The rise and fall of Ansar al-Islam
Former members of Ansar al-Islam talk to the Monitor about the militant group's ties to Al Qaeda, the foreign fighters that joined its ranks, and its eventual destruction.
SARGAT AND SULAYMANIYAH, NORTHERN IRAQ
As the American air attack pulverized the mountain base of Ansar al-Islam last March, Mohamed Gharib let his video camera roll - just as he had done during countless operations of the northern Iraq-based militant group.Skip to next paragraph
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"I filmed the missiles falling," says Mr. Gharib, a Kurdish militant and the Ansar media chief. Gharib's footage had for years recorded the violent history of the Al Qaeda-linked fighters, and served as a fundraising tool. "You wouldn't believe if I told you we were happy [to be attacked]. They gave us the sense that we were so true, so right, that even America had to come fight us."
Washington fingered Ansar as a terrorist group experimenting with poisons, and used its tenuous links to Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda to help justify the war against Iraq.
US officials were triumphant last spring, even as the broader Iraq invasion was still underway, after a three-day assault. Gen. Tommy Franks declared that a "massive terrorist facility in northern Iraq" had been "attacked and destroyed" by a joint US-Kurdish operation.
But today US officials assert that Ansar not only survived - like Gharib, who barely escaped after a four-hour bout with a US sniper - but that it is regrouping. They say Ansar is reinfiltrating Iraq with Kurdish and Arab militants from Iran, and, along with Saddam loyalists, is behind an increasing number of anti-US attacks across Iraq.
Lengthy interviews with several Ansar members now in custody, and with officials and intelligence sources of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in northern Iraq, however, yield a more ambiguous picture.
These sources describe a group now so decimated and demoralized that even true believers admit it is unlikely to be reborn according to its old template.
Instead, they say, elements of the group have begun operating in smaller cells. The "Ansar" label today, they add, is also being assumed by Islamic militants of all stripes, and used freely by the US-led coalition, regardless of ties to the original Kurdish group.
But the picture now emerging shows, too, how Washington exaggerated aspects of the threat from the 600 to 800 Ansar members.
Ansar was once part of a long-term Al Qaeda dream to spread Islamic rule from Afghanistan to Kurdistan and beyond. But that idea was embryonic at best, and when US forces attacked Afghanistan in October 2001, Al Qaeda support for Ansar dried up.
And despite the later arrival of some Afghan veterans and Arab fighters - and a new influx of donor cash - Ansar for 1 1/2 years was isolated, manipulated by both Iraq and Iran, and locked in stalemate with far superior Kurdish forces. Its "poison factory" proved primitive; nothing but substances commonly used to kill rodents were found there.
"Don't make Ansar that big - we make them great, and they are nothing, just terrorists," says Dana Ahmed Majid, the PUK security chief. "With the help of Al Qaeda and the support of all Islamic groups, they are trying to rebuild."
But instead of rebuilding a guerrilla force, Kurdish intelligence officials say Ansar is sending out small, freshly activated cells. And instead of just attacking secular Kurdish authorities - the root motivation of Ansar and its predecessor Islamist groups - these cells may be shifting to an anti-US mission, in tandem with Saddam Hussein loyalists.
"Al Qaeda has turned Iraq into a battleground against America," says Barham Salih, prime minister of the PUK area of northern Iraq, who equates Ansar with Al Qaeda. "Ansar was delivered a very big blow. They were not over. Eradication is a long-term process. Everyone is throwing everything into this battle - that's why we must win."
While most estimates cap the number of new foreign fighters that have entered Iraq in the past six months at 1,000, CIA assessments reportedly put the number as high as 3,000. Only a small minority are believed to be tied to Al Qaeda.
In the shadowy world of northern Iraq that clouds fact and fiction, several recent incidents may have Ansar fingerprints:
• Defense officials said Tuesday that in the northern city of Mosul, they captured ranking Ansar leader Aso Hawleri, according to the Associated Press. Kurdish intelligence agents say Mr. Hawleri was one of four Ansar chiefs deployed in early August to set up new networks. Other leaders may have dispersed to Baghdad, hotbed Fallujah, and the southern Shiite city of Najaf.