Ansar al-Sharia: “Know Your Cuts of Al Qaeda Meat”

Aaron Zelin (@azelin) just did a nice roundup of the various Ansar al-Sharia groups around North Africa and the Middle East confusing the “Who is al Qaeda?” question.

Following up on Joas Wagemakers nice Jihadica post “What’s in a name?”, Zelin provides a David Letterman-ish “Know Your Cuts Of Meat” round up of all the groups currently calling themselves Ansar al-Sharia. He also does the needed work of creating three-letter acronyms for each entity – a badge of honor in the CT world.

Here’s a snippet of Zelin’s analysis:

The rise of these Ansar al-Sharia groups points to an end of al Qaeda’s unipolar global jihad of the past decade and a return to a multipolar jihadosphere, similar to the 1990s. One key difference, however is that jihadi groups are now more ideologically homogenous — in the 1990s, jihadis thought locally and acted locally, while many now talk globally and act locally. These newer groups are also more interested in providing services and governance to their fellow Muslims.

Zelin’s article comes immediately after my own speculation about who is responsible for the Consulate attack in Libya.  The weakest analysis I’ve seen thus far has immediately chalked up the violence to an amorphous, undefined “al Qaeda.”  However, I think the past week’s outbreak represents the continued fragmentation of the security environment and an era where militant groups with no, some or lots of links to old “al Qaeda” are “On Your Own” (OYO era – see last post) to find their violent way forward.

Zelin notes:

Distinguishing between these differing groups is crucial for better understanding the new landscape of the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the trajectory of new salafi-jihadi groups that are not necessarily beholden to al Qaeda’s strategies or tactics. Although there are no known formal or operational links between these disparate organizations, it is possible they may try to link up in the future based on ideological affinity and similar end goals. For now, though, conflating them would be premature.

I’m with him.  I’m not sure why we can’t analyze these emerging militant groups outside of an “everything is al Qaeda lens”.  Emerging militant groups may try coordinate with global al Qaeda, but they also can and will think for themselves, sometimes to their own detriment.  I’ve also not seen many note that the attack by potentially pseudo-autnomous al Qaeda/Ansar al-Sharia operatives may ultimately lead to their demise.  By conducting an opportunistic attack, a loose group of militants may have ultimately brought the wrath of a newly elected Libyan government that’s been itching to consolidate their power against a radical militant group or two.  The Libya attack also opens the door for the U.S. to justify limited, direct intervention in Libya – a counterattack I imagine none of the new upstart militant groups in Libya is particularly well prepared for.

Lastly, Zelin’s post provides needed background for assessing future extremism emerging throughout North Africa and the Middle East.  Properly identifying our enemies will be of prime importance moving forward.  Of course, this is complicated by the competing incentives for each actor to call or not call a group al Qaeda.  I’ll repost my “Who should we call al Qaeda?” conclusion chart here.

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