Yemen caught between Ansar Allah and Ansar Al-Shariah
Ansar Al-Sharia is an organization comprised of Islamists and jihadists that made its first appearance in Abyan, south Yemen in May 2011. This is when armed men took control of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan, after security personnel abandoned their positions and weapons in the governorate.
Most members of Ansar Al-Sharia are former jihadists who fought in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union and returned to Yemen in 1990. The connection between Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and this new group remains uncertain.
Ansar Al-Sharia is a mixture of fighters that are commanded by Khalid Abdul-Nabi, a Yemeni jihadist who was once part of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan. The ‘army’ was a jihadist group headed by Abu Al-Hassan Al-Mihdar, who was executed in 1999 on charges of abducting and killing westerners.
The Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan carried out many terrorist operations in Abyan including bombings and the abduction and killing of western tourists in 1998 before the emergence of Al-Qaeda in its present structure.
In the early 2000s Abdul-Nabi appeared to leave jihad activities and retreated to his own farm near Jaar in Abyan. Here he stayed for about six years theorizing about Jihadist Salafi ideology. In 2005, a top Yemeni official declared Abdul-Nabi fully rehabilitated and living the life of a peaceful farmer.
Abdul-Nabi was arrested along with 28 supposed Al-Qaeda supporters in an operation in Abyan governorate in August 2008. In an apparent meeting with then president Ali Abdullah Saleh, Abdul-Nabi agreed to support the Yemeni regime against its enemies, the Houthi rebels in the north and southern separatists. Abdul-Nabi was released in a general amnesty in early 2009.
With ambiguous attempts by the regime to contain Abdul-Nabi, his followers appear to commit to his ideology and created what was to become Ansar Al-Shariah. The organization announced itself when it seized control of Zinjibar, the capital of Abyan.
The nature of the relationship between Al-Shariah and Al-Qaeda is unclear, but Al-Shariah shares many similarities with what is known as Jihadist Salafism. Abdul-Nabi has denied any relation with Al-Qaeda, a denial that sounds authentic. However, his ideological perspective seems to a large extent to be close to Al-Qaeda, especially as his group explicitly endorses the Jihad movement.
Ansar Al-Shariah appears to be the ideological extension of the Jihad movement, that in turn was a natural extension of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan previously led by Al-Mihdar.
Abdul-Nabi has recently denied the existence of the Islamic Army of Aden-Abyan in a press interview, a denial that at times has also been repeated by the state. However, the name was in common use in 1990s.
The militants of Ansar Al-Shariah view themselves as better than other militants. Their belief in their own superiority is reminiscent of the Houthis theory of Devine Selection.
The groups of Ansar Al-Shariah and Ansar Allah are opposites in the sense that the former represents Sunni fundamentalism and the other Shiite extremism. However, their way of thinking is similar as both groups tend to use violence to achieve their aims.
Jihadist experience in Yemen
The older jihadists in Yemen have more experience than those who named themselves the Jihadist Youth supported by Saudi organizations. This experience came as a direct result of their participation in the war in Afghanistan against the Soviet Union.
The original experience was a consequence of being part of the major jihad groups led by Osama Bin Laden and Tariq Al-Fadhli. That experience increased during the1994 civil war in Yemen. Hundreds of former jihadists in Afghanistan took part in supporting the military of Ali Abdullah Saleh against the Yemeni Socialist Party.
Some of the jihadists from the above conflicts joined with Abu Al-Hassan Al-Mihdar, and others with Abu Ali Al-Harithi, who was the suspected master mind behind the 2000 bombing of the USS Cole. Al-Harithi was killed by a US drone in Marib in Nov. 2002. That assassination can be seen as the real launch of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.
Ansar Al-Sharia instead of Al-Qaeda of Jihad
Many analysts claim that Al-Sharia is merely Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula changing its name to become a Yemeni organization. The claim is that the name change will have a positive media impact locally and abroad in favor of the group’s expansion.
Such a change of name may reduce pressure on Yemen to fight the new group, as it is ‘not Al-Qaeda’, which as an ally to the US ‘war on terror’, Yemen is committed to fighting.
A local group, with a local name, will attract less pressure from the United Nations on Yemen. It will become a Yemeni affair, and there will be less justification to intervene in Yemeni internal affairs, as the organization will not play a role in the Al-Qaeda versus the West conflict.
The former leader of Al-Qaeda, Osama Bin Laden, had expressed a willingness to change the name of the organization. This suggestion was found in a letter on Bin Laden’s computer, confiscated after his assassination on May 2, 2011.
Bin Laden expressed in the letter that name ‘Al-Qaeda’ was not sufficiently religious, and did not express the message that the group was engaged in a holy war against the enemies of Islam. A name change would also put some distance between the criticism Al-Qaeda had attracted for killing a large number of Muslims.
While the Houthis’ Ansar Allah group expands their military presence in north Yemen, the Ansar Al-Shariah group intensifies their fighting against the Yemeni army in south Yemen.