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When jihadists learn how to help

Members of the Libyan Salafi armed group Ansar al-Sharia guard the gates of a hospital to protect doctors from armed youths in Benghazi on Sept. 20, 2012. (Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)
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Within the academic literature on global jihadi organizations there has been a major lacuna on the issue of groups evolving to become more than just violent actors; many now act as social movements, too. While no one denies this change, little has been written about it, save for smaller non-academic pieces. Thus far, there have only been examples of localized dawa (calling people to the particular individual or group’s interpretation of Islam/proselytization), social services, and proto-governance efforts, even if the organizations profess a transnational ideology and goal. However, this trend is no longer true: New evidence suggests that Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL) is conducting these types of activities not just in Libya, but also abroad.

ASL has a number of identities as an organization: On the one hand, it’s a charity, a security service and a health services and religious education provider. On the other hand, it’s a militia, a terrorist organization, and it trains individuals for foreign jihads. While many jihadi organizations are involved in the latter within transnational networks and a smaller percentage are active in the former on a local level, ASL is the only global jihadi organization that has an international dawa campaign. ASL’s unprecedented reach belies the notion that the organization has only local aims, while it is in fact attempting to cultivate an international constituency based on aid and proselytization to its strict legal interpretations of Islam.

Theoretically speaking, there is now a spectrum of jihadi organizations that can be described as purely focused on violent jihad on a local or global level and that use dawa as their main organizing principle, yet still utilize violence on a local or global level. There are also mixed cases in which neither violent jihad nor dawa take precedence over the other. These categories are not necessarily static for organizations and can change depending on endogenous and exogenous factors.

Table 1. Types of Jihadi Organizations

Local Transnationally
Violent Jihad-First Gamaa al-Islamiyya, Abdullah Azzam Brigades Al Qaeda, Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham
Mixed Jabhat al-Nusra, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin No known cases
Dawa-First Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia Ansar al-Sharia in Libya

The most important trend within the global jihadi movement after the Arab uprisings in 2011 is its ability to step beyond just the terrorism box to add tools to its repertoire to expand its support from its clandestine base. While it is true that organizations such as Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahideen in Somalia had been involved in dawa and proto-governance principles before 2011, it became more of a norm with the open spaces provided by new freedoms or liberated territories, depending on the country-specific context. More freedoms have allowed global jihadi groups from Yemen to Tunisia to Libya to Syria to evolve into multipurpose organizations.

In the context of Yemen, with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) and its front group Ansar al-Sharia in Yemen (ASY), and even more so in Syria, with groups like Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and to a lesser extent the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), these organizations have become true insurgent forces and are relying on the population as much as the population has come to rely on them. This is partially a result of the implementation of the lessons learned from the failed takeover of territory by ISIS’s predecessor al Qaeda in the Land of Two Rivers (Iraq) last decade. It is true that ISIS has repeated its own mistakes again in the Syrian context, but in Iraq, since its re-emergence, ISIS has been a lot more adept at dealing with the local populace (though part of it also has to do with the Maliki government’s alienation of the Sunni populations, too).

In non-war zone contexts, ASL along with its neighbor sister organization, Ansar al-Sharia in Tunisia (AST), have been able to become true social movements within each of their countries. While AST was more or less a national organization from its beginning, ASL had to build out its support from its base in Benghazi to other areas such as Tripoli, Ajdabiya, Sirte, Darna and the Gulf of Sidra, among other smaller locales. This success was a result of its dawa efforts such as providing food, medical care, religious education  and other services to the poor and others. ASL has also helped fix roads and bridges, repaired homes of the needy, provided slaughtered meats on the main Muslim holidays of Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha, and mediated disputes between tribes. As part of all of these activities, it has passed out custom ASL-approved Islamic literature, highlighting the twin purpose of service and the call to Islam.

What makes ASL stand out compared to all of the other groups, though, is that it has internationalized its dawa campaign to areas that are not part of its considered traditional constituency within the borders of Libya to a few other countries. ASL has conducted a number of campaigns to help the people of “Bilad al-Sham,” Gaza, and Sudan. This illustrates that ASL is not just rhetorically talking about assisting the umma (Muslim community), but actually acting on it and trying to show that while its home base is indeed in Libya, the “imagined” umma is just as much a part of this constituency, since borders are irrelevant from its perspective. This is highlighted by the name of ASL’s overseas dawa efforts: “The Convoy Campaign of Goodness To Our People in ‘X-location.’ ”

ASL organized its first such effort organized in November 2012, sending aid packages to Syria and Gaza, including its dawa literature. ASL did the same thing Feb. 23, 2013, promoting it as “aid to our injured people in Syria and Gaza.” These first two campaigns were relatively low key and did not take on the same type of theatrics and show of organizational strength and capacity as later convoys. What highlighted this new range in ability was its campaign in Sudan in late August and early September 2013.

In early August 2013, many locations in Sudan were ravaged by severe flooding. An estimated 14 of 18 Sudanese states were affected, along with more than 300,000 people, with more than 25,000 homes destroyed, and almost 50 people killed. In addition to the traditional aid agencies that went to assist in response to the natural disaster, ASL also took part, and openly, too – members did not hide evidence of their affiliation. This shows that ASL is not worried about perceptions or inability to operate in light of its terrorist and other potentially illegal activities inside Libya.

On Aug. 28, 2013, ASL prepared a number of items for cargo delivery to Khartoum International Airport on Aug. 31-Sept. 1. The first batch included five tons of medicine, 12 tons of grains and legumes and eight tons of children’s milk. The second batch had 24 tons of clothing and 1.5 tons of floor carpets for mosques. All of this was marked with ASL’s logo. The level of aid in itself is outstanding, but the fact that it came from a global jihadi organization and it was able to procure it all and send it safely to Sudan’s capital airport openly also says a lot about its organizational capacity as well as potential dealings with the Sudanese government.

On arrival, the unnamed head of ASL’s mission to Sudan, who landed there with the cargo among other ASL leaders and members, and who was wearing an ASL-logoed jacket, was interviewed by the local Sudanese TV station al-Fadaiyya. ASL also had a team of members from Libya and hired Sudanese workers to help unload and place on large tractors all of the aid, further highlighting that it was not attempting to hide or obscure ASL’s presence or involvement in the campaign. On Sept. 2, a number of ASL members, including Sheikh Faiz Attiya, who leads many dawa events inside Libya, toured a number of locales affected by the flooding just outside of Khartoum: Marabu Elsharif, Taiba al-Kebabish and Karayib. Attiya also interviewed local sheikhs and children about the events.

Months later, from Jan. 19-23, 2014, ASL again showed its organizational capabilities abroad when sending aid personally and openly to Syria. It raised tens of thousands of dollars to undertake this specific initiative. The tagline for this campaign was “Uplifting the umma, freedom from forced rule, Western dominance, and uplifted by the goodness, pride, and dignity under the law of rahman (one of the holiest of the 99 names of God within Islam).” ASL sent three batches of aid to the rural Latakiya towns of Salma and Kasab and others nearby. Similar to efforts in Sudan, the men involved with delivering the aid to these villages wore ASL-logoed shirts or jackets as well as the boxes of aid brandishing the logo, too.

The first batch included slaughtered cow meat that the men prepared, as well as passing out boxes of aid in a large area. The second batch had a more personal touch: ASL members went door-to-door with boxes and had a list of specific names of individuals to receive the aid. The third batch was of large wheat packages that they then used at the local bread factory to make freshly baked bread, which was then given to locals. ASL members also provided large generators along with drums of gas needed for them in the Jabal Akrad region. This again illustrates the high level of organization needed ahead of time, since ASL is not based in Syria yet was able to gain access to local resources and have the connections on the ground to know where to go and to whom to give the aid.

The most recent campaign occurred Jan. 24, when ASL responded rapidly to an Israeli airstrike carried out in Gaza only a couple of days prior. The campaign was marketed as “We are over here in Libya and our eyes are on Jerusalem.” To help the families that had property destroyed, ASL quickly raised money and sent it off to its ASL contact inside of Gaza. The contact then went door-to-door in the al-Nafaq neighborhood offering cash-filled  envelopes that had ASL’s logo on them to those affected, “whose houses were damaged by the shelling of the Zionists.” This suggests the possibility of ASL’s network having membership inside Gaza, due to the rapidity of this campaign. This could make sense in light of the information that ASL, alongside AST and Ansar al-Sharia in Egypt,  had at the very least received advice from Palestinian Salafis on administration, organization and management in 2012.

Put together, this highlights a potential future in which jihadi organizations are not only involved in potential terror and training locally or transnationally, but also exporting their local dawa campaigns abroad to facilitate the spread of their ideology via new constituencies. Of course, to go beyond the local arena, as ASL has, requires a lot of organization, resources, capital and connections in other countries to allow the facilitation and acceptance of its campaign(s), especially since it has been done so openly, even though it has been designated a terrorist organization by the United States. This adds a whole new layer to the meaning of the global jihad and how the various global groups might try to engage populaces outside of their local areas of operation. Whether this softer-power approach works or is possible due to legal constraints or ability to operate abroad in a legitimate fashion remains to be seen. At the very least, ASL is showing that it has the ability to operate transnationally and that it has broader aims and concerns beyond the borders of Libya. Indeed, ASL is the first truly global jihadi dawa organization.

Aaron Y. Zelin is a PhD candidate at King’s College London writing his dissertation on the history and evolution of the Tunisian jihadi movement. He is also the Richard Borow Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the Rena and Sami David Fellow at the International Center for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence. Zelin also runs the Web site