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.
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• A car bomb targeted a US intelligence house in Arbil a month ago, wounding four US military intelligence officers.Skip to next paragraph
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• Kurdish security arrested five Ansar-linked militants crossing into Iraq last July: one Tunisian, a Palestinian and three Kurds, who were carrying five fake Italian passports.
• Three Ansar guerrillas - including Afghan-trained Mullah Namou, a senior Ansar figure - were killed in a late August firefight, after reportedly planning to target an internet cafe frequented by US troops.
• Earlier that month, US forces arrested six people in Baghdad they said were Ansar financiers.
Emblematic of the mysterious history and inner workings of Ansar is the experience of holy warriors like Gharib and two others, who were made available at the Monitor's request by the PUK. Questioned separately for more than 13 hours, the former Ansar guerrillas appeared to speak freely. Proud of their handiwork, they also stated their view that Ansar was finished as an organization.
None of the former Ansar members remembers ever seeing or even hearing that Jordan-born Abu Musab Zarqawi was in Sargat, or anywhere else in the small Ansar enclave. Washington accused Mr. Zarqawi - whose leg was amputated in a Baghdad clinic in 2002 - of being Iraq's prewar link with terrorism.
Even today, confusion surrounds Zarqawi's role: Italian investigators reportedly collected phone intercepts that show Zarqawi assisting Ansar. He was reported to have become Al Qaeda's "man in Iraq." But a former Zarqawi operative last year claimed, during multiple interrogations in Germany, that Zarqawi "is against Al Qaeda."
As an Arab speaker in the ethnically Kurdish group, Gharib was transferred in 2001 to Sargat, where Arab fighters were based in their "Ghurba Katiba" (or "Stranger's Unit"). "Even the Arab Afghans who came did not exceed 50 in total, and included people unfamiliar with guns who probably never fired a bullet in their lives," says Gharib.
Despite the broad inexperience, among them were several jihad veterans. A few Kurds were also Afghan war veterans, and proved to be powerful trainers.
Al Qaeda was held up as the model. "This was the sense of everybody, that we were linked to Al Qaeda," says Sangar Mansour, a short, wiry detainee with a youthful face and thin moustache. "[We] looked like Al Qaeda, gave orders like Al Qaeda, trained like Al Qaeda, and used their videotapes" of Afghan operations. "Some non-Kurds had US military uniforms, that they put on when the [US] attacks started," Mr. Mansour says. He saw a worn photograph one of his friends kept under his pillow, of Ansar security chief Ayub Afghani, eating with Osama bin Laden.
Arab militants had begun to trickle into northern Iraq to join the Kurds well before Ansar was officially formed in December 2001. Their presence helped bolster the isolated Kurdish militants.
"Many people grew more committed to this fighting, because they thought: If foreigners are coming here to fight, this must be serious, this must be real," says Diyar Latif Taher, a Kurdish Islamist detainee. He says the number of foreigners never exceeded 90. "They did not say they were members of Al Qaeda, but whenever there was a successful Qaeda operation - an ambush, or hitting a US base in Afghanistan - they were celebrating," says Mr. Taher. Bin Laden was "praised."
"[We] shared the same ideas [with Al Qaeda], and we should be impressed with their leaders, their tactics and their victories, and feel sorry for their losses - otherwise we would not be true believers," says Gharib. "There was this dream of declaring jihad in this part of the world, and kicking out secular authority. And this dream got larger."
But keeping away from the manipulations of local powers was not easy. The Iranians flooded the Ansar area with extremely cheap food supplies, then stopped them abruptly, to squeeze concessions out of Ansar.
Baghdad played a similar role, by using smugglers and middlemen to provide dirt-cheap weapons to Ansar. "Then it stopped - boom! - and you had to beg for it, and make concessions," Gharib says. "I tell you, Ansar was the biggest buyer [from Baghdad]."