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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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So the key to success was funding, especially after Al Qaeda support dried up in late 2001. That's where Gharib's video camera and ability to burn propaganda CDs came in. They showed everything from Koran lessons and road building to training and offensive operations.

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"These CDs were extremely important, because they were our income source - we sent them back up the cash chain to donors," Gharib says, holding up his black prayers beads to illustrate the linkages. After one successful attack, funding came "like rain...from everywhere."

"It's not governments, but people from rich countries, Kuwait, Saudi, and Qatar -rich people who would not dare to take part, but sent support to establish Islamic rule," says Gharib. Such donors did not pay for Ansar to "have a truce" with the PUK, but instead demanded action. "There were groups claiming jihad, but just stealing money. So they ask: 'Where is your product? Where is your fighting?' "

So training was serious, under the tutelage of a tough Kurdish Afghan veteran called Ali Wali. "It was unlike any training I had ever seen," says Mansour. "They put down ropes to cross an area, and put sacks of soil on their backs and climbed mountains while avoiding bullets. They used kung fu, and learned how to counter attack with a gun at your back."

"You felt [Mr. Wali] was born to train - they even depended on him in Afghanistan," says Gharib. "Besides weapons, he taught psychological warfare, and dealing with pressure during battle. He was playing with your nerves, until you were able to withstand the pressure."

Later, as US-Kurdish ground forces advanced, Ansar evacuated to Iran. But Ansar's reception was mixed. "The Iranians started to fire at us," says Taher, who speaks Farsi. They finally talked to Revolutionary Guards at the border, handed over their guns, and at 8 a.m. they were driven to the nearest Iranian village. At 10 a.m., they were hustled back.

"An angry official came out and stuck an Iranian flag into the ground," Taher recalls. "This is the border with Iran - don't cross it!" he warned. But his group found a nearby valley, and were taken to a large prison hall in a border town, where they found 100 more militants. They stayed a week, and were each interrogated in front of video cameras by Iranian agents, before being taken back to the border, given back their weapons, and told to "Go, go, go!"

Scores of Ansar militants made it to Iran, and a Kurdish intelligence source working in Biyara - a border town once under Ansar control - alleges that they are being quietly assisted by an unofficial charity called "Daftar Korani." European diplomatic sources in Tehran say that, among hundreds of charities working in Iran, they have never heard of Daftar. "Iran does not officially support them - they don't want to be accused," contends the local PUK source. "Daftar is helping them survive and regroup. Ansar is not allowed to come out [of their safe houses]."

Perhaps more typical of those who didn't surrender is Mansour's experience. His group was also shot at by Iranians during the day last March, but crept across at night. They were rounded up and taken to a regional prison, only to be later released at the border.

Mansour and four friends disappeared back into Iran, and found a local smuggler who was also hosting Ansar leaders Ayub Afghani and Abu Wael (who is widely believed to have been a Baghdad agent in Ansar). The fighters were given the equivalent of $19 and bus tickets to Tehran, told "not to sit together," and instructed how to find a construction job in the Iranian capital.

Ayub Afghani was later arrested by the Iranians, Mansour says, when he was caught with six pistols, fake documents, and several foreign passports. Mansour eventually returned home, and turned himself in to the PUK.

Such has been the fate of the majority of Ansar's original members, say these detained militants, which makes them skeptical that the group can be behind many of the current attacks in Iraq. Gharib estimates that of the 600 Ansar members, some 250 were killed, 50 "were officials who ran away," and the rest have been arrested by the PUK, have given themselves up, or are still in semi-hiding in Iran. "This virtually means that Ansar is over, by the numbers," says Gharib. "Anybody saying these [current attacks] are done by Ansar has no information. They can't do it."

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