Their name may be synonymous with terror – particularly the embassy-attacking kind – but that has not stopped the infamous Ansar al Sharia Brigade from trying to elicit support from the public. Indeed, despite being vilified by the international media, as well as the US, Libyan and Tunisian governments, the Brigade appears to be have unleashed a new marketing campaign, one that shows the ‘softer, cuddlier’ side of the hard-line Islamist organisation. Over the past few weeks Libyans have noticed that Ansar al Sharia, a group widely suspected of orchestrating the 2012 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, has stepped up its “volunteering activities” by handing out food and other supplies in the days leading up to, and following, the Islamic holy day of Eid al Adha.
To make sure the public is aware of its good deeds, in early October 2013 Ansar al Sharia circulated videos via social media which showed its members delivering sheep, to be used for slaughter during Eid al Adha, to Cyrenaica’s underprivileged citizens. Not stopping there, images highlighting Ansar al Sharia’s recruitment efforts, which involved the extremist group offering free footballs to those who signed up for the organisation, were also recently published online. These tactics, however, are only the latest in a series of publicity stunts aimed at shoring up domestic support.
The Social Media Campaign: Martial Arts Displays and Anti-Drugs Initiatives
As far back as July 2013, Ansar al Sharia was spotted attempting to rebrand its image by policing traffic in Benghazi – a hardly unusual site, but one that led to fears the Islamist group was, once again, spreading its ‘tentacles’ inside the restive eastern city. Fears of an Ansar al Sharia resurgence were perhaps buoyed further after the Salafist organisation was rumoured to have launched a Koran memorisation competition during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. These, of course, would not be the only acts of good will Ansar al Sharia members would perform. In addition to organising food drives and a youth anti-drugs campaign, between 27 – 28 June 2013, the group also played host to a pro-Islam conference in Benghazi, which featured martial arts displays and a parade led by Ansar al Sharia’s armed wing, a sight which undoubtedly annoyed leaders in Tripoli who have been struggling to create a unified national security system. The list of attendees to the two-day event has never been confirmed. Organisers of the Islamist conference, however, maintain that as a many as 12,000 made a showing – a figure which may have been inflated to give the impression that Ansar Al Sharia’s political agenda is far more widely accepted by Libyan citizens. The question remains then – just how popular is the Islamist organisation? The answer, as always, depends upon whom you ask.
Popularity on the Rise?
Ansar al Sharia’s relationship with the public is far more complicated than the international press might have followers of Libyan affairs believe. In fact, the group initially enjoyed support in Benghazi, where it provided much-needed protection for the city’s hospitals – that is until it was blamed for orchestrating the assault on the US Consulate. In the months following the attack, which left four Americans dead, including US Ambassador Chris Stevens, Ansar al Sharia’s popularity waned, while the Libyan Government announced its general opposition to the group’s presence. Such increasing hostility toward the Brigade was later compounded when an Ansar al Sharia leader admitted that his organisation did not recognise the new government, as it only accepted “Allah’s law”. Taking its anti-Ansar al Sharia stance even further, by October 2012, the Libyan National Army managed to rid Benghazi and even Derna of the most notorious militant elements of Ansar al Sharia, forcing them south into the remote Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) region. As the months passed, the group fell under increasing scrutiny from moderate members of the Libyan public, who chastised Ansar al Sharia for failing to fully amalgamate into the country’s security system, and for refusing to tone down its extremist viewpoints. Making matters worse, Ansar al Sharia brigadesmen lost even more support after it was accused of launching a series of deadly attacks and assassinations against the armed forces and the country’s favoured Special Forces Team, the Al Saiqa Brigade.
Despite repeated accusations of its involvement in terrorism, today, supporters claim Ansar al Sharia remains accepted in Libya’s East, if only among some young and marginalised men whose numbers are believed to run anywhere between 300–5,000. Proof of their strength is perhaps noted by the reports that, by June 2013, the group had made a full return to Benghazi and Derna, with even its most militant members infiltrating the eastern cities. A minimal level of popularity is not difficult to believe. After all, the national government in Tripoli remains in a state of paralysis. It is unable to provide a basic and effective security system, and has even been accused of outright ignoring Cyrenaica, leading to a rise in calls for federalism. And there is the drug problem: according to reports, drug abuse has skyrocketed in post-Gaddafi Libya, especially the use of intravenous narcotics. This phenomenon has been made all the worse by the fact that militiamen – some of whom may even moonlight as members of Libya’s ‘approved’ national security forces – often sell narcotics for financial gain. No wonder then, that many Libyans might seek assurance in a security organisation which espouses an anti-drug, pro-religious view point.
Of course, not all Libyans welcome Ansar al Sharia with open arms. Indeed, most moderates remain adamant that the Brigade is nothing more than a terror organisation masquerading as a charity. One Benghazi resident, Tariq Ferjani, has been particularly critical of Ansar al Sharia, calling it “al Qaeda” – a group that has “distorted Islam”. Ferjani also told online news website, Maghrebia: “They roam everywhere in broad daylight. Every now and then they show up as innocent people in a campaign or visit. But Benghazi’s children are being murdered”.
Disagreements regarding the popularity of Ansar al Sharia perhaps echo the nuances of the Islamist-minded organisation, whose very ambiguity begins in its internal structure. Indeed, Ansar al Sharia, was for a time, a Libyan Government-approved brigade – one that is still theoretically controlled by the Supreme Security Committee (SSC), a group that, in turn, was supposed to have been dismantled in January 2013, before becoming amalgamated into the Ministry of the Interior (MoI). This means that Ansar al Sharia remains legitimate, in so far as the Libyan Government remains unable – or more appropriately, afraid – to dismantle the group and force it to join in the wider national security apparatus.
Moreover, it should be noted that not all individuals who belong to Ansar al Sharia are actually “militants” – this is to say, they do not all participate in incidents of terror. To begin with, Ansar al Sharia, as a whole, has consistently denied orchestrating extremist attacks. Although the group’s denials are questionable, there has been a noticeable division in the Salafi Brigade, with some breaking away and forming their own militant Ansar al Sharia outfit, whilst others in the ‘original’ organisation are said to have focused more on charitable activities and outreach programmes aimed at steering Libyans toward a more conservative interpretation of Sharia law. This shift was noted in April 2013, when the group appeared to have descended into an internal war, with some members trying to attack or even murder their more ‘extreme’ leaders. Illustrating this, an assailant or group of assailants within Ansar al Sharia reportedly tried to assassinate their group’s co-founder, and suspected Benghazi-mastermind, Sufian bin Qumu (also known as Abu Faris al Libi), on 13 April 2013. Whilst Ansar al Sharia naturally decried these “rumours”, it is believed that Qumu, who was released from Guantanamo Bay in 2010, was attacked when gunmen opened fire on his vehicle in the village of Lathron, located just outside Derna. The failed assassination bid of Qumu, who is believed to be operating a militant camp in the mountainous regions outside Derna, followed the successful targeting of another Ansar al Sharia member, Yahya Abdel Sayed, who was killed the week before in Sirte. The apparent divisions within Ansar al Sharia later led to optimism among some confident leaders in Tripoli that they might be able to finally rid Libya of the hard-line group by capitalising on its breakdown. However, doing so has since proved easier said than done.
The Way Ahead
Hopes of removing Ansar al Sharia may have been dashed by reports of an increasing reliance among Libyan-based militants on their neighbours in Tunisia. Indeed, as recently as 20 October 2013, Tunisian Prime Minister Ali Larayedh told news outlets that a rising number of Ansar al Sharia supporters in his own country were purchasing weapons from their affiliates in Libya along their shared borders. Libyan officials, meanwhile, say they have noted a substantial level of militants linked to the Tunisian branch of Ansar al Sharia crossing into their country. In effect, Tunisia has become the militant-provider to Libya’s weapons supplier, a transnational nightmare which suggests that the Libyan Government must do more than just win the ‘hearts and minds’ battle with Ansar al Sharia among members of the public. It must continue to look to outside help to end its militia scourge, a no small feat when considering more than 225,000 Libyans belong to a brigade of some kind.