The Hidden Hand of Iran in the Resurgence of Ansar al-Islam

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 5 Issue: 11

Ansar al-Islam, an Islamic militant group based in the Kurdish mountains that briefly housed Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, was at the height of its power in 2002-2003. They controlled the areas of Bayarah and Tawilah along the Iranian border and operated with impunity. Yet, during the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Ansar al-Islam was driven out of the areas it had occupied for the past year in only five days. Operations by U.S. and Kurdish forces virtually annihilated it as an organized force, yet it is unclear to where its members fled. Some postulate that they were appropriated by other emerging insurgent groups such as Ansar al-Sunnah and Al-Qaeda in Iraq. A number of their members either retired from insurgent activity or fled to Iran and Europe to work in logistics and financing networks. Ansar al-Islam did not, however, disappear entirely. Many of its members went into hiding across the border. With the recent increase in insurgency activity in the Kurdish areas, Ansar al-Islam has reemerged as an organized force, likely as part of a new arm of al-Qaeda, the Kurdistan Brigades. The “Ansar al-Islam” title has been mentioned consistently in Kurdish and regional reports regarding recent violent attacks in the Kurdish region. It appears that Ansar al-Islam elements are not solely operating as part of the Kurdistan Brigades, but also as a viable, independent group once again. Newspapers and analysts from the region postulate that Ansar al-Islam and associated al-Qaeda elements are operating, as they had before, along the Iran-Iraq border and possibly with the acquiescence of Iran.

Iran’s Potential Role

During the past month, Kurdish leaders have made frequent trips to Iran. Both Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) officials have summoned Iranian consuls to the Kurdish region to discuss Ansar al-Islam’s border activity (Awena, May 1). Kurdish officials, like many others who reside along the border areas, express concern that Iran has perhaps played a role in Ansar al-Islam’s resurgence. Various regional newspapers have reported on Iran’s involvement with Ansar al-Islam, and some have leveled this accusation since 2004. One of Kurdistan’s weekly independent papers, Hawlati, issued a series of reports on the matter. In a July 2004 article, Hawlati wrote that that “Italaat,” the Iranian Secret Service, and al-Qaeda elements are training Ansar al-Islam along the eastern border of Kurdistan (Hawlati, July 2004). The Hawlati report posits that Iran is supporting Ansar al-Islam elements against the Iraqi Kurdish parties in order to separate Iraqi and Iranian Kurds and stave off any potential cooperation. In more recent news coverage, an anonymous Kurdish source said, “In fact, there is an organized campaign to recruit young Iranian Kurds in ideological and military training courses during which the recruit is paid a salary…Along with these training courses, the recruit goes through other military activities most of which are of a terrorist nature. These courses are held in Iranian camps spread in various regions of Iran” (Elaph, April 27).

Not only has Iran been indicted with recruiting Iranian Kurds, it has also been accused of offering training and support to al-Qaeda-affiliated elements harbored in the Hamrin Mountains. Reports suggest that al-Qaeda is training in a camp near the city of Marivan in Iran and elsewhere along the vast border area (Elaph, April 27). Several anonymous sources have claimed that Iran offers a monthly stipend of $1,500 to each recruit, although this has not been independently verified.

Kurdish journalists have speculated that Iran allows Ansar al-Islam to operate along its borders as a way to reinforce and advance its influence in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Iran has been a long-standing benefactor and player in Iraqi Kurdish politics when the KDP and PUK administered Kurdistan under the No Fly Zone. Iran wielded an enormous amount of influence and the two main Kurdish parties were largely at the mercy of Iran’s benevolence. In response to the intrusion of the United States, Iran has seen its influence wane, although it is still a factor in the region. The Sulaymaniyah paper Aso states, “In light of a number of changes following the war, Iran no longer has an economic [and political] impact as before. That is why now Iran, through using Ansar al-Islam, wishes to create security problems for the Kurdistan region the same as it tried to impose its own political agenda on Kurdistan through using the majority of the Islamist parties of Kurdistan prior to the Iraqi war” (al-Sulaymaniyah Aso, April 24). This refers to groups such as the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan that were the precursors of Ansar al-Islam.

Offering an alternative perspective, Sulaymaniyah’s new security director, Hassan Nuri, recently said in an interview: “I do not think that Iran will allow them to be active on the border” (Awene, May 15). By “them,” Nuri referred to militant Islamists. Iranian representatives stated in a paper circulated during a conference in Sharm el-Sheikh that fighting al-Qaeda, and Ansar al-Islam specifically, was a priority. A major goal in the Iranian working paper was to cooperate with Sunni and Kurdish elements to “draw up a plan to control the activity of groups that are close to al-Qaeda…specifically Ansar al-Islam” (al-Hayat, May 5).

Reports, nevertheless, continue to suggest an Iran and Ansar al-Islam connection. One report states that Ansar al-Islam and other associated al-Qaeda groups have taken over abandoned garrisons of the Mojahedin-e-Khalq, an Iranian dissident group that had been supported by Saddam Hussein against the Islamic Republic of Iran. These former garrisons lie only 25 kilometers from the Kurdish controlled areas. Two Ansar al-Islam leaders, Aso Kirkuki and Rahwan Sabir, are reportedly in charge of the fighters in this area. They are allegedly working with a previous Ansar al-Islam leader, Hiwa Kwer, who was arrested but later released as part of a prisoner exchange (Awene, April 10, 2007).

Ansar al-Islam has extended its operations outside of traditionally PUK controlled areas along the Iranian border into the heart of Kurdish territory in Irbil. According to PUK sources, an Ansar al-Islam squad appeared in the city of Taqtaq in Irbil before the attack on the Ministry of Interior on May 9. A shepherd spotted the strangers moving between the villages of Homar Gomt and Smaqah (PUKMedia, May 11). It is possible that Ansar al-Islam elements were responsible for the Kurdistan Brigades attack. According to Sulaymaniyah’s new security director, al-Qaeda appoints an amir to all of their areas of operation. The amir of Sulaymaniyah, Irbil and Dohuk is a man by the name of Swara who was first a member of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan and then of Ansar al-Islam, like many of his counterparts (Awene, May 15). Ansar al-Islam has also conducted sophisticated attacks against KRG border guards. In April, they planted a roadside bomb and detonated it via remote control. Insurgents opened fire after the initial blast (Kurdsat TV, April 15). Kurdish authorities have become extremely concerned about insurgent infiltration along the Iranian border and have closed six checkpoints (Hawlati, April 27). Prior to the April attack, Ansar al-Islam forces ambushed a customs check point and a cell phone tower in the city of Bashmagh. The insurgents were wearing traditional Kurdish garb and attacked with light and heavy weapons (Awene, March 27).

Ansar al-Islam is using its bases along the borders to conduct attacks in the Iraqi province of Diyala as well. Diyala residents are fearful that the border area will turn into a “new Kandahar” (al-Mustaqbal, April 30). Ansar al-Islam and other al-Qaeda elements are setting up recruitment and training camps and are trying to impose a strict Sharia code in the province. Iraqi security services confirmed the reports of Diyala residents and said that there are Afghan, Arab and even Western foreign fighters present along the border area.

Although Ansar al-Islam is recently resurgent, they have been present in the Hamrin Mountains since 2004, when they were ousted from Kurdish controlled areas. Not only were they active around the city of Marivan, but also near the Iranian cities of Sanadaj, Dezli and Orumiyah, among others (Hawlati, July 15, 2004). Since the recent surge in Baghdad and the resistance from the Anbar Salvation Council in its traditional stronghold, however, al-Qaeda and its associates have shifted their operations elsewhere—namely in Diyala and in KRG territory (Terrorism Focus, June 5).

Contradictions Remain

It may seem counter-intuitive for Iran to associate with Kurdish Islamic extremists such as Ansar al-Islam and militant Salafi groups like al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is deeply opposed to Iranian involvement in Iraq, and Iran has had problems with its own Kurdish autonomy movements. Iran, furthermore, has traditionally supported the KDP and PUK, first against Saddam and afterwards when they set up their own administration under the No Fly Zone. Is Iran willing to jeopardize its relatively good relationship with Kurdish authorities by either actively supporting Ansar al-Islam or by failing to crack down on these elements operating along its border area?

It appears that Iran is primarily concerned with maintaining its influence over its neighbors, no matter how counter-intuitive the mechanisms. Destabilizing the Kurdish region would serve as a way for Iran to reassert its influence. The United States has replaced Iran as the Kurds’ primary benefactor. Dabbling with insurgent groups while also maintaining ties with Kurdish authorities is a complicated method of maintaining its influence. Iran has concerns over its own Kurdish population, which it hopes will not attempt to mimic the Iraqi Kurds’ successful autonomy framework. Iran’s foreign policy principle, especially with its Kurdish neighbors, can perhaps best be described as “one hand gives, while the other hand takes away.”