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.
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.
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.
One reason they were leery of attracting the attention of fellow Iraqis may have been clandestine support for the Kurdish Islamists from the Baghdad regime. Qassem Hussein Mohamed, a big-boned, mustachioed Saddam lookalike who says he worked for Baghdad's Mukhabarat intelligence for two decades, says that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein has clandestinely supported Ansar al-Islam for several years.
"[Ansar] and Al Qaeda groups were trained by graduates of the Mukhabarat's School 999 military intelligence," says Mr. Mohamed, who agreed to be interviewed separately in the Sulaymaniyah interrogation room. As with Fatah, there were no apparent signs that he had been compelled to speak, and Kurdish investigators say they are convinced based on other, confirmable parts of his story that he is a Mukhabarat agent.
"My information is that the Iraqi government was directly supporting [Al Qaeda] with weapons and explosives," he says. "[Ansar] was part of Al Qaeda, and given support with training and money."
Saddam Hussein did not create Ansar al-Islam, though Mohamed compared Baghdad's role to the overt help Iraq gives the anti-Iran Mujahideen e-Khalq forces, which are known to be completely controlled by Iraqi intelligence within Iraq's borders.
Among other known Ansar leaders, Mohamed says Abu Wa'el was the most influential, was on the Iraqi intelligence payroll, and served as a liaison between Baghdad and Al Qaeda. Mohamed says his own mission to northern Iraq during which he was detained by the PUK is proof of that link. "After America attacked Afghanistan, Baghdad lost contact with [Abu Wa'el]," Mohamed says. "They sent me to check out Abu Wa'el, to make sure he was not dead or captured, and to reestablish contact."
Mohamed says PUK intelligence operatives apparently had been following him for some time, and clearly knew he was trying to contact the militants in northern Iraq.
The possibility of Iraq's support for Ansar if only to destabilize the Kurdish territory that exists beyond Baghdad's control does not surprise Kurdish officials. They note that President Hussein has recently embraced Islamic groups, and pays $10,000 each to the families of Palestinian suicide bombers in Israel, to solidify his credentials. Supporting Ansar, too, may provide Hussein with a way to get at his Kurdish enemies.
"There has been a marked change in Saddam's thinking in the past five years," says Hoshyar Zebari, a senior Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) official, regarding Baghdad's shift from hardline secularism, to backing Islamists.
"[Ansar] are local, home-grown Islamic terrorists, inspired by Al Qaeda and bin Laden. They think the main enemy is the US, and that Islam can't be free unless they get rid of blasphemous groups and infidels, which they consider the KDP and PUK to be," Mr. Zebari says. "Saddam's intelligence is very good at penetrating small groups."
Which is exactly what has happened to Ansar, says former Mukhabarat operative Mohamed. "The government does not like this 'safe haven,' and wants to destroy and destabilize everyone, everywhere," Mohamed says. "They are using [Ansar] as a base to destabilize northern Iraq, and assassinate and kill people. Baghdad will never give up supporting them."
Several additional reports unconfirmed have surfaced, alleging that Ansar leaders are sheltering senior Al Qaeda figures who slipped across the border from Iran, after fleeing Afghanistan.
But Sheikh Sadiq Abdulaziz, the deputy leader of the IMK now weakened by the loss of breakaway factions denies there is any link to bin Laden other than the group draws its inspiration from him.
"People who see Osama on television and hear Osama, want to be like Osama," Sheikh Sadiq says in his Halabja office. Ahson Ali Abdulaziz, one of the leaders of Ansar, is the nephew of Sheikh Sadiq and the son of IMK leader Mullah Ali Abdulaziz.
Despite these ties, some Kurdish and local Islamic leaders downplay the Ansar threat and argue that Ansar has forsaken violence.
"In Islam, we want to be martyrs, but we can't make a battle against our own people," the sheikh says, dismissing as "rumors" reports that Arabs and Al Qaeda fighters are among the militants. "[Ansar] has changed their name, their ideas, and methods."
PUK leader Jalal Talabani says that the collapse of Al Qaeda and Taliban rule will ultimately weaken the group. "Before, when there was Afghanistan, all these groups thought they had a base," he says, hurriedly clicking a set of prayer beads between his fingers. "They lost this hope, and are isolated. Now they are desperate. We are in negotiations with them that the Arabs must leave. We want to solve it peacefully. We are giving them a chance."
The Monitor will publish the account of another man tomorrow previously unknown information that could link Iraq to plans for anti-US terrorism.