Ansar al-Islam (Helpers of Islam), was the child of the union of the two older terrorist groups Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of God), led by Abu Abdallah al-Shafi'i and an Islamic Movement faction led by Mullah Krekar. The new group, formally founded in September 2001 (immediately before the attacks on 9/11), was based in Kurdish controlled Northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) specifically. It established a foothold in the region, whose porous border is adjacent to Iran, by seizing control of several border villages. Once solidifying its control over the area, Ansar al-Islam instituted an Islamic fundamentalist rule akin to the Taliban's: women were stripped of their rights and forced to wear burkhas, strict observance of the Sharia religious law was decreed, music was banned, men were forced to grow beards, and schools were closed. It also pronounced itself in jihad against the PUK, the United States, and the Western world in general.
Ansar al-Islam had waged a war of terror against both semi-autonomous states in Northern Iraq: the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDU) for the past two years, though they have focused the majority of their attention on the PUK because it is the closer of the two states. Its preferred modus operandi is to attempt to sew political disunity and fear through the assassination of political leaders and to hit soft targets such as restaurants. It also has engaged in more traditional attacks on Kurdish military targets in the region. The following is a list of significant terror attacks made by the group since its inception:
- September 2001: Agents of Ansar al-Islam ambushes and kills 52 PUK soldiers. This event is particularly significant because it was Ansar's first major attack and the one that gained it its first widespread publicity.
- February 2002: Ansar al-Islam successfully carries out the assassination of Franso Hariri, a Kurdish Christian politician.
- April 2, 2002: Ansar al-Islam attempts to assassinate Dr. Barham Salih, the Prime Minister of the PUK. The attempt at Dr. Salih's life is unsuccessful, however, and he escapes injury, though five of his bodyguards and two of his attackers are killed as a result of the attack.
- June 2002: Ansar bombs a Kurdish restaurant, killing a child and wounding many.
- July 2002: The terrorists kill nine PUK soldiers in an attack. This same month, operatives of Ansar al-Islam also destroy several Sufi shrines in an act of extreme religious intolerance.
- October 2002: The group assassinates Laurence Foley in Amman, Jordan. Mr. Foley worked for the United States Agency for International Development.
- December 2002: Ansar al-Islam launches an attack on PUK military positions because of a decreased military presence in the region due to the celebration of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. According to their website, the group killed over 100 PUK soldiers, though the official PUK figure is lower.
According to the Bush Administration, the group was also involved in the race to develop chemical weapons. In his presentation to the United Nations Security Council, Secretary of State Colin Powell accused Ansar al-Islam of running a chemical weapons factory in the territory it controlled. The group later allowed the press restricted access to the alleged factory; reporters found no weapons of mass destruction, but were heavily restricted in their movements around the compound. In addition, Dr. Salih and the PUK allege that the group has tested chemical weapons on animals and The Washington Post reported that Ansar al-Islam had smuggled VX nerve gas through Turkey in 2001.
Ansar al-Islam: The Link Between Saddam Hussein and al-Qaeda (?)
Ansar al-Islam was also, according to the Bush Administration, a key link between Saddam Hussein's government in Baghdad and Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda terrorist group. According to the PUK, Ansar al-Islam was created by Mr. bin Laden in order to provide a new base of operations if the United States military invaded Afghanistan because of the terrorist attacks of September 11, which it did. Supposedly, the plot was begun in August 2001, leaders of the Jund al-Islam and the Islamic Movement faction supposedly visited with the top al-Qaeda leadership in Afghanistan and soon after received $300,000-$600,000 (US) as "seed money" and a supply of weapons in order to establish a base in Kurdish-controlled Iraq (leaders of both groups were later believed to have served with al-Qaeda in Afghanistan in an attempt to repel the US occupation). Approximately 30 al-Qaeda operatives went along with the money, presumably to advise the new terrorist cell.
The connection between the old regime in Baghdad and Ansar al-Islam envisioned by the Administration was supposedly brokered through an al-Qaeda operative by the name of Saadoun Mahmoud Abdulatif al-Ani (or more commonly as Abu Wa’el). Mr. Wa'el was seen as a liaison between the Baghdad government's intelligence services and al-Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam. The old Ba'athist regime was also supposedly linked to al-Qaeda through Ansar al-Islam by Mussa’ab al-Zarqawi, the head of the al-Qaeda subgroup Jund al-Shams (Soldiers of the Levant). Mr. Powell, in a speech to the United Nations regarding supposed Iraqi noncompliance with weapons inspectors, asserted that after being wounded in Afghanistan fighting United States forces, Mr. Zarqawi fled to Iraq where he received medical treatment in Baghdad. He supposedly remained in Baghdad until the Jordanian government asked the Iraq government for permission to extradite him in order to face terrorism charges. Mr. Zarqawi then supposedly fled, with the full blessings of the Hussein government, to the territory controlled by Ansar al-Islam. In addition, the Administration also accused the former government of sending weapons to the group, citing TNT found in Ansar's possession that was, according to Kurdish explosives experts, produced by the former Iraqi military.
Doubters of the relationship between Mr. Hussein and Mr. bin Laden through Ansar al-Islam hold the view that much of this evidence is circumstantial. They also point to vehement denials of both Mr. Hussein and Mr. bin Laden of collusion and tapes of Mr. bin Laden released to the Al Jazeera network in which he denounces the "evil Iraqi government." In addition, because of the shadowy nature of intelligence gathering and the need to protect United States informants, much of the Bush Administration's claims can be neither struck down as false nor proven due to a paucity of information released to the public.
Ansar al-Islam and its
Destruction in the Second Gulf War
Ansar al-Islam was already weakened when Mullah Krekar, its top leader and one of its founders, was arrested in September 2002 by the Netherlands. It was decimated, however, at the start of the Second Gulf War. Aided by United States Special Forces and overwhelming air support, Kurdish pesh merga fighters launched an attack on the group's stronghold. The 600 or so terrorists scattered and were utterly crushed by Kurdish and American forces;
what little terrorists there are left are scattered and unorganized. Ansar al-Islam, the first "casualty" of the war, has ceased to be a viable threat to Kurdish Northern Iraq or to efforts to rebuild Iraq after the war.
Apparently, early estimates about Ansar al-Islam's destruction proved to be untrue. After the war, the remnants of the group reorganized and regrouped in Northern Iraq. Leading officials in the United States Defense and State Departments- including L. Paul Bremer III, head of American occupying forces in Iraq- believe they are aiding al-Qaeda militants and Hussein loyalists in attacks on the Coalition Provisional Authority, the occupation forces, and Iraqis aiding the United States. The group is also believed to have had a role in the terrorist bombing of the UN Mission Headquarters in mid-August. Unfortunately, it will take a long, hard campaign to finally obliterate this terrorist threat.
(note: Last updated December 13, 2003)