A radical Kurdish Islamic group, Ansar al-Islam is an al Qaeda and Taliban affiliate first established in early September 2001 in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. The organization’s enclave was set up only days before 9/11, leading some to speculate that it was intended to serve as a safe haven in the event of American military reprisals for the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Composed of jidadist Muslims from Jordan, Syria, the Palestinian Authority, Afghanistan, and other Arab states, Ansar al-Islam received financial and political startup support from Iraq’s then-President Saddam Hussein. The London-based Arabic newspaper Al-Sharq al-Awsat reported in September 2001 that al Qaeda emissary Abu Abdul Rahman had provided Ansar al-Islam with $300,000 in “seed money” at its inception. Endowed with cash, arms, and all-terrain vehicles, Ansar al-Islam was officially founded by a former al Qaeda leader from Afghanistan, Abu Abdullah Shafii, to oppose the other Kurdish nationalist groups in the region and to expand Taliban ideas among the Kurdish population. Ansar al-Islam was the product of a merger between Shafii’s group, Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), and a splinter group from the Islamic Movement in Kurdistan (IMK) led by Mullah Krekar, who became the group’s leader. Both Shafii and Krekar are believed to have fought against U.S. forces in Afghanistan in late 2001. Krekar was eventually captured in September 2002, and has been exiled in Norway since August 2004.
From its inception, Ansar al-Islam was based in Biyarah and the surrounding areas near Iraq’s border with Iran. Immediately upon taking control of the region, the organization fortified several villages (populated by some 4,000 civilians) with the aid of Iranian artillery support. Ansar al-Islam then forcibly subjected local villagers to the dictates of strict Islamic Law, or Sharia: They destroyed musical instruments; forbade singing; razed the region’s lone school for girls; destroyed beauty salons; removed all likenesses of women from merchandise labels; murdered women in the streets for refusing to wear the burqa; desecrated Sufi shrines; and forced non-Muslim Kurds to either convert to Islam or flee the area. The organization is also believed to have established facilities for the production of poisons, including ricin.
Ansar al-Islam launched numerous attacks on the armed forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in one assault slaughtering 53 prisoners and beheading them. It also made several assassination attempts on leading PUK politicians with carbombs and snipers. In 2001 it succeeded in murdering a senior official of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), Franso Hariri.
Fiercely loyal to Saddam Hussein prior to his overthrow, Ansar al-Islam has led many attacks on U.S. troops in post-Saddam Iraq. The organization’s enclave most likely had served as an entry point for Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and other Afghan veterans to enter Iraq in 2002.
Ansar al-Islam is estimated to have approximately 700 fighters in its ranks, but its reach extends into Europe, where it may have been involved in the train bombings in Casablanca, and where its plots to use chemical ricin were derailed by authorities. From Europe, the group organizes much of its financing and support for armed attacks within Iraq. Several of its members have been arrested in Germany and Sweden.
Ansar al-Islam is now supported logistically and financially by Syria, Iran, and Wahhabists in Saudi Arabia. When the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003, many Ansar al-Islam fighters escaped into Iran, where they were disarmed but not arrested. Many thereafter returned to Iraq and joined various armed groups fighting the U.S. occupation.
Ansar al-Islam has been responsible for the deaths of more than 800 people in suicide bombing attacks and other terrorist activities not only in Iraq, but in Jordan and other countries. The U.S. State Department officially designated Ansar al-Islam a terrorist organization in March 2004, after the group claimed responsibility for the February 1st attacks on the headquarters of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), and for the March 17 bombing of Baghdad’s Mount Lebanon Hotel.