First, the movement’s emphasis on local ties differs from the previously seen “al-Qaeda Central / al-Qaeda Franchise” model in that Ansar al-Sharia is designed to operate at the level of the city or province rather than the level of nation state. Followers of current events in the region will notice that unlike al-Qaeda franchises, which are often referred to as “al Qaeda in the [State of X]”, Ansar groups are referred to by city; that is, multiple Ansar “chapters” may exist within a single nation, operating in tandem when necessary but generally not reliant upon each other for typical operations.
Second, the Ansar al-Shari’ah movement’s reverence for the Yemeni model of resistance to a US presence and an “un-Islamic” government evokes the specter of Afghanistan and by proxy, the possibility of its opponents fighting multiple simultaneous wars of attrition that are effectively unwinnable, in the traditional sense. As al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula sublimated into the original Ansar, it undertook a process of Islamic governance in the Abyan province of southern Yemen. In the brief time that the “Islamic Emirate of Abyan” existed, the type of Islamic law that Ansar members implemented was similar to that first seen in Afghanistan in the mid-1990s, after the Taliban had consolidated its control of the country’s central area. If it could be said that the Taliban’s insurgent strategies evolved due to the group’s proximity to al-Qaeda mujahideen who jumped between theaters in Iraq and the Afghanistan-Pakistan region, then surely it could be said that the al-Qaeda ideologues that would eventually inspire Ansar al-Shari’ah derived their previously vague notions of an Islamic state from those refined by their Taliban comrades.
One may wonder at this point why these differences should matter to the security of Western nations such as the United States and its allies; after all, the fact that a movement is organized differently than al-Qaeda does not necessarily guarantee an increased level of success in spreading its jihad. However, in the case of Ansar al-Shari’ah, the differences are enough to cause serious concern for the hopes that emerged in the Arab Spring and the vital Western interests tied to it. As Islamist groups that were previously the bastions of shari’ah for conservative Muslims begin to participate in the democratic processes that are emergent throughout the Middle East and North Africa, they may in turn lose the favor of their most devout supporters, who disprove of Western ideas of governance. The Ansar architecture could prove an attractive alternative, with its emphasis (in precedent) on local ties and a ready-to-implement method of replacing city- and province-level political systems with the Afghanistan/Abyan Islamic emirate model. Faced with this prospect, the Western opponents of Ansar al-Shari’ah would be well served to recognize it as more of a framework than an organization, something to be combatted at this stage with ideas and good governance rather than soldiers and drone strikes. Should the Ansar movement be allowed to progress on a wider scale to the levels seen in Yemen, Libya, and Tunisia, there will be no choice but to counter its chapters with armed force if there is to be any hope for the West and its regional allies to carry the day in the Middle East and North Africa.
McGhee Cost is an Analyst at 361Security