Ansar al-Islam seems to have dropped off the radar screen, while an even more active and deadly terrorist organization with similar nomenclature, Ansar al-Sunna, has emerged in its place. With its membership scattered and installations decimated, has Ansar al-Islam disappeared as a coherent force?
Although not as strong as it once was, the arrest of Ansar al-Islam members in Kurdistan indicates that there are sleeper cells remaining in the area . Ansar al-Islam members still operate inside Iraq but are now largely based in predominately Sunni Arab areas in central Iraq where they are able to operate more freely. Furthermore, Ansar al-Islam is active in Europe, recruiting, transporting and even training jihadists to fight in Iraq.
It has been widely reported that Ansar al-Sunna, a prolific and capable terrorist organization, is an offshoot of Ansar al-Islam. Yet the linkage between Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna is not as straightforward. Many security officials believe–and arrest patterns indicate–that Kurdish militants affiliated with Ansar al-Islam have dispersed in two directions within Iraq. Some Ansar members are now connected with Zarqawi’s Qaedat al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (al-Qaeda in Iraq), and work out of central Iraq. Another wing operates under the rubric of Ansar al-Sunna . Ansar al-Islam, for its part, continues to work as a separate entity within Europe.
Since their emergence in the late 1970s, Kurdish Salafists have organized themselves in a variety of different groups and networked with other militants. They have also easily reconstituted themselves in different groupings after the splinter or defeat of a particular organization. For example, Jund al-Islam reorganized itself as Ansar al-Islam after its defeat by PUK forces in 2001. Analysts are now wondering what has become of Ansar al-Islam.
Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna Connection
In keeping with their tradition of metamorphosis, remaining Ansar al-Islam jihadists dispersed into smaller sleeper cells in Iraqi Kurdistan, migrated into al-Qaeda-affiliated groups operating in Iraq, most notably Ansar al-Sunna, or fled to Iran . Ansar al-Islam leaders, such as Abu Abdullah al-Shafei, Ayoub Afghani and Abu Wa’el, were seen in the Iranian border city of Sanandaj later that summer, regrouping their fighters and recruiting new men . Those who found themselves in Arab Sunni areas managed to merge with Arab Salafists, marking the emergence of Ansar al-Sunna.
Ansar al-Sunna formed from an amalgam of jihadists, not just remnants of Ansar al-Islam. According to Michael Rubin, one of the first U.S. analysts to write on the subject, “Ansar al-Sunna, which officially declared its existence in a September 20, 2003 Internet statement, evolved from the coalescence of Kurdish Ansar al-Islam operatives, foreign al-Qaeda terrorists, and newly mobilized Iraqi Sunnis.”
Additionally, Ansar al-Islam’s casus belli was more limited than Ansar al-Sunna’s wider objectives. Ansar al-Islam was formed before the Coalition occupation of Iraq. It was not formed with the goal of dispelling the occupying forces, but rather the defeat of the secular Kurdish leadership. Ansar al-Islam’s objectives have since evolved to include resisting the foreign occupation.
There are also personnel and operational linkages between Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna. According to Kurdish intelligence sources, Abu Abdullah, the self-styled emir of Ansar al-Sunna, is also said to be an associate of Abdullah Shafe’ii, a leader of Ansar al-Islam. It is also reported that Abu Abdullah is the brother of Abdullah al Shami–an Ansar al-Islam leader killed while fighting PUK peshmerga in 2003 .
Since its inception, Ansar al-Sunna has been responsible for some of the most vicious attacks in Iraq, including the coordinated Irbil bombings in February 2004, the suicide bombing of the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad, an ambush in which nine Spanish intelligence officers were killed and a suicide bombing at a U.S. army base near Mosul on December 21, 2004, which killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. military personnel.
Associations with the Wider Iraqi Insurgency
Not only is it reported that Ansar al-Islam is connected to Ansar al-Sunna, but as was the original claim, Ansar al-Islam is connected to al-Qaeda. Although Ansar al-Islam has denied this link, U.S. and European governments, Kurdish security officials, and journalistic reporting have found linkages between Ansar al-Islam and al-Qaeda. The New York Times discovered documents in an al-Qaeda guest house discussing the creation of an “Iraqi Kurdistan Islamic Brigade” just weeks prior to the formation of Ansar al-Islam. Ansar al-Islam members in PUK custody have confessed to training in al-Qaeda camps in Afghanistan and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi also reportedly entered Iraq with the assistance of Ansar al-Islam. Italian investigators claim that Ansar provided a ready-made infrastructure for al-Qaeda in Iraq .
Through their connections with al-Qaeda and the broader Iraqi insurgency, Kurdish Salafists have gained strength militarily. The presence of al-Qaeda-affiliated Arab fighters in Iraq bolstered Kurdish militants who were demoralized by their military defeat and lack of popular support. Yet these connections have also alienated them further from the majority secular Kurdish population. Recent attacks perpetrated in Kurdistan have had to be ordered from bases elsewhere.
After its military defeat in Kurdistan, Ansar al-Islam seemed to find its true calling. Instead of carrying out operations inside Iraq, those members who did not flee to Iran or take up with Ansar al-Sunna and other al-Qaeda affiliates, began putting out propaganda, and recruiting and smuggling Islamic militants from Europe to Iraq. It is unclear whether Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna cooperate in Europe, but Ansar al-Sunna is involved in European activities as well.
In recent years, security officials have tracked Ansar activities in Europe and uncovered an extensive European network that recruits and smuggles militants from Europe to Iraq via Turkey and Syria . German federal prosecutors charged three Iraqi men earlier this month for plotting to kill former Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi during his visit to Germany in December 2004. One of the men charged Ata R., is reportedly the senior-most member of Ansar al-Islam in Germany who coordinated activities in Germany and other European countries .
Ansar has been particularly active in Italy and Germany, but they have also surfaced in Scandinavia. The Finnish investigative program MOT reported that three men of Kurdish origin from Turku were arrested in Iraq for suspected contacts with Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna. The leader of the Turku cell reportedly came to Finland in 1996 and began raising funds for terrorist operations in Iraq soon after the war, transferring these funds in the form of cash transported by individual travelers.
Ansar has also operated in Sweden, raising funds and training recruits in remote locations, although Sweden is not a target of terrorist operations. Ansar al-Sunna released a statement reassuring the Swedish people that their country was not a target, but used only as a training base for mujahideen on their way to operations elsewhere. A September 2005 statement read, “We wish to assure the people of Sweden that they should not fear our activities in the country as we operate only training facilities here in order to prepare our great and Holy Mujahideen for combat.” Despite Ansar al-Sunna’s reassurances, two members of a Swedish cell were arrested and sentenced to prison terms of seven and six years in May 2005 for planning for terrorist crimes. Swedish police arrested four Ansar suspects, who were allegedly involved in the deadly Irbil bombings in February 2004.
Ansar al-Islam’s spiritual leader Mullah Krekar is also based in Europe. He left Iraq in 1991 and has been living under asylum in Norway. Norwegian officials have accused Krekar of commanding Ansar militants in Iraq via the internet. Krekar has been detained a number of times by Norwegian police since 1991, but security officials never accumulated sufficient evidence to prosecute him.
Labeling him as a threat to national security, Norway finally revoked his refugee status in 2003 and ruled to extradite him to Iraq. He has repeatedly appealed the decision and the pending court cases have kept him in the country. Norwegian courts again rejected his latest appeal in September 2005, but gave him one month to appeal the decision again .
Threat to the Kurdish Regional Government
In the years after the first Persian Gulf War Ansar al-Islam posed a significant threat to the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG). Iraqi Kurds were living under a precarious autonomy punctuated by a devastating civil war. Kurdish Salafists took advantage of the lax security and shifting political scene to stake out control of the Kurdish region.
The political security dynamic has changed in the north, however, and what little appeal Salafists had in Kurdistan is waning. The biggest obstacle to the growth of Kurdish Salafism is the Kurdish population itself ,as Salafism will always have limited appeal in Kurdistan. The PUK has also strengthened its relationship with Iran, urging it to increase pressure on displaced Ansar militants.
Despite this, both Ansar al-Islam and Ansar al-Sunna remain a threat to the KRG, as both organizations have targeted KRG officials. Ansar al-Islam assassinated former Irbil governor Franso Hariri, killed KDP official Sami Abdul Rahman in the Irbil attack and attempted to assassinate Barham Salih, a top PUK official.
Kurdish officials are less concerned about the growth of Salafism in their region, but they are concerned about Kurdish militants who have moved out of Kurdistan to direct terrorist attacks from other locations . The terrain in Kurdistan, like Afghanistan, is conducive to terrorist operations, making it difficult to root out militants from the forbidding Kurdish mountains. KRG control over outlying areas is still incomplete and will remain a challenge in the coming years.
1. Masrour Barzani, head of KDP security, interview by author, November 14, 2005.
2. Dr. Hani al-Siba’i, “Ansar Al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunna Army, Abu-Mus’ab al-Zarqawi, and Abu-Hafs Brigades” 14 March 2004 Al-Basrah Net.
3. Masrour Barzani, head of KDP security, interview by author, November 14, 2005
4. “Ansar al-Islam Takes on the U.S.” Janes International Security News, March 8, 2004.
5. “Iraq’s New Terrorist Threat: Ansar al-Sunna” Middle East February 2005.
6. “Iraq: Alleged Terrorist Leader to be Deported from Norway,” Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty, April 2, 2005.
7. “In Europe, New Force for Recruiting Radicals” Washington Post Foreign Service. February 18, 2005.
8. “Germany Accuses Three Iraqis of Allawi Death Plot.” Deutsche Welle, November 17, 2005.
9. “Norway Court Rules to Expel Muslim Leader to Iraq.” Gulf News September 30, 2005. www.gulfnews.com
10. Masrour Barzani, head of KDP security, interview by author, November 14, 2005.