In the same statement, the group said that the office is composed of six departments, which includes: Department of Electricity, Department of Water and Sanitation, Protection of the Environment, Support and Supply section, Department of Registration, and the Department of Authorization. This move, however, should not come as a surprise.
The group has been involved in various aspects of Dawah, which includes missionary or general charity work to spread Islam. The Jamestown Foundation has noted that the group has been involved in this type of activity as far back as 2013. These activities, such as providing social services, allows the group to weave itself into the local society. It makes the local populace, in this case the residents in Benghazi under its control, dependent on the group to provide these aforementioned services.
As such, especially if the group can provide better services than the actual state or local governments, it allows for a positive image in the public eye. The fact that the group becomes ingrained into the local society makes it difficult for the group to be usurped. These activities are by no means new to al Qaeda groups.
For instance, the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's official branch in Syria, also partakes in similar activities. The Al Nusrah Front has long provided aid to those Syrian civilians under siege by the Assad regime. The Atlantic noted in 2013 that a Nusrah convoy "loaded with cucumbers, tomatoes, canned products, rice, potatoes, cooking oil, bread, and other staples" fed various villages in eastern Syria in 2012.
Additionally, Ansar al Sharia Tunisia another al Qaeda-affiliated group in North Africa, was noted to be "helping clean streets, giving food, clothes, and medicine, as well as assisting in homes for old men." This type of activity, instead of overt, heavy-handed tactics has proved to be more beneficial in the long run for these groups.
An example is that of Ansar Dine, al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) and the Movement for Oneness and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) in northern Mali. When these three al Qaeda groups took over northern Mali after defeating the Tuareg rebels, National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA), they were quick to impose a strict from of Sharia law. As such, this not only allowed for a French-led intervention, but also caused the groups to lose many allies in the local populace.
Al Qaeda has learned a lot from its mistakes in imposing Sharia too quickly in Mali, but it has also learned from its mistakes in Iraq with Abu Musab al Zarqawi. Zarqawi, who favored the heavy-handed tactics, made various enemies in the local Sunni tribes of Iraq, especially in Anbar province. This eventually led to the creation of the Sunni Awakening, which helped the United States in battling al Qaeda in Iraq.
The Ansar al Sharia brand phenomena in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen is due, in part, to these mistakes in Iraq. As my colleague Thomas Joscelyn noted in 2012, "Although the organization’s affiliates continue to operate under the al Qaeda name, the al Qaeda brand has been tarnished in Middle Eastern and African countries because of the group’s indiscriminate slaughter of Muslims." The usage of Ansar al Sharia was and is an attempt to gain back influence, respect, and support from the locals.
While jihadi groups are involved and interested in military and terrorist activities, the opening of this new office in Benghazi is another example that these groups are just as interested as winning the hearts and minds of the people under their control.
Photos released on Twitter showing the "Office of Public Services":