Are Yemen’s Ansar al-Shari’a and AQAP One and the Same?

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 10 Issue: 13

Yemeni army retakes al-Qaeda strongholds Jaar and Zinjibar (Source: al-Shorfa)

Since its emergence in March 2011, analysts and experts have tried to pin down the real shape of Ansar al-Shari’a, the militant Islamist group that established seven Islamic Emirates in southern Yemen after its emergence in March, 2011. [1] While many observers maintain that the group is made up of local militants and tribesmen with no direct relationship with al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), others suggest that Ansar al-Shari’a is an AQAP affiliate or, going further, that the two groups are essentially one and the same. Although the available evidence is far from conclusive, several strong indicators point to actual links and potential organizational overlaps between AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’a.

The name Ansar al-Sharia’a was first mentioned by AQAP’s leading cleric, Sheikh Abu Zubayr Abil al-Abab, who said in an online question and answer session with jihadist activists: “Ansar al-Shari’a is what we use to introduce ourselves in areas where we work to tell people about our work and goals” (as-Ansar.com, April 19, 2011). Abu Zubayr, who is behind several propaganda messages released in the last few years by AQAP’s official media outlet, al-Malahim, recently issued a strong response to a letter by the Syrian-British jihadist ideologue Abu Basir al-Tartusi that criticized Ansar al-Shari’a for its reckless use of suicide bombings and for continuing the fight against the Yemen military as if “the tyrant Ali Salih hasn’t left… and the revolution never happened,” [2] In his response to al-Tartusi, Zubayr did not differentiate between the mujahidin of Ansar al-Shari’a and those of al-Qaeda; similarly, Ansar al-Shari’a commander Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Awlaki used the names of the two groups interchangeably in an interview with Yemeni journalist Abdulrazaq al-Jamal (al-Yaqeen, May 30).

According to Yemeni journalist Ali al-Awaridi, who visited the cities of Zinjibar and Jaar, two of the main Ansar strongholds recently retaken by the Yemeni Army, “the militants in the area who call themselves Ansar al-Shari’a claim that they belong to al-Qaeda,” suggesting that the Amir of the Ansar al-Shari’a, Abu Hamza al-Murqoshi (a.k.a. Jalal Mohsen Saleh Baleedi, a.k.a. Abu Hamza al-Zinjibari) “has a direct connection with the supreme leader of al-Qaeda organization in the Arabian Peninsula Nasir al-Wuhayshi” (al-Masdar Online, March 20; for al-Murqoshi, see Militant Leadership Monitor, March 30).

The most telling indications of close ties between the two groups stem from Ansar al-Shari’a media activities. Since its emergence, the group has been incredibly prolific in releasing audio messages, videos and propaganda material, joining AQAP in positioning itself at the vanguard of jihadist media production. Between November 2011 and June 2012, Ansar al-Shari’s media outlet, the Madad News Agency, produced 23 newsletters entitled Taqrir Ikhbari (News Report), along with 15 official videos entitled Ayn ala al-hadath (Eyes on the Event) and a number of interviews and audio messages. AQAP Amir Nasir al-Wuhayshi and AQAP’s  military commander, Qasim al-Raymi, have frequently appeared in the newsletters, while a March video entitled “Ansar al-Shari’a in Yemen, part of a campaign to spread our Shari’a together,” included messages from the two AQAP leaders and the late U.S.-born AQAP cleric Anwar al-Awlaki. [3] Furthermore, several martyrs eulogized in Ansar al-Shari’a newsletters have also been glorified in AQAP’s “Martyrs of the Arabian Peninsula” series. While in many respects this trend could be the result of an opportunistic attempt by Ansar al-Shari’a to boost its status among jihadists by linking its brand to more authoritative figures such as the AQAP leaders, the latest developments suggest an organizational overlapping that goes beyond mere propaganda

One of the clearest indications of strong ties between the two groups emerged on the occasion of the liberation of 73 Yemeni officers and soldiers taken prisoner in the fighting outside Zinjibar in March. An AQAP communiqué stated that after a “generous order coming from the Amir of the mujahidin in the Arabian Peninsula, Sheikh Abu Basir Nasir al-Wuhayshi, Ansar al-Shari’a released the soldiers” [4] Further evidence is supplied by both Ansar al-Shari’a and AQAP claiming responsibility for two attacks, namely the May 20 ambush of three U.S. military experts in the city of al-Hudaydah and the May 25 suicide attack against a group of Houthis in al-Hazm, the capital of al-Jawf governorate (Madad News Agency, May 21; Yemen Post, May 20; Yemen Times, May 28). [5]

Although marking a clear dividing line between Ansar al-Shari’a and AQAP is still complex due to the lack of conclusive evidence from the ground, there exist solid indicators pointing to strong links and potential organizational overlapping. On the one hand,  the claims of Yemen security forces that Ansar al-Shari’a personnel include foreign militants (Somalis, Sudanese and North Africans) contradicts the suggestion that the group is solely made up of local militants and tribesmen with no direct relationship to AQAP (al-Masdar Online, March 20, Yemen Times May 10; June 18, al-Hayat, May 18). On the other hand the fact that the two groups still maintain different leaderships and media outlets diminishes the argument that Ansar al-Shari’a and AQAP are essentially one and the same.

Most conceivable is the hypothesis that AQAP is behind the rise of Ansar al-Shari’a, with the strategic aim of gradually extending its presence in southern Yemen by creating an amiable relationship with the local tribes and thus avoiding the mistake made by al-Qaeda in Iraq, which alienated the local populace. Speaking at the April 2012 release of captured government soldiers, Ansar al-Shari’a cleric Sheikh Awad Banajar encouraged the tribes to stand alongside the group, urging them not to “give the Americans an opportunity to repeat in Yemen the experiment of the Awakenings [i.e. the anti-al-Qaeda “Awakening” militias] in Iraq.” [6] The Ansar al-Shari’a Amir, Abu Hamza al-Zinjibari (from the tribe of Maraqisha al-Baleed), is said to have been appointed because “he is from the sons of Zinjibar” (al-Masdar Online, March 20). The existence of the anti-al-Qaeda “People’s Committees,” groups of local fighters and tribesmen that have driven the militants out of the Lawdar area, suggests that this strategy is not completely working (Yemen Times, May 21).

What remains to be seen is the potential impact that the on-going government offensive in southern Yemen will have on the relationship between Ansar al-Shari’a and AQAP, though it seems unlikely that the offensive will prove to be decisive in severing their strategic convergence. The fact that the two groups could now share the same hideouts after being partially pushed out of their southern strongholds, coupled with the convergence of their short-term strategic priorities, namely defending the last Islamist sanctuaries and launching a new campaign against the Yemeni army, will indeed increase the possibility of further blurring of the differences between the two movements. Furthermore, the convenience for Ansar al-Shari’a of relying on AQAP resources, both in terms of expertise and militants, to confront the army offensive, along with AQAP’s need to use Ansar al-Shari’as’ manpower to maintain its last strongholds in the tribal areas of southern Yemen make it conceivable that adversity may even strengthen their alliance.

Ludovico Carlino is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of International Politics at the University of Reading, specializing in al-Qaeda and its affiliated movements. He obtained a MA in Analysis and Terrorism Prevention from the University of Madrid and is currently Director of the International Terrorism programme at CISIP, the Italian Center for the Study of Political Islam.  

Notes:

1. See Casey L. Coombs, “Hot Issue — The Ansar al-Shari’a Insurgency in Southern Yemen: The View from the Ground,” Jamestown Foundation, May 9, 2012, http://www.jamestown.org/single/?no_cache=1&tx_ttnews[tt_news]=39348 .

2. http://www.ansar-alhaqq.net/forum/yemeninews/showthread.php?t=12345

3. www.as-ansar.com/vb/showthread.php?t=57413 .

4. AQAP Statement no.46 http://shuratulmujahideen.blogspot.com/2012/05/47-qaedat-al-jihad-organization-in_01.html.

5. AQAP Statement no.50 http://www.shamikh1.info/vb/showthread.php?t=162882.

6. Taqrir Ikhbari 16, April 2012.