If the Bahraini jihadi ideologue Turki al-Bin`ali personifies “the caliphate’s scholar-in-arms” for the Islamic State, one would find difficult to name a similar leading figure in al-Qa`ida’s ranks. Indeed, although most of the senior jihadi scholars sided with Ayman al-Zawahiri in his conflict with Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, none of them actually belong to the organization. While the senior scholars certainly have longstanding ties to both al-Qa`ida’s leaders and rank and file and have been instrumental in furthering its agenda and that of its affiliates, they all remain independent from al-Zawahiri’s command.
With that said, al-Qa`ida has long strived to promote religious scholars in its ranks, such as Abu Yahya al-Libi and `Atiyyatullah al-Libi, who proved to be major influences in the militant landscape and in jihadi sympathizers’ circles. However, a sustained U.S. drone strikes campaign in Pakistan’s tribal areas removed these well-known heavyweights.
Over the remaining ideologues, the Palestinian Abu al-Walid al-Ghazi al-Ansari, also known as Abu al-Walid al-Filistini, represents the closest thing to a formal al-Qa`ida scholar today.
An Authoritative Jurisprudential Figure
Though not a household name like his longtime comrades Abu Qatada al-Filistini or Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, Abu al-Walid al-Ansari has managed to establish himself as a prominent voice among the global Salafi-jihadi ulema, with numerous jihadi militants or supporters having read, discussed, or disseminated his work. As of today, al-Ansari has published dozens of articles, letters, and fatawa (with a few audios in the mix) which predominantly pertain to doctrinal issues, such as jihad jurisprudence (fiqh al-jihad) or exegesis (tafsir) of the Islamic sacred texts. For example, his widely-read book Unsheathing the Sword upon the Claim That There can be no Jihad without an Imam argues that jihad can be waged without the sanction of a Muslim ruler. His corpus also includes an autobiography aimed at bolstering his credentials by detailing his full religious curriculum (more below).
Despite being a wanted jihadi leader, al-Ansari holds a quite public profile compared to his fellow Arab-Afghans. Indeed, not only does he own a website called Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis (The Environs of Jerusalem), which used to compile his latest publications until it went offline; he is also present on twitter, through an account managed by some of his students. More surprisingly, al-Ansari’s email and Skype contacts were shared on his account and personal information related to his family, including the woman he married in 2013 and the daughter he had in 2010, are also available on the web. Finally, it should be noted that the forum Shabakat Ansar al-Mujahidin had announced an “Open Meeting” with al-Ansari in late May 2013, even though the event never materialized.
In addition to having a special file on al-Maqdisi’s website Minbar al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad, al-Ansari and his works have also been mentioned or recommended by notorious names. The most significant of these was certainly Ayman al-Zawahiri who, in The Exonaration, praised “Abu al-Walid al-Filistini” as an “active emigrant scholar” combining the pen with the sword. As for Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the late head of al-Qa`ida in Khurasan, he too evoked al-Ansari and his “beneficial book” Unsheathing the Sword to refute the argument that launching jihad has to be tied to the demand of an Imam. Highlighting its importance in the jihadi current, the leading spiritual figure of al-Qa`ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) Ibrahim al-Rubaysh also made reference to the book as part of the jurisprudential readings of Abu Yaqin al-Qasimi, another Saudi AQAP cadre. As a last sign of his revered pedigree, in its statement renewing its allegiance to al-Zawahiri, al-Qa`ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) referred to al-Ansari as among the most important living jihadi clerics, along with the likes of al-Maqdisi or Sulayman al-`Ulwan.
It is noteworthy that while topical issues related to the Muslim world or jihadi universe do not appear to be predominant in his writings, al-Ansari nevertheless weighed in on jihad in Syria and most importantly on the creation of the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in a series of tweets in April 2013. Having emphasized the shar`i (legal) foundations governing the caliphate and the importance of garnering the allegiance (bay`a) of the “people of authority and contract” (ahl al-hall wa-al-`aqd), al-Ansari questioned the legitimacy of the ISIS. Just as with the establishment of the Islamic State in Iraq in 2006, al-Ansari laments, the sudden announcement of al-Baghdadi was another unilateral initiative violating the principle of shura (consultation) with competent authorities, in this case the “leaders of the jihadi groups in the Levant and their ulema.” The Palestinian ideologue is deeply preoccupied with the potential “dire consequences” of the caliphate’s establishment that could serve their enemies’ interests by creating sedition (fitna) among Muslims. Worrying that the lessons of Algeria and Iraq have not been learned, al-Ansari thus positions himself as a concerned observer fearing that the past tribulations endured by the older generation could be replicated by the younger one in the Levant.
Abu al-Walid al-Ansari’s Peregrinations in the Militant Landscape
On the basis of his autobiography, Abu al-Walid al-Ansari was born Khalid bin Fathi al-Agha in Gaza in August 1966 and raised in Saudi Arabia, where he completed his education. In the mid-1980s, he was influenced by `Abdallah `Azzam’s books on the Afghan jihad and interacted with participants in the conflict, including the Salafi Shaykh Shams al-Din al-Afghani as well as `Azzam himself, who incited him to join the caravan. He left the kingdom in 1986 and travel to Peshawar.
During the anti-Soviet jihad, al-Ansari’s profile was much more that of a seeker of knowledge (talib al-`ilm) than that of an active fighter. The young émigré specialized in the religious sciences, including Qur`anic interpretation and Islamic jurisprudence, by studying with numerous theologians and jurists. Apart from `Abdallah `Azzam, from whom he learned Shafi`i jurisprudence, and some other Arab figures, notably from North Africa, al-Ansari was largely mentored by Pakistani clerics. Many of these were affiliated with the Salafi current, like his main teacher Naqib al-Ribati, a professor at the University of Imam Bukhari, or Ikram al-Din al-Badkhashi, the director of the University for da`wa to the Qur`an and the Sunna. Al-Ansari was also taught by a number of Hanafi minded professors, including from the Dar al–`Ulum Haqqaniyya madrasa.
In Pakistan, al-Ansari espoused a rigid Salafi-oriented methodology (manhaj), as shown by his stance on the Afghan jihad. Indeed, he soundly rejected operating under the Afghan mujahidin parties, deeming their banner to be un-Islamic, and opposed al-Qa`ida during debates on this issue. Abu Muhammad al-Maqdisi, who used to live as a guest in al-Ansari’s house in Peshawar, even contends that the latter succeeded in convincing him not to fight alongside the Afghan factions.
Al-Ansari maintained particularly close ties to Ahmad al-Jaza`iri, an Algerian doctor widely described as a takfiri in the jihadi literature. The two came to be active in the Afghan province of Nuristan on account of the strict religious practices of the locals and worked on relief work to assist the population.
One militant source linked al-Ansari to Jama`at al-Muslimin (JAM), an extreme militant group known to have proclaimed its leader Abu Hammam caliph in 1993. Yet, this claim contradicts al-Ansari’s sentiment about JAM, as he would later admonish the faction for having “made licit the taking of Muslim blood and property” and for “expiating those who reject their caliphate”.
After his departure from the Khurasan region, al-Ansari relocated to Yemen before heading to Britain around the first half of the 1990s, where he emerged as a familiar figure in the “Londonistan” scene, especially thanks to his proximity to Abu Qatada. Acting as his deputy, al-Ansari shared Abu Qatada’s inflexible doctrinal beliefs and the two formed a resilient duo that provided legal guidance to the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria. Their closeness was further illustrated by al-Ansari’s defense of Abu Qatada against his ideological adversaries, such as the Jamaican `Abdallah al-Faysal or the leaders of JAM. While primarily known to be the main figure of Abu Qatada’s inner circle, al-Ansari maintained contacts with a broader network, from the Syrian Abu al-Dahdah to Abu Zubayda al-Filistini and his Khaldan camp.
In the highly divisive radical landscape, al-Ansari and Abu Qatada came to earn the enmity of other senior militants like Abu Mus`ab al-Suri who vilified their “destructive role” in the Algerian jihad, derisively comparing their function to that of the Saudi religious establishment for the Royal family. The Syrian strategist scolded their narrow Salafi leanings, prompting al-Ansari to denounce him as “among the innovators.” Furthermore, according to al-Suri, while the rest of the jihadi community had publicly repudiated Jamal Zaytuni’s GIA in June 1996, al-Ansari was strongly reluctant to add his voice to his colleagues’ and eventually decided not to. “You’ve done more than just release some statements: you’ve caused a catastrophe!” he reportedly said to al-Suri, who saw al-Ansari’s move as a maneuver to secure the support of GIA’s hardcore followers. Later, al-Ansari eventually disowned the GIA.
In 2000, the Palestinian preacher returned to Afghanistan and settled in the Wazir Akbar Khan area of Kabul. By that time, he had revised his takfiri beliefs and as a result, became involved in toning down the hard-liners among the Arab-Afghan community. During this period, his activities do not seem to have fundamentally changed, as he was mainly involved in preaching and teaching theological lessons to newcomers and more senior militants from various nationalities either at his home in Kabul or in training camps, but always in an individual capacity. Al-Ansari is reported to have given such lectures at a camp in Kabul managed by Abu Dhahak al-Yamani, the representative of Commander Khattab in charge of foreign volunteers willing to fight on the Chechen front. In another instance, he served as a teacher to Bilal al-Turkistani, a slain historical figure of the Turkistan Islamic Party, who studied Fath al-Bari (a commentary on the Sahih al-Bukhari) under al-Ansari’s tutelage. Lastly, it is worth noting that al-Ansari’s acquaintances also included Abu Mus`ab al-Zarqawi, his neighbor in Wazir Akbar Khan. Their relationship began in Peshawar in the early 1990s, with al-Ansari playing a key role in connecting al-Zarqawi with his future mentor al-Maqdisi. During the Taliban’s era, al-Ansari and al-Zarqawi came together again and further nurtured their ties. After al-Zarqawi’s killing in 2006, his “old friend” (as Abu Qudama Salih al-Hami put it) al-Ansari dedicated an intimate eulogy to him, recollecting his memories with the “glorious Shaykh” (al-Shaykh al-jalil).
Allying with al-Qa`ida
The Arab-Afghan community being a microcosm, it should come as no surprise that al-Ansari interacted with al-Qa`ida once he returned to Afghanistan in 2000. Based on the few available sources on this topic, al-Ansari does not appear to have developed a close-knit bond with the organization. According to one source, he “had direct, but strained relations with (Bin Ladin).” This did not prevent al-Ansari from visiting al-Qa`ida’s Shari`a Institue run by Abu Hafs al-Mawritani. Additionally, it was al-Ansari who related to Djamel Beghal that Bin Ladin had some mission for him in Europe and that he should prepare accordingly by undertaking advanced training courses, prompting Beghal to be trained by al-Qa`ida in Kandahar. But overall, this connection seems to have been peripheral.
The 2001 U.S. invasion of Afghanistan and the subsequent downfall of the Taliban led al-Qa`ida and al-Ansari to warm to each other. Over the years, their increasingly strong ties led jihadi supporters to discuss and speculate over al-Ansari’s organizational affiliation. For instance, in October 2008, a certain “Abu Ibrahim al-Khurasani” (who once depicted al-Ansari as “one of the most (humble Shaykhs) I ever met”) claimed that “the Mufti of al Qaeda [is] Sheikh Abul Waleed Al Ansaari.” Asked about further details, al-Khurasani admitted that while he did not know if al-Ansari had been formally granted with such a position. But “the muhajireen and ansaar brothers in waziristan call him that (Mufti al Qaeda)” and “if anyone of the brothers needed a fatwa they would direct him to the sheikh”.
The mystery was recently solved by “Usama Khurasani”, a core al-Qa`ida member in Jabhat al-Nusra. Last May, he was asked about al-Ansari’s affiliation and whether he remained a freelancer. The answer was unequivocal: “Abu al-Walid al-Ansari is a member (`udw) of the Shura of al-Qa`ida at the behest of Usama [bin Ladin] and Ayman [al-Zawahiri]”. On the other hand, Usama Khurasani pointed out that al-Ansari had never actually given bay`a to the organization. This somehow corroborated the account of Shaybat al-Hukama, an al-Qa`ida insider, declaring that al-Ansari had never been a core member, implying the absence of an oath. As such, al-Ansari would be best understood as an unsworn al-Qa`ida leader walking a fine line by working hand in hand with the organization while retaining a semblance of autonomy by not pledging loyalty to its emir.
Several earlier materials had clearly hinted at al-Ansari’s standing as a primary theological reference point for the militant milieu in the Tribal Areas and his entry into al-Qa`ida’s fold. Although al-Ansari was he never featured on al-Sahab releases, he was a regular contributor to the official al-Qa`ida in Khurasan’s bulletin Tala`i’ Khurasan (Vanguards of Khurasan), having published articles in eight issues of the magazine, including his major piece entitled “The Assassination of Jihad.” Another revealing work was his introduction to the book Martyrs in a Time of Alienation, a compilation of hagiographies of militants killed in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region between 2002 and 2006 authored by Abu `Ubayda al-Maqdisi, a seasoned Arab-Afghan security commander close to the senior leadership of al-Qa`ida.
Also, as mentioned earlier, al-Zawahiri had complimented al-Ansari for his role as a “teacher, mufti, and judge of the mujahidin”, echoing Usama Khurasani’s words by portraying al-Ansari as a “judge of the mujahidin in Khurasan” (qadi al-mujahidin fi Khurasan). These descriptions were supported by the audio series “Chanting of the Loved Ones in Proud Waziristan,” with two tapes where al-Ansari can be heard lecturing Arab fighters in Waziristan. The spiritual preparation offered during these closed sessions evidently impacted the young militant generation, as attested by Abu Dujana al-Sana`ani, a renowned explosives expert killed in 2010, who named al-Ansari as one of the most influential Shaykhs he met throughout his jihadi career.
In addition to his clout among the Khurasan-based Arab youth, al-Ansari closely associated with the top echelon of al-Qa`ida. The Palestinian jihadi scholar was sought after for guidance on spiritual matters, including by veterans. For example, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, the head of al-Qa`ida in Khurasan, recounted that as his suicide mission was near, the high-ranking al-Qa`ida military commander Abu al-Hasan al-Misri went to al-Ansari to interpret a dream he had. Though unaware of al-Misri’s forthcoming operation, al-Ansari is said to have defined the dream as a sign that “(al-Misri) was now close to martyrdom in Allah’s path.” Among the other senior al-Qa`ida leaders frequented by al-Ansari was `Abd al-Majid `Abd al-Majid, a now-deceased member of the group’s Shura Council, with whom he notably participated in a lecture for some Arab mujahidin in North Waziristan. Finally, Shaybat al-Hukama related that `Atiyyatullah al-Libi too attended these type of meetings along with al-Ansari and `Abd al-Majid.
As of this writing, there have been reliable indications that Abu al-Walid al-Ansari is still part of the game. He recently wrote the forward a book by the senior al-Qa`ida leader Husam `Abd al-Ra`uf and various writings released on his behalf since the past few months. Nevertheless, his Twitter account states al-Ansari had not published anything since last December.
According to one of al-Ansari’s critics, Abu Hamid al-Barqawi, an al-Qa`ida defector now with the Islamic State, the scholar is “under the protection of Lashkar-e-Taiba,” and, by extension, Pakistan’s intelligence service. Judging by elements in al-Ansari’s background and Lashkar-e-Taiba’s history, there might be some truth in it. But as a well-read person told me, “I would not rule it out, but I think you are correct to look at this allegation with a very skeptical eye.”