The upheaval in the Arab world and the change of regime in several Arab countries brought with it new opportunities for the extremist Salafi-jihadi movement. Until recently, this movement operated mostly underground, but the rise of Islamic governments in many Arab countries has enabled it to come out into the open. As part of this new phase, several Salafi groups have adopted the name “Ansar Al-Shari’a” (meaning “Supporters of the Shari’a”), or similar names, thus re-branding themselves as a single movement dedicated to spreading the message and promoting the goals of the Salafi-jihadi groups.
In Yemen, Ansar Al-Shari’a operates as a subsidiary of Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), and is involved in a full-blown insurgency campaign against the government in the south of the country, although the group has been banished from the territories it held for over a year. Following the Arab Spring, Tunisian Salafi-jihadis have adopted the same name. A Libyan group with a similar name – Katibat Ansar Al-Shari’a (the Ansar Al-Shari’a Battalion) – received considerable attention following the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and the jihadi movement in Egypt calls itself Al-Tali’a Al-Salafiyya Al-Mujahida – Ansar Al-Shari’a (The Fighting Salafi Vanguard – Ansar Al-Shari’a). Finally, a group called Ansar Al-Din (also spelled Ansar Dine), meaning “Supporters of the Religion”, operates in the rebelling Azawad region of Mali.
It should be further noted that a group with the same name, Supporters of Shari’a, operated a decade ago in the UK, led by radical cleric Abu Hamza Al-Masri.
In a recent article titled Nahnu Ansar Al-Shari’a (“We Are the Supporters of the Shari’a”), one of the movement’s prominent authorities, Sheikh Abu Mundhir Al-Shinqiti, explained the rationale behind the name “Ansar Al-Shari’a” and how it relates to the objectives and strategies of the Salafi-jihadi movement. The article, posted on the Salafi-jihadi website Minbar Al-Tawhid Wa’l-Jihad, indicates that the adoption of the new name is part of an effort to change the movement’s image and appeal to a wider public, in response to the Arab Spring and the new opportunities it has presented.
According to Al-Shinqiti, the new name is meant to create a united Salafi-jihadi front with a unified message. In addition, it is meant to express the commitment of this movement to the Islamic shari’a. This serves two important purposes. First, by associating the movement with the idea of upholding the shari’a – a concept that all Muslims can supposedly identify with – the Salafi-jihadis present their movement as an inclusive one that transcends national and partisan distinctions. As Al-Shinqiti asks rhetorically, “who can refuse [this name]? Who can reject it?” Second, by stressing their commitment to Islamic law (as opposed to the state law and the democratic political system, which the Salafi-jihadis reject as heretical), the Salafi-jihadis distinguish themselves from other Islamists, i.e. the Muslim Brotherhood and the mainstream Salafis, who embraced this “heretical” system when they chose to form parties and participate in political elections.
Referring to this last point, Al-Shinqiti remarks that the name “Salafiyya-jihadiyya” likewise serves to distinguish this movement from the mainstream Salafis “who do not wage jihad.” However, he stresses, the name “Salafiyya-jihadiyya” makes it sounds as though the movement is dedicated only to jihad, whereas the name “Ansar Al-Shari’a” stresses its commitment to other religious goals, such as da’wa. In other words, the new name is meant to increase the movement’s appeal by de-emphasize its military aspects (though the Salafis-jihadis have in no way discarded their jihadi agenda).
The following are excerpts from Al-Shinqiti’s article:
“…By saying ‘Do not be divided’, [the Prophet Muhammad] instructed the Muslims to cleave to one another and to unite — that is one of Islam’s basic principles. The religion of Islam is one of unity, cohesion and community. It calls [upon us] to form a single rank against the enemies… This matter is relevant not only to fighting but to all forms of worship and all situations… Allah orders us to unite and cling to his rope… He warned us against division when observing religion…
“As we unite to observe the religion, we must have a name that [both] distinguishes us and unites us. The best name and the most appropriate title for those who strive to instate Allah’s law and uphold the religion is ‘Ansar Al-Shari’a’. It is a title that expresses the goal and the objective for which the people of monotheism [i.e., the Salafi-jihadis] have come together. It is a title, a banner and a goal all at once.
“It is necessary to discard many names and titles if they cause [people] to confuse [us] with the followers of the devious [movements]… Names are meant to distinguish, and when there is no distinction, it is as thought the [thing that is] named has no name, because it is not distinguished from others. The followers of devious [movements] see this confusion [as an opportunity] to melt their errors in the monotheist pot!
“One of the titles and names that… lead to this confusion is the term Salafiyya [Salafism]. The Salafis [as opposed to the Salafi-jihadis] do not wage jihad. They support the tyrant and participate in democracy. It is appropriate for the people of monotheism to avoid taking part in the Salafism of those described by this title.
“Taking a name other than Salafiyya does not mean that we are not Salafis. We are indeed Salafis even if we do not call ourselves ‘the Salafi Movement‘, just as we are Muslims even if we do not call ourselves ‘the Muslim Movement’. As for the term Salafiyya-jihadiyya, it does distinguish us from many of the followers of the devious movements, but it gives the impression that [we] do nothing but [wage] jihad, which is very misleading. Just as we criticize others for refraining from jihad, we do not accept the [idea of] confining the practice of religion to jihad and ignoring all [other] religious duties and other means of propagating [Islam]. Furthermore, the term salafiyya-jihadiyya does not necessarily bring the others to respect our method, since they falsely claim our jihad does not live up to the standards – and they have indeed already done this.
“But the title ‘Ansar Al-Shari’a’, [on the other hand], who can refuse it? Who can reject it? Uniting under the title ‘Ansar Al-Shari’a’ is an obligation that cannot be rejected by anyone who is sincere in upholding the religion. Belonging to this movement is a form of worship, and a pious deed that supports Allah’s religion and increases the numbers of those who uphold it.”
“[The members of the] Ansar Al-Shari’a [movement] were absent from the forefront for many years due to the war waged against them by the regimes that fought Allah’s religion. However, today they can return to the arena of activity in many countries, and can form a da’wa association called Ansar Al-Shari’a in Egypt, Libya and Jordan. Moreover, all of them can unite into one [multi-national] entity, since [the members of] Ansar Al-Shari’a do not recognize borders and do not attribute any significance to them…
Ansar Al-Shari’a Tasks
“Today, Ansar Al-Shari’a need to devote themselves to [several] major tasks, including:
1. Teaching beneficial knowledge, spreading the pure creed, correcting deviant concepts and resolving misleading controversies.
2. Calling people with wisdom and good lessons to adhere to the religion, perform their duties, avoid what is prohibited, stay away from forbidden innovations, and adopt noble virtues.
3. Calling to instate shari’a law, and advertising the virtue of ruling according to what Allah revealed in [His] religion… and the losses that stem from the absence of shari’a rule.
4. Warning against the democratic system and man-made laws, and explaining what they entail in terms of contravening the religion and following the customs of the infidels.
5. Influencing the Muslim public with discourse committed to the shari’a in order to support our nation’s causes, protect the religion, and comment on the events and developments in the Islamic arena.
6. Forming a public opinion committed to the shari’a and to Islamic zeal, and free of affiliation with Western ideas.
7. Contributing as much as possible to serving the nation in the social and economic fields by carrying out charity work that will meet some of the [people’s] pressing needs.
“As for the means and the mechanisms on which [the members of] Ansar Al-Shari’a should rely in their work – every beneficial means and mechanism that is not forbidden by the shari’a [is acceptable], such as [preaching from] the pulpits of mosques, giving lessons, holding assemblies and meetings, distributing books and publications, and seeking assistance from any media: print, audio or visual.”
Sign indicating territory in Yemen controlled by Ansar Al-Shari’a
The Advantages Of Establishing Ansar Al-Shari’a Groups
“Forming Ansar Al-Shari’a [groups] in this manner is a necessity, and will have many positive results and tangible benefits, among them:
1. Unifying the message of the people of monotheism into a single framework with a single goal and vision.
2. Enabling the appearance of leaders ready [to take] center stage through this framework…
3. Ceasing haphazard activity that defuses [our] power and wastes energy…
4. Competing with the clerics on the satellite channels [who are affiliated] with the former regimes. We must not leave the arena to them [today], after the fall of the regimes that they supported and which supported them… Many simple folk ask, ‘Who are you and who are your sheikhs?’ By uniting under the banner of Ansar Al-Shari’a we can answer this question easily.
5. [Establishing] an Islamic force and front that strives to instate the shari’a and its methods instead of the way of democracy.
6. [Establishing] an Islamic entity that works according to the shari’a, which will compete with the Muslim Brotherhood and Salafi parties…
7. We will be called by a name of our choosing and by titles that will express the real [essence] of the divine goals for which we strive. There are those who associate themselves with justice, freedom, development, reform and light. We will associate ourselves with the shari’a. We are Ansar Al-Shari’a!”