What’s in a Name: The Death of the al-Qa’ida Brand?
August 8, 2011 12 Comments
This is my first piece back after doing Middlebury’s Arabic program this past summer. Clearly, I couldn’t wait to write since I wrote this on the plane ride back this past Saturday. Looking forward to your feedback.
Last week, Ansar al-Shari’ah, (Supporters of Shari’ah), based in Yemen, released its first video titled “The Opening [Conquests] of Zinjibar.” Since mid-April, many analysts and scholars have wondered where this apparently new group came from, who its members were, and what connections it has to al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).
The name Ansar al-Shari’ah was first mentioned in an unofficial audio release by AQAP’s leading shari’ah official, Shaykh Abu Zubayr ‘Adil bin ‘Abdullah al-Abab, who conducted a question and answer session with online global jihadi activists through PalTalk in Ghorfah Minbar al-Ansar (Pulpit Room of the Supporters). The first question was “What is the general situation of the mujahidin in Yemen and the status of the Shabab Ansar al-Shari’ah?” al-Abab responded that when they recruit new members to AQAP, they first introduce themselves under the banner of Ansar al-Shari’ah. But why would they need to do that? Has the AQ brand really become that tarnished? And is Ansar al-Shari’ah really AQAP?
Some have been skeptical of links between AQAP and Ansar al-Shari’ah. While conclusive evidence is lacking, there are several strong indicators. Ansar al-Shari’ah’s first video release, which was not published by AQAP’s media outlet al-Malahim (the Epics), highlighted “martyrs” who were also eulogized in the most recent issue of AQAP’s Inspire Magazine — Abu ‘Ali al-Harithi, ‘Ali bin Salih bin Jalal and ‘Amar ‘Abadah al-Wa’ili. Although this is not proof of collusion, there clearly seems to be some overlap. Ansar al-Shari’ah may be a subsidiary of AQAP used for recruitment and foot soldiers in Yemen’s incipient civil war. It is telling that AQAP may be recruiting individuals using a different name.
We have also recently learned that Usama bin Laden may have been looking to change the name of al-Qa’ida central. According to press reports based on leaked information from the raid that killed bin Laden, al-Qai’da’s central leadership in Pakistan was debating a couple of options for its name. This was spurred in part by the Western habit of referring to the group as al-Qa’ida, rather than its official name of Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad (The Base Organization of Jihad). The leadership felt that the West’s habit of omitting the word “jihad” robbed them of some of their religious legitimacy. Unfortunately for al-Qa’ida, the two alternative names on the table were a mouthful – Ta’ifat at-Tawhid wa-l-Jihad (Sect of Monotheism and Jihad) and Jama’at ’I‘adat al-Khilafah al-Rashidiyyah (Restoration Group of the Rashidun Caliphate). Ultimately, they decided to stick with Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.
The name game isn’t new. al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI) attempted to rehabilitate its image following the death of its leader, the notorious butcher Abu Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, in 2006. AQI changed its name to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) as a way of rebranding itself because many Iraqis were repulsed by the organization’s overuse of violence, as well as the perception that it was made up of foreigners. The latter is also the reason they announced Abu ‘Umar al-Baghdadi, a purported Iraqi, as their new leader, although it has been disputed whether he was actually a real person. In the years since, the name change has not done much for AQI’s credibility. It remains a threat, but is a shadow of its former self.
Another place where naming is an issue is in Somalia, where Harakat al-Shabab al-Mujahidin (The Movement of the Holy Warrior Youth) has pledged allegiance to Osama bin Laden but has not changed its name to become an al-Qa’ida franchise. Leah Farrall recently wrote an excellent overview on this topic in the most recent issue of the CTC Sentinel. Although it is a great addition to the literature, there were also other explanations for the lack of formal name change. Reportedly, al-Qa’ida itself opposed the name change because it did not want al-Shabab to sully its so-called “street cred” by using its polarizing brand. It is difficult to ascertain whether these reports are credible. But the very discussion shows the growing pitfalls of the al-Qa’ida brand.
All told, the al-Qa’ida brand is not favorable anymore – even for its senior leadership. It’s a big problem if AQAP is able to recruit more individuals by rejecting the brand and taking on a name with more religious significance.
Even if the brand name is discredited, AQ’s ideas still resonate with many, especially if it can be repackaged for local contexts, as in the apparent case of AQAP. As we have seen in the past, AQ is a very nimble organization that learns, evolves, and quickly adapts to a rapidly changing “battlefield.” It would be wise for our policy makers and government officials to heed these subtle changes in its counterterrorism strategies. Otherwise, we are fighting an imaginary enemy, one that only exists in our minds or that existed in 2001 or 2008, but not in 2011.
 Ansar or the supporters played an important role in early Islamic history when the Muslim prophet Muhammad was still preaching and calling people to Islam. Ansar were the individuals in Medina that helped Muhammad and his followers following its hijra from Mecca. Therefore, the use of the term Ansar acts as a strong link to the past that appeals to the average Muslim. Further, when attaching it to the Shari’ah, which has primacy in the lives of religious Muslims, Ansar al-Shari’ah becomes a catchy and useful name that is stronger in Islamic terms than Tandhim Qa’idat al-Jihad.