Over the years, there has been a good deal of confusion over the use of the name 'Ansar al-Sunna' when it comes to Iraq's Sunni insurgency, both in local and international media. When the name is used, the implied reference is normally to Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, which is the latest incarnation of the al-Qa'ida-linked Ansar al-Islam of Iraqi Kurdistan that was largely destroyed after the U.S. invasion but regrouped as 'Ansar al-Sunna' as a participant in the Sunni insurgency of the Iraq War. The current Jamaat Ansar al-Islam is known for its ideological affinity with the Islamic State (IS) [i.e. sharing the same end goal of a Caliphate] but is a rival of IS because it does not accept IS' claim to be a state or Caliphate, having clashed multiple times in Kirkuk and Mosul, among other locations. Referring to Jamaat Ansar al-Islam as 'Ansar al-Sunna' should be avoided at all costs.
There is, however, another distinct Sunni insurgent group known as Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna that originated as a break-off after the main body of Ansar al-Sunna became Jamaat Ansar al-Islam from 2007 onwards. The group maintains a website featuring an outline of its ideology (prepared by the group's leader Abu Wa'el Abd al-Wahhab ibn Muhammad al-Sultan), photos of operations and new statements. Ideologically, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna falls firmly within the Sunni Islamist camp, rejecting democracy and the conventional concept of elections, with a willingness to pronounce takfir on those who accept and actively participate in the process:
"Whosoever adopts someone besides God as arbiter or legislator for legislation contrary to the law of the Almighty, he has adopted someone besides God as his Lord, and has desired something besides Islam as his religion. And we consider democracy in its true form to be kafir [disbeliever] da'wah...that has no link to the Islamic Shura [consultation process]...And if those who vote know that by their action they are entrusting MPs in the dealing of sovereignty of shirk [idolatry] (i.e. any legislation without God in opposition to God's law) with the office of MP, they are kuffar [disbelievers]...And every constitution that disagrees with God's law, even if in part, is a false constitution with which we are not satisfied."
At the same time the group rejects the idea of being 'hasty' in pronouncing takfir, likely an implicit criticism of the readiness of groups like IS to engage in such a practice, while trying to emphasize the notion of equality of all Muslims: "We don't distinguish ourselves from the rest of Muslims in any respect." In a self-history on the group's website, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna also emphasizes in its precedents the necessity of being an 'Islamic' group, 'not secular or nationalist...but deriving from Islam, based on the program of Islam and serving Islam and Muslims." Most importantly, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna, like Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, stresses the ultimate goal of a Caliphate: "Striving to establish the Islamic State in all aspects...and any group that has not been set up with the foundational goal of rebuilding the Caliphate is a non-integral group."*
Despite the apparent lack of real ideological differences with Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, as political affiliation goes, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna has always been more 'moderate' than Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, having been part of the political council of the Sunni Islamist nationalist 'Muqawama Iraqiya' [Iraqi Resistance] until the summer of last year, which also includes the Islamic Army in Iraq that was working until this year within the current Iraqi political system for the establishment of a Sunni federal region. In June 2013, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna announced its withdrawal from the Muqawama Iraqiya's political council, while not denouncing the council per se:
"Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna announces its withdrawal from the political council of the Muqawama Iraqiya for situational reasons that there is no need to express here. Indeed brotherhood and wala' remain for every Muslim waging jihad in support of God's religion in the council and elsewhere: we ask God to help our brothers wherever they are to support His religion and make His Word supreme."
Operationally, little has emerged in open-source material on the activities this year of Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna with the renewal of the wider Sunni insurgency in Iraq, but the fact that such operations, when reported, have been advertised on media such as al-Boraq News (the Islamic Army in Iraq's forum wing/news outlet) points to the continued affection and respect of components of the 'Muqawama Iraqiya' for Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna, in contrast to Jamaat Ansar al-Islam that maintains its own media wing and whose activities are not advertised in 'Muqawama Iraqiya' circles. For example, on 25 September, al-Boraq News stated that Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna claimed blowing up an Iraqi army tower in the al-Mada'in area of south Baghdad. Similarly, on 16 September, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna reportedly assassinated a Shi'a militia commander in the al-Mada'in area.
Even so, indicative of Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna's transnational orientation at heart is an appeal released on 13 October 2014 to the 'mujahideen of the Ummah' by Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna's amir Abu Wa'el, emphasizing the need for them to put aside their differences and unite against their enemies. For example, he writes: "Expel from yourselves the resentment and hatred for your mujahideen brothers." He also emphasizes that "the Islamic Ummah in its entirety is being targeted by its enemies, for they do not distinguish between one sect or another, as long as they [the mujahideen] want to establish the religion of Truth on their land, and for the Shari'a [law] of God to rule among them, for they [the enemies] know that the return of the Ummah to its religion will threaten their interests, destroy their plans, and destroy the state of Israel which they planted in the heart of the Muslim world, and which would not exist were it not for the Muslims and their successors' deviation from their religion, and the rule of the Jews and Christians' allies over the necks of the Muslim peoples." Among other enemies of the Ummah mentioned in the tract are the "Majus [Persian] Rafidites and their allies," and the amir contrasts the 'people of Falsehood"s ability to come together against the 'people of Righteousness' despite differences, with "us, the Ahl al-Sunna: for our habit is of difference and internal conflict" to the point of internecine bloodshed.
"Appeal to the Mujahideen of the Ummah" by Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna's amir Abu Wa'el
Given the timing of the release of this 'appeal' and the sample content above, it is clear that Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna sees the international coalition's efforts directed against the Islamic State as actually part of a wider war on Islam- something that mirrors the discourse of the Islamic Army in Iraq's spokesman, who said the Muslims are the real target of the coalition. Also compare Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna's line with al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula's statement denouncing the coalition efforts as a war on Islam and the need for jihadis to put aside differences. This is so even as none of these factions can truly reconcile themselves with the Islamic State's demands for subservience of all Muslims under a pledge of allegiance.
The discourse of Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna has implications for U.S. policy in attempting outreach to Iraq's Sunni Islamist armed factions in the hope of building a local ground force against the Islamic State. If the meme with currency is that the efforts against the Islamic State are really part of a war on Islam, then this hope has little going for it at the moment.
* (2 November update: endnote): To give specifics, Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna traces its precedent in one 'Jamaat al-Muwahhideen al-Mujahida' ('The Group of Unitarians/Monotheists Waging Jihad'), founded by Islamists who regarded the contemporary Islamist movements in the wake of the 1958 revolution (e.g. Muslim Brotherhood, Hizb-ut-Tahrir) as inadequate. The aims mentioned above were the founding principles of Jamaat al-Muwahhideen al-Mujahida, which Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna undoubtedly endorses.