Analyzing Ansar Al-islam

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 2 Issue: 11

Ansar al-Islam is often touted as the Kurdish constituency of al-Qaeda. It has been grabbing the headlines from its inception in September 2001. Reports have traced its influence from Afghanistan to Italy. How much of the exploits attributed to Ansar al-Islam is fact or fiction is anyone’s guess. There have been at least two in-depth analyses of Ansar al-Islam and the broader currents of Islamic militancy in Iraqi Kurdistan from which it originates. [1] Readers are strongly advised to study these research pieces and then refer back to this article.


The Kurdish peoples of the Middle East entered the modern age as a set of warring tribal fiefdoms straddling the fringes of two once mighty — but towards the end of the 19th century — rapidly declining Islamic empires. Indeed the origins of modern Kurdish nationalism may be traced to the decline of the Persian and Ottoman empires towards the end of the 19th century. The Kurdish tribal leader Sheikh Ubaidullah of Shamdinan, in his famous letter to the British consul at Bashkal, justified his revolt against the Ottomans in 1880 on the basis that:

“…We want to take matters into our own hands. We can no longer put up with the oppression which the governments (of Persia and the Ottoman empire) impose upon us.” [2]

Kurdish nationalism has on the whole been militantly secular (and often communist inspired, as in the case of the PKK in Turkey), and usually led by tribal leaders who have had no qualms to strike opportunistic deals with the national governments which they have purported to fight. Yet Iraqi Kurdistan diverges from this secular framework insofar as it has been host to several Kurdish Islamic organizations in the past two decades.

Analysts have often pointed to the influence of the Iranian revolution of 1979 in “Islamising” Iraqi Kurdistan, and this may well have been a factor. But the rise of Sunni supremacist Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan cannot be attributed to the Iranian revolution, which, on the whole, has valorized Shia communities around the world as the foreign vanguards of a resurgent Iranian state.

Jonathan Schanzer traces the roots of Ansar al-Islam back to the mid-1990’s and the divisions which splintered the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK). Michael Rubin identifies these renegade forces as the HAMAS, Tawhid, the Second Soran Unit and the Islamic Unity Movement. Moreover, Rubin observes that the latter two organizations merged to form the Jund al-Islam (Army of Islam) in September 2001. Jund al-Islam immediately metamorphosed into Ansar al-Islam (Partisans of Islam). The founder and leader of Ansar al-Islam is Abdullah al-Shafi’i, an Iraqi Kurd from a village near Irbil. It is also believed that Assad Mohammad Hassan (also known as Aso Hawleri), formerly the leader of the Second Soran Unit, initially served as Shafi’i’s deputy.

The chief factors behind the rise of Ansar al-Islam and Taliban-style supremacist Sunni Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan are the local political and economic dynamics of that region of Iraq. After the ejection of Iraqi forces from Iraqi Kurdistan in 1991, the two main Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) quickly established their hegemony over much of that region. The KDP dominated the western and northern parts of Iraqi Kurdistan, whereas the PUK held away in the southern and eastern regions. However both factions failed to seize the historic opportunity presented by the near complete absence of the Iraqi government from the Kurdish regions (enforced by the no-fly zone), and soon reverted to their traditional rivalry. This rivalry escalated into a full scale civil war in 1994 that — apart from its human and material costs — seriously undermined the confidence of the outside world in the competence and integrity of the Iraqi Kurdish political elites.

While moderate Kurdish Islamic parties, like the IMK benefited from the bloodletting, it was the more radical Islamists who proved to be the real winners. Indeed Ansar al-Islam soon carved out a geographic sphere of influence in the eastern fringes of Iraqi Kurdistan — formerly territory controlled by the IMK as part of its agreement with the PUK.

Ansar al-Islam & al-Qaeda

Ansar al-Islam is widely assumed to have extensive links with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda network. Michael Rubin asserts that Ansar’s precursor (the Jund al-Islam) became operational with a $300,000 grant provided by al-Qaeda. While Schanzer quotes three journalistic sources who claim that Ansar received money from the London-based cleric Abu Qatada. It is alleged that 30 al-Qaeda members streamed into Ansar’s camps immediately after the group’s formation. [3] Moreover, the Financial Times cites a U.S. official who claims that Ansar is affiliated with al-Qaeda. [4] Al-Qaeda operatives in Italy are alleged to have run a network whose core mission was to send radicalized Muslims to Ansar’s camps in Iraqi Kurdistan. [5] The objective, it is alleged, was to turn Ansar’s camps in eastern Iraqi Kurdistan into a miniature version of al-Qaeda’s notorious Afghan camps.

While these allegations may well be credible, it is important not to overstate Ansar’s al-Qaeda connection. The emergence of the group certainly had little to do with al-Qaeda and the wider international Islamist network. Ansar al-Islam is the product of local dynamics and circumstances. Nevertheless it is entirely plausible that al-Qaeda and the broader networks of Islamic terrorism affiliated to it may have tried to gain leverage over this sympathetic organization. There are many reasons why they should have wanted to this. Firstly, Iraqi Kurdistan, due to the instability and insecurity fostered by the warring Kurdish factions, was a natural location for al-Qaeda, who has proved adept at exploiting the logistical and operational opportunities presented by war torn and lawless regions around the world. Secondly, al-Qaeda and its allies needed a presence in Iraq ahead of the anticipated U.S. invasion in March 2003. Seen in this context, it is entirely plausible that the al-Qaeda presence in Iraq (which is now widely judged to be substantial) grew from the cells it established in the camps of Ansar al-Islam from early 2002 onwards.

Ansar al-Islam & the former Iraqi regime

Certain U.S. officials have struggled to link the former Iraqi regime to al-Qaeda. At one stage it was suggested that Ansar al-Islam could be the “missing link” between the Baathists in Baghdad and Osama Bin Laden’s network. Iraqi intelligence officers are alleged to have used encryption in their communication with agents inside Ansar’s enclave in Iraqi Kurdistan. Moreover the Iraqi intelligence services are alleged to have recruited an al-Qaeda operative called “Abu Wa’il” inside the Ansar enclave. These allegations are extremely difficult to verify.

When discussing Ansar’s possible links with the Baathists, there are basically two schools of thought. One is the notion that Saddam Hussein’s regime, because of its enmity towards Islamists of any sectarian or ideological persuasion, would have found it difficult to cooperate at a tactical level with Ansar al-Islam, let alone al-Qaeda proper. [6] Another school of thought is that the former Iraqi regime would have found it expedient to cooperate with Ansar al-Islam, not least because it would have enabled it to constrain the political and military space of the PUK. [7] However, even if such a link existed, it is unlikely to have been significant in the wider scheme of events.

Ansar al-Islam & Iran

Allegations that Iran has had links with Ansar al-Islam essentially revolve around the geographic location of Ansar’s former enclave near Halabja, a short distance away from the Iranian border. There have also been suggestions that one of Ansar’s purported leaders, Mullah Krekar, had been cultivated by the Iranians during his stay in the country.

While Iran is likely to have sponsored Iraqi Kurdish Islamic groups for the past two decades, the extent of this patronage is difficult to assess. Part of the problem is that information regarding Iranian involvement in Kurdistan has often hailed from sources that are widely believed to act as disinformation outlets against Iran. For example, radio Israel reported in 1996 that Iran is trying to deepen its influence in Iraqi Kurdistan through the “Iraqi Kurdish Hezbollah”. [8] Moreover, Iran generally sponsors Islamic organizations that, at the very least, respect its own brand of political Islam. Therefore, there is very little scope for tactical cooperation between Iran and a Sunni supremacist organization like Ansar al-Islam.

Furthermore, Ansar al-Islam holds little tactical or strategic value to the Islamic Republic. Iran is unlikely to sponsor an organization that is effectively at war with the PUK, its main ally in Iraqi Kurdistan. Indeed, the PUK, despite its occasional employment of anti-Iranian rhetoric, has received substantial military and financial help from Iran over the past 2 decades.

Ansar al-Islam Today

U.S. and PUK forces attacked Ansar al-Islam’s enclave on March 23, 2003 and within five days Ansar forces had been completely driven out of the areas that they had occupied for the past 18 months. There was little doubt that the United States would target Ansar al-Islam immediately after launching military operations against the Baathist regime. A month before the war, the U.S. Department of Treasury had branded Ansar al-Islam a Specially Designated Terrorist Group (SDTG).

Given the likelihood of a massive U.S. led assault, Ansar members were likely prepared for the onslaught, and it is entirely plausible that a substantial number of them evaded death or capture. There are many indications that Ansar continues to be active in Iraqi Kurdistan. Ansar was likely behind the devastating bombing of the PUK and KDP headquarters in February 2004. Moreover, many of the attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan over the past 12 months may well have been the work of Ansar and its allies. The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that Ansar does not seem to be active in the non-Kurdish areas of Iraq.

In the final analysis, Ansar al-Islam does not, at this stage at least, pose a serious threat to the transition process in Iraq. However, it may yet re-emerge as a serious disruptive force in Iraqi Kurdistan and may well be exploited by al-Qaeda or its successors in the years to come. The key to neutralizing Ansar al-Islam lies in restoring the authority of the central government in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Kurdish factions, left to their own devices, are likely to revert to the old conspiratorial, opportunistic and back-stabbing politics that gave rise to Ansar al-Islam in the first place.


1. Refer to Jonathan Schanzer’s article “Ansar al-Islam: Back in Iraq” (The Middle East Quarterly: Vol. X1, Number 1) & Michael Rubin’s “The Islamist Threat in Iraqi Kurdistan” (Middle East Intelligence Bulletin: Vol. 3, No. 12).

2. J Bulloch & H Morris, No Friends but the Mountains: The Tragic History of the Kurds, London 1993, p. 73.

3. Agence France-Presse, December 4, 2002.

4. Financial Times, February 12, 2004.

5. Los Angeles Times, April 28, 2003.

6. Refer to author’s interview with Dr. Mustafa Alani, Spotlight on Terror: Vol. 2, Issue 6.

7. Author’s interview with Dr. Hamid Bayati, the deputy foreign minister of Iraq, May 26, 2004.

8. Radio Israel, March 1, 1996.