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Iraqi funds, training fuel Islamic terror group

Two Iraqi Arabs held in a Kurdish prison tell of contacts among Ansar al-Islam, Al Qaeda, and aides to the Iraqi president.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 2, 2002


The US Operation Anaconda has squeezed many Al Qaeda and Taliban fighters out of Afghanistan, but some of those forces are simply joining a budding conflict nearby, in Iraq, local security officials warn.

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Ansar al-Islam, a Kurdish Islamic extremist group that has shaken Northern Iraq with bloody episodes of killing over the past 14 months, is being bolstered by the American rout of Osama bin Laden's diehards at Shah-e Kot, Afghanistan.

"Their numbers have been increasing, as [fighters] escape from Operation Anaconda," says a top security official in the region. "We don't know how many, but each day that goes by, they are more and more of a threat."

While Ansar is gaining strength in numbers, new information is emerging that ties the organization to both Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Al Qaeda contacts allegedly stretch back to 1989, and include regular recruiting visits by bin Laden cadres to Kurdish refugee camps in Iran and to northern Iraq, as well as a journey by senior Ansar leaders to meet Al Qaeda chiefs in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2000.

A 20-year veteran of Iraqi intelli- gence alleges the Iraqi government secretly

provided cash and training to Ansar, in a bid to destabilize the "safe haven" and weaken armed Kurdish opponents. Any link between Baghdad and Al Qaeda could be used by Washington to help justify toppling Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Some Kurdish politicians downplay the threat from Ansar al-Islam, and senior Islamic leaders claim to have convinced Ansar to "change their methods," meaning they won't target and kill Kurds in their fight for a more secular state as they did this past September.

Ansar al-Islam, which means "Soldiers of God," is no more than several hundred strong. But it controls a handful of Iraqi Kurdish villages that abut the border with Iran, on the eastern end of the US-protected Kurdish safe area in northern Iraq.

Iraqi intelligence link

New details about Ansar's contacts with Al Qaeda come from Rafed Ibrahim Fatah, an Iraqi Arab held by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Mr. Fatah agreed to be interviewed in an interrogation room at a PUK security complex in Sulaymaniyah.

Mr. Fatah says he fled from Baghdad to Iran in the mid-1980s, and was in a refugee camp on the outskirts of Tehran. There, in 1989, he says he met two Iraqi brothers who had returned from mujahideen centers in Pakistan explicitly to make contact with another Kurdish faction, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), "because there was jihad in Peshawar, [Pakistan], and they were fighting jihad here." The IMK is a broad political party that splintered in recent years; the breakaway extremists first created Jund al-Islam, then changed their name to Ansar.

Fatah says one of the brothers, Abu Ayoub, called himself a "military cadre working for Osama," and visited Iraqi Kurds in northern Iran for two weeks. Fatah made the trip with him, spending most of his time with Abu Ayoub's lower-ranking brother, Najjem, who he said did not attend the "big meetings."

Those ties continued in later years, Fatah says. An Iraqi Kurd called Abu Jaffar also visited from Pakistan twice a year during the 1990s, to recruit jihadis. The Kurdish Islamists, Fatah says, stroking his short salt-and-pepper beard, maintained their own house in Peshawar, like many of Islamic militant organizations in Pakistan.

Fatah himself first traveled to Pakistan in 1989, and even to Afghan training camps of the mujahideen, though he says he didn't have the stomach – literally – for the hard life of guerrillas.

The Al Qaeda-Kurdish ties appear to have grown closer by the summer of 2000, when Al Qaeda was well established, and Jund al-Islam was taking root in Kurdistan. Fatah was in Kandahar, Afghanistan, when he heard about a high-level delegation of Iraqi Kurdish militants. He says a friend introduced him to Abu Wa'el and two other Jund al-Islam leaders. They were staying in the guest house of a Taliban minister known for his support of Arab jihadists in Afghanistan, and were surprised when Fatah and his Iraqi friend showed up.

"They wanted to present themselves as a jihad group, and they were concentrating on Al Qaeda," Fatah says, recalling a conversation that took place in his presence. "They said they had already received money once from Abu Qatada, to elicit more support from Al Qaeda." Abu Qatada is a London-based sheikh who went underground earlier this year, and has been convicted in a Jordanian court of conspiring to attack US and Israeli interests.

Fatah says the delegation said they met Abu Hafas al-Masri, bin Laden's No. 2 and military aide, but that bin Laden rarely met with such groups. Uneasy about being identified by fellow Iraqis in Afghanistan – even though analysts say that three of Al Qaeda's top 20 leaders were Iraqis – Fatah says that Abu Wa'el and the others talked little about the details of their mission.