Thursday, May 08, 2014

ASL's Charity Operations

Aaron Zelin writes on how Libya's Ansar al-Shari'a (ASL) is using charity efforts to expand its reach globally.  Islamist organizations have long had charity arms which also called people to their message (dawa), and there have long been international organizations.  Zelin argues that ASL is breaking new ground in being a transnational salafi jihadi organization that also develops a charity profile:
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.’ ”
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.
"Ansar al-Shari'a" has come to be a common name for salafi movements in the Arab world.  The Libyan version was formed during the 2011 civil war which ousted the Qadhafi regime, and includes elements once affiliated with al-Qaeda.  At least some parts of it were involved in the September 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, and it went somewhat underground following the popular anti-militia protests which followed that event, though it now appears to be back in business.  As far as whether its transnational profile is breaking new ground, I'd want to see how it compares with Tablighi Jamaat and Hizb ut-Tahrir.  The former at least is not salafi  and eschews all violence, though it does call to Islamic revival.  Hizb ut-Tahrir also claims to be a non-violent organization, and I suspect they actually are, despite attempts to link them with terrorist attacks in Central Asia.

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