The US State Department announced today that it has amended its terrorist designations of al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) “to include the new alias, Ansar al Sharia (AAS).”
AAS “was established to attract potential followers to sharia rule in areas under the control of AQAP,” according to the State Department. “However, AAS is simply AQAP’s effort to rebrand itself, with the aim of manipulating people to join AQAP’s terrorist cause.”
AAS “has publicly stated that the particular brand of sharia they hope to implement is the same as that espoused by the Afghan Taliban and the Islamic State of Iraq, a militant umbrella group…that includes” al Qaeda in Iraq.
AAS has “has taken responsibility for multiple attacks against Yemeni forces.” In March 2012, AAS executed a “series of attacks and armed assaults” in southern Yemen that “killed 100 people, many of whom were Yemeni soldiers.” An AAS suicide bombing in May 2012 “killed more than 100 Yemeni soldiers” during a parade.
The United Nations has also added AAS to its list of designated terrorist organizations.
The emir of AAS is Nasir al Wuhayshi, Osama bin Laden’s longtime aide-de-camp in Afghanistan. Wuhayshi is also the emir of AQAP.
The Ansar al Sharia brand
Although the State Department’s statement focuses solely on Ansar al Sharia in Yemen, other Ansar al Sharia-branded organizations have emerged elsewhere since the Arab Spring, including Tunisia and Libya.
Ansar al Sharia Tunisia is headed by Seifallah ben Hassine, otherwise known as Abu Iyad al Tunisi. Hassine, a longtime al Qaeda ally, orchestrated the Sept. 14 assault on the US embassy in Tunis.
In 2000, Hassine became a co-founder of the Tunisian Combatant Group (TCG). According to the United Nations, the TCG was created “in coordination with” al Qaeda. Hassine reportedly met with both Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri prior to the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. TCG operatives were involved in the Sept. 9, 2001 assassination of Northern Alliance commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. The assassination was an integral part of al Qaeda’s Sept. 11 plot, as it removed a key American ally from the battlefield before the fight for Afghanistan even began.
Also in 2001, the TCG was implicated in several al Qaeda plots throughout Europe. [For more on the TCG and Ansar al Sharia Tunisia, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda ally orchestrated assault on US embassy in Tunisia.]
In Libya, multiple groups calling themselves Ansar al Sharia have popped up recently. A militia named Ansar al Sharia has been reportedly implicated in the Sept. 11, 2012 attack on the US consulate in Benghazi that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.
The State Department says that Ansar al Sharia in Yemen is a “separate entity from Ansar al Sharia in Libya.” According to a report published by the federal research division of the Library of Congress in August, one of these Ansar al Sharia groups “has increasingly embodied al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, as indicated by its active social-media propaganda, extremist discourse, and hatred of the West, especially the United States.”
That report, titled “Al Qaeda in Libya: A Profile,” was produced under an agreement with the Defense Department’s Combating Terrorism Technical Support Office (CTTSO). The report’s authors document al Qaeda’s extensive presence in Libya, finding that al Qaeda’s senior leadership in Pakistan has dispatched operatives to the North African country to establish a clandestine terrorist network there.
The Defense Department’s CTTSO concluded that al Qaeda is on the verge of a fully operational network inside Libya, and Ansar al Sharia is one of the brands employed by al Qaeda operatives.
[For more on al Qaeda’s presence in Libya, see LWJ report, Al Qaeda’s plan for Libya highlighted in congressional report.]
Al Qaeda’s use of brands
Al Qaeda has used numerous brands throughout its history. In February 1998, several leading jihadist groups, including al Qaeda, announced the formation of a “World Islamic Front for Jihad against Jews and Crusaders.”
After the August 1998 embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, a group calling itself the “Islamic Army for the Liberation of the Holy Places” claimed responsibility for the suicide attacks. That organization was really an alias for al Qaeda. The 9/11 Commission found that the Islamic Army’s claim of responsibility “had already been faxed to the joint al Qaeda-Egyptian Islamic Jihad office in Baku,” Azerbaijan prior to the bombings, with instructions to forward the statement to the press afterwards.
Al Qaeda has used numerous brands for both its international operations and its local affiliates. For instance, as the State Department notes, al Qaeda in Iraq operates under the Islamic State of Iraq umbrella.
The Ansar al Sharia brand is, therefore, one of the newest brands used by al Qaeda to market itself. Although the organization’s affiliates continue to operate under the al Qaeda name, the al Qaeda brand has been tarnished in Middle Eastern and African countries because of the group’s indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims. Al Qaeda’s principal victims since its founding have been Muslims. In Iraq and elsewhere, al Qaeda’s attacks alienated large numbers of Muslims.
The Ansar al Sharia brand is al Qaeda’s attempt to win back some of the hearts and minds it lost.
Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD’s Long War Journal.