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.
"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.
• A car bomb targeted a US intelligence house in Arbil a month ago, wounding four US military intelligence officers.
• 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]."
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.
"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."