Ansar al-Shariah (Libya)

Formed2011
DisbandedGroup is active.
First AttackJuly 28, 2011: July 28, 2011: Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) militants allegedly assassinated rebel commander Abdul Fattah Younes because of his previous role in Qaddafi’s government cracking down on Islamists (unknown casualties). [1]
Last AttackFebruary 8, 2016: February 8, 2016: ASL fighters shot down a Libyan jet (unknown causalities). [2]
UpdatedAugust 24, 2016

Narrative Summary

Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) is an Islamist group that was formed when two smaller militant groups, Ansar al-Shariah in Benghazi (ASB) and Ansar al-Shariah in Derna (ASD), each only a couple months old themselves, merged in the aftermath of the Libyan uprising against Muammar el-Qaddafi in February 2011.  Despite their union, the groups operated somewhat separately underneath the ASL title and in 2014, the U.S. government listed them separately as designated terrorist organizations. [3] ASL aims to establish a strict implementation of Shariah law in Libya and opposes democracy. [4] [5] [6] [7] The group fights the Libyan government and its armed forces, and at the same time seeks to gain popular support through extensive charitable actions in Libyan communities. [8] Although ASL publicly denies a relationship with Al Qaeda (AQ), the group has released statements in support of AQ and its leaders in the past and allegedly acts as an AQ ally. [9] [10] 

ASL first gained notoriety for its alleged participation in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, which resulted in the death of U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith.  Following the attack, the group faced widespread backlash from the international and Libyan communities.  An estimated 30,000 Libyans peacefully demonstrated in the main town square in Benghazi against the group’s violence; some civilians stormed ASB headquarters and forced the militants out of the city. [11] [12] [13] [14] ASL officially denied having involvement in the attack or any connection to Al Qaeda, although the U.S. and the international community implicated the group in the attack. 

In the aftermath of the attack, ASD forces within ASL mostly disbanded, and ASB forces within ASL rebranded ASL’s image by changing its name from Ansar al-Shariah to Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) in an effort to build a more national movement and rebuild trust with Libyan communities.  The group publicly denounced violence, launched its dawa, or charitable works, campaign and promoted itself as a public service organization by providing a wide range of social services to the citizens of Benghazi. [15] These services ranged from educational programs and tribal dispute mediation to street cleaning, garbage collection, security patrols and traffic regulation. ASL undertook infrastructure construction projects, distributed free meat on Muslim holidays, and established a women’s cultural center and a medical clinic. [16] [17] [18] [19] 

ASL’s dawa operations were not just aimed at winning local support; ASL also conducted dawa operations abroad. These operations included small campaigns like the 2012 delivery of aid packages to Syria and Gaza.  In addition, after major flooding in Sudan in summer 2013, ASL sent personnel and 12 tons of grains and legumes, eight tons of milk, 24 tons of clothing, and 1.5 tons of floor carpeting for mosques to the affected areas. The group carried out similar aid deliveries in Syria and Gaza in January 2014. [20]

In 2013, ASL expanded its operations in Benghazi to Derna, Sirte and Ajdabiya, effectively occupying the area. [21] [22]  ASL Derna forces were directed by Abu Sufyan bin Qumu, who was the original founder of ASD.  In January 2014, the U.S. government listed ASL and its branch in Derna separately as designated terrorist organizations. [23] With ASL control over territory growing, the Libyan government took action to directly fight back.  In May 2014, General Khalifa Hifter of the Libyan army began a military campaign, Operation Dignity, fighting against Islamist militant groups in Libya.  Campaign efforts ultimately eroded ASL’s control over most of its territory.  In 2014, the fast-growing Islamic State (IS) fought Libyan forces and took over Libyan territory, including ASL’s previous strong hold, Sirte.   In July 2014, IS militants began posting on social media and online forums in an attempt to persuade ASL to pledge allegiance to IS. [24] In 2014 and 2015, ASL leaders Abu Abdullah al Libi and Abu Sufyan bin Qumu defected to Islamic State, allegedly taking cadres of fighters with them. [25] [26] [27]

After the beginning of Operation Dignity, ASL aimed to regain its foothold in Libya and dramatically reduced its dawa operations, while increasing its number of attacks.  After violent clashes with the Libyan army, in July 2014, ASL announced that it had taken over the entire city of Benghazi. That summer, the group united a number of Islamist militant groups to form the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council (BRSC), which combats General Haftar and claims to act on behalf of the people of Benghazi against the Libyan government, but is reportedly a mask to hide the group’s AQ affiliation. [28] The BRSC claimed responsibility for a number of suicide bombings in early October, which targeted and killed dozens of Libyan soldiers at the Benina International Airport and at a military checkpoint. [29] For a brief time in 2013 and 2014, the self-declared Libyan government reportedly paid ASL through the BRSC in exchange for the umbrella group’s security services and help to stop drug trafficking. [30] [31] [32] ASL forces in Derna also helped to form the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD) in December 2014, which opposes Libyan government forces and affiliates and allies of IS. [33]

ASL suffered a significant blow when, in January 2015, Emir Mohammad al-Zahawi died from wounds from an attack by Libyan pro-government forces months prior.  He was replaced by Abu Khalid al Madani, who remains the Emir of ASL today.  [34] Soon after Zahawi’s death, General Haftar’s forces retook Benghazi’s port area in February 2015, which was thought to be ASL’s last major stronghold in the city.  Only a reported 10% of the city remained under ASL control. [35] [36] As of March 3, 2016, ASL forces were fighting to defend their remaining strongholds in Ajdabiya, Beghazi and Derna. [37]

In April 2016, ASL, as a part of MSCD, helped to push IS out of Derna.  It is unclear if ASL is occupying Derna. [38]

Leadership

  1. Sheikh Faiz Attiya (Unknown to Present): Attiya leads ASL’s dawa operations. He played a major role in ASL’s aid delivery to Sudan after flooding in 2013.[39]
  2. Ahmed Abu Khattala (Unknown to June 26, 2014): Khattala was accused by the U.S. government of orchestrating the 2012 attacks on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Reportedly a leader of ASL, Khattala claimed to be close to the organization, but not a part of it. He was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. State Department on January 14, 2014. Khattla was captured in June 2014 and brought to the U.S. to face trial, and on June 26, 2014, he was indicted on one count of conspiracy to provide material support and resources to terrorists. In October 2014, 17 more charges were added to his case. [40]
  3. Abu Sufyan bin Qumu (2011 to July 2014): Qumu is a former inmate of Guantanamo Bay and founded Ansar al-Shariah in Dernia (ASD) in 2011. When ASL opened a Derna branch, Qumu led its forces. He was once a driver for Osama bin Laden, and he fought alongside Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was designated as a terrorist by the U.S. State Department on January 14, 2014. In the summer of 2014, Qumu defected to join the Islamic State (IS). [41]
  4. Mohammad al-Zahawi (2011 to January 2015): Zahawi was the leader of Ansar al-Shariah in Benghazi and served as the leader of Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) from the time the group formed in 2011 to January 2015, when he died of wounds from an attack by Libyan pro-government forces. [42]
  5. Abu Khalid al Madani (June 18, 2015 to Present): Madani became Emir of ASL six months after Zahawi died. In January 2015, Madani delivered Zahawi’s eulogy. [43]

Ideology & Goals

Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) is a Sunni Islamist organization. It seeks a strict implementation of Shariah law in Libya and does not tolerate other interpretations of Islam. [44] [45] ASL opposes the democratic system and believes democracy is immoral because it gives the power to make law to man, when it belongs with God alone. [46] ASL aims to gain trust and respect of Libyan communities through its dawa campaigns. [47]

Name Changes


Size Estimates

Designated/Listed

Resources

Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) is partially funded by donations from Libyan expatriates for its dawa operations and for a brief time in 2013 and 2014, by the self-declared Libyan government (in exchange for its security services and help to stop drug trafficking). ASL is reportedly financially linked to Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisa (AST) and has sold AST weapons. [50] [51] [52]

External Influences

Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) was partially funded for a brief time in 2013 and 2014, by the self-declared Libyan government (in exchange for its security services and its help to stop drug trafficking). [53] [54] [55]

Geographical Locations

Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) is based in Benghazi, Libya in the Quwarshah district and carries out attacks and dawa operations in Benghazi, Derna, Sirte and Ajdabiya. [56] [57] [58] ASL has also conducted dawa operations outside of Libya, including charity campaigns in Gaza, Syria, and Sudan. [59]

Targets & Tactics

Despite being implicated in a number of attacks by the Libyan government and press, Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) rarely claims responsibility for its attacks that harm civilians.  After Libyans protested ASL’s involvement in the attack on the American consulate in Benghazi, ASL denied involvement and started downplaying its militancy and promoted its charitable activities (dawa) to win public support. [60] [61] [62] [63] The group has long made use of its official media hub, the al-Raya Media Productions Foundation, to produce propaganda on social media, which highlights its community service and commitment to defending Islam. [64] [65]

After the summer of 2014, when General Khalifa Hifter declared war on the Islamist militias operating in Libya in a campaign against them called “Operation Dignity,” ASL focused more heavily on targeting the Libyan military as a part of the Islamist militia umbrella organization called the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council. [66] [67]

Currently, ASL uses suicide bombs, cars laden with explosives and small arms to target the Libyan government and its forces, as well as Sufi shrines. [68] Additionally, ASL has a series of training camps that it uses to train its own fighters, as well as those of other militant organizations.  These Libya-based camps trained militants for the attack on In Amenas gas complex in January 2013, carried out by the Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade and the Sons of the Islamic Sahara Movement for Justice, as well as for Syrian rebel groups, giving ASL a unique connection to these groups and their leaders. [69]

Major Attacks

  1. July 28, 2011: Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) militants allegedly assassinated rebel commander Abdul Fattah Younes because of his previous role in Qaddafi’s government cracking down on Islamists (unknown casualties).[70]
  2. August 25, 2012: ASL fighters destroyed significant Sufi shrines throughout Libya (unknown casualties).[71]
  3. September 11, 2012: ASL participated in the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. ASL denies involvement in the attack (4 killed, 10 wounded).[72]
  4. November 25, 2013: ASL militants fought with Libyan government forces in Benghazi (9+ killed, 49+ wounded).[73]
  5. June 2, 2014: ASL militants launched a counterattack against Libyan “Operation Dignity” forces (21 killed, 112 wounded).[74]
  6. July 30, 2014: ASL took over a Libyan military base and seized its weapons. The attack was followed by an announcement by ASL that it had taken over all of Benghazi (65+ killed, 29+ wounded).[75]
  7. October 2, 2014: ASL fighters, in coordination with the Benghazi Revolutionaries Shura Council, carried out a series of suicide bombings targeting the Libyan military at checkpoints and at the Benina airport (49 killed, 52+ wounded).[76]
  8. March 24, 2015: Reportedly, an ASL suicide bomber detonated explosives on a vehicle in Benghazi, Libya (8 killed, 11 wounded).[77]
  9. April 11, 2015: ASL militants, along with other Islamic groups, fought with the Libyan army in Benghazi (10 killed, 55 wounded).[78]
  10. May 14, 2015: ASL militants launched rockets, killing civilians in Benghazi, Libya (8 killed, 10 wounded).[79]
  11. July 9, 2015: The Shura Council of Libyan Revolutionaries, including ASL militants, fought with the Libyan pro-government forces in Benghazi (19 killed, 80 wounded).[80]
  12. February 8, 2016: ASL fighters shot down a Libyan jet (unknown casualties).[81]

Relationships with Other Groups

Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) formed in 2011 in the aftermath of the Libyan uprising against Muammar Qaddafi in 2011, when Ansar al-Shariah in Benghazi (ASB) and Ansar al-Shariah in Derna (ASD), each only a couple months old themselves, merged in the aftermath of the Libyan uprising against Muammar el-Qaddafi in February 2011.  Despite their union, the groups operated somewhat separately underneath the ASL title. [82] 

Like many militant groups operating in Libya, ASL’s senior leadership has ties to Al Qaeda.  ASL leader Abu Sufyan bin Qumu fought alongside Al Qaeda (AQ) in Afghanistan and reportedly was a driver for Osama bin Laden. [83] ASL never officially pledged allegiance to AQ, but the group has released statements in support of AQ and its leaders in the past. ASL has a series of training camps across Libya that it uses to train its own fighters, as well as those of other militant organizations.  ASL’s training camps have supplied fighters to Jabhat Fatah al Sham, the group formerly known as Al-Nusra, AQ’s Syria branch. [84] When the UN sanctioned ASL in November 2014, it classified the group as an entity associated with Al Qaeda and stated that ASL is additionally associated with Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). [85] According to French sources, AQIM fighters met with ASL in southern Libya, and AQIM consistently re-tweets tweets by ASL accounts on Twitter. ASL was also known to coordinate attacks with Al Murabitoun before the group merged into AQIM in 2015.  [86] [87] ASL’s Libya-based camps additionally trained militants from the AQIM splinter group Those Who Sign in Blood Brigade for the attack on In Amenas gas complex in January 2013. [88]  Regardless, ASL officially denies a relationship with Al Qaeda. [89]

Although ASL and Ansar al-Shariah in Tunisia (AST) share a name, the groups are not affiliates, and the extent of their cooperation is unknown.  The groups reportedly share some operational, financial, and logistical links.  ASL allegedly has a support network within AST and has sold weapons to AST. [90] [91] [92] [93] [94]

Reportedly, IS has been unsuccessfully trying to recruit ASL to act as an affiliate since its rise in Libya in 2014.  In July 2014, IS militants posted on social media and online forums in an attempt to persuade ASL to pledge allegiance to IS. [95] In 2014 and 2015, several ASL leaders, including Abu Abdullah al Libi and Abu Sufyan bin Qumu, defected to Islamic State, allegedly taking cadres of fighters with them. [96] [97] [98]  IS took over large amounts of territory by fighting Libyan military forces in 2014.  In April 2016, ASL, as a part of the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna, helped to push IS out of Derna.  It is unclear if ASL is currently occupying Derna. [99]

ASL helped form two umbrella groups focused on eliminating the Libyan government. In 2014, ASL led other Benghazi Islamist militant groups in forming the Benghazi Revolutionary Shura Council (BRSC), which claims to act on behalf of the people of Bengahzi against the Libyan government, but is reportedly a mask to hide the group’s Al Qaeda affiliation. ASL forces in Derna also helped to form the Mujahideen Shura Council of Derna (MSCD), which opposes Libyan government forces and affiliates and allies of IS. [100]

Community Relationships

After its involvement in the attack on the U.S. mission in Benghazi, Ansar al-Shariah in Libya (ASL) faced widespread backlash from the Libyan community.  An estimated 30,000 Libyans stormed ASL militia headquarters and base to peacefully demonstrate against the group’s violence in a civilian-led protest. [101] ASL rebranded itself and launched a dawa campaign, through which it began to provide a wide range of social services to the citizens of Benghazi. [102] These services range from educational programs and tribal dispute mediation to street cleaning, garbage collection, security patrols and traffic regulation. ASL undertook infrastructure construction projects, distributed free meat on Muslim holidays, and established a women’s cultural center and a medical clinic. [103] [104] [105]  

Despite its dawa operations and public goods provision, ASL still faces opposition from Libyan civilians, many of whom are weary of militias and violence after the civil war that ousted Qaddafi. [106]


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