu Sulayman, Nasr is an al Qaeda loyalist and has been an outspoken critic of the Islamic State. Although Nasr did not say that he would fight alongside the Islamic State, specifically, that is the clear implication of Nasr’s tweets.
Al Qaeda veteran who served Osama bin Laden
In November 2013, Abdul Razzaq al Jamal, a Yemeni journalist who has contacts inside AQAP, published an interview with Sheikh Nasser bin Ali al Ansi, who is the star of AQAP’s new video. The interview was published in al Wasat, a Yemeni newspaper, and translated by the SITE Intelligence Group.
An extensive biography revealing al Ansi’s al Qaeda roles was provided at the beginning of the interview.
In 1993, al Ansi enrolled at the Iman University, which is headed by Sheikh Abdul Majid al Zindani, a longtime ally of bin Laden and al Qaeda.
Two years later, in 1995, al Ansi went to Bosnia, where he received military training and fought against the Serbs. He stayed in Bosnia for nearly a year before returning to Yemen.
In 1996, al Ansi tried to fight in Kashmir, but was prevented from doing so by the Pakistani government. He went to Afghanistan instead and met with two senior al Qaeda officials, Abu Hafs al Masri and Saif al Adel. Al Masri, who headed al Qaeda’s military committee, was killed in US airstrikes in 2001. Saif al Adel has been a senior al Qaeda official since the 1990s and remains a leader in the organization.
Along with other al Qaeda members, al Ansi tried to join the front in Tajikistan, but failed to reach the country “due to the heavy snow.”
He went home to Yemen in 1997, but returned to Afghanistan in 1998. He was “received by Osama bin Laden,” who sent al Ansi “to Kabul and placed him as Emir of the Kabul Reception, where he stayed as its emir for a long time.”
Al Ansi joined al Qaeda’s forces on the battlefield and was selected to “participate in the most intense course held in Afghanistan,” called the “Qualification of the Forces” course. Senior al Qaeda leaders taught the course and among his fellow trainees was Qassim al Raymi, who is AQAP’s military commander. Al Ansi and al Raymi then received training at the Al Farouq camp.
Bin Laden had al Ansi travel to the Philippines, where he was to “qualify the mujahideen … in Sharia and militarily,” in 2001. That same year, according to SITE’s translation of the interview, al Ansi assisted As Sahab, al Qaeda’s propaganda arm, in creating two productions: the “American Intervention” and the “State of the Islamic Ummah.”
Al Ansi completed his mission for bin Laden in the Philippines, and tried to return to Afghanistan after the US-led coalition responded to the 9/11 attacks. However, al Ansi was detained in Yemen en route to Afghanistan in early 2002. Yemeni authorities kept him imprisoned for six months before he was freed.
He then studied for “a long time” at Iman University, where he “received a certificate in Sharia jurisprudence.” In addition to attending lectures at Iman, he preached “among the young” and conducted “some special training.”
There are few details in the biography offered for al Ansi between 2002 and 2011. But he eventually became a senior official in AQAP and has now been tasked with delivering an important message to the warring jihadists in Syria.