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Another Link in the Chain

The role of Saddam and al Qaeda in the creation of Ansar al Islam.

9:00 AM, Jul 22, 2005 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES and THOMAS JOSCELYN
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AS THE WAR with Saddam's Iraq approached, a small group of terrorists in Kurdish-controlled Iraq garnered a significant amount of news coverage. Senior-level Bush administration officials had claimed that this group, Ansar al Islam, represented a key link between Saddam's regime and al Qaeda. There was evidence, after all, that Saddam's intelligence operatives funded and supplied the al Qaeda terrorists who joined this group's ranks in the wake of the invasion of Afghanistan. That evidence was hotly contested for months until the story of Ansar al Islam gradually receded from the headlines. Today, the group is hardly even mentioned--if at all--in above-the-fold stories by the U.S. press.

Surprisingly, the European press tells a different story. Scanning press accounts from around Europe, the terrorist group most frequently named, besides al Qaeda, is Ansar al Islam.

In France, according to one press account, authorities "launched a preventive operation . . . targeting highly radical individuals who have visited Syria and Iraq on several occasions." This group was reportedly "in contact with the Ansar al Islam." According to the German press, Ansar al Islam is the "target of Germany-wide police action" and more than several individuals have been arrested for alleged ties to the group. The CIA is accused of abducting the influential Islamist imam, Abu Umar, in Italy and the press there says he is "thought to be a member of the terrorist network known as Ansar al-Islam." According to one account in the Spanish press, authorities there recently "disbanded a terror ring linked to the Ansar al-Islam."

For an organization established in late 2001 and described at that time as a small, motley collection of jihadists, Ansar al Islam seems today to have a vast, transnational network.

All of which raises two intriguing questions: How can we explain the reporting that describes a transformation of this regional terrorist group into an international terrorist superpower? And what more do we know about the Iraqi regime's role in its founding?

TO BE SURE, part of the disparity between the group's originally reported size and its current international stature lies in the reporting itself. It is often easier to think about and describe the vast Islamist terror network using a common banner. After all, these terror networks are comprised of a seemingly endless array of connections. Thus, what many European reporters and intelligence officials conflate into "Ansar al Islam" is, most likely, a much more complicated web of entities and individuals who would not think of themselves as belonging to a single Kurdish terrorist group.

Yet, by their shorthand references to this network as "Ansar al Islam," European investigators and the reporters who cover them convey an important fact: The terrorists in France, Germany, Italy, and Spain are all connected--in one way or another--to the same Iraqi-based network which spawned the Kurdish-based group just 10 days prior to September 11, 2001. Therein lies the controversy.

Many have argued, incorrectly, that the current Iraq-centric terrorist network suddenly appeared only after the U.S.-led invasion. That is, they argue that the jihadists established their complex system of safehouses, weapons caches, funding, training, and transportation only after the fall of Saddam.

For those analysts and politicians, particularly in the United States, who cling desperately to the notion that there was "no connection" between Iraq and al Qaeda, Ansar al Islam presents a problem. Typical of this was an article in the July 10, 2005, issue of Time magazine. Written by former Clinton administration counterterrorism official Daniel Benjamin, the article presumptuously declared "we know there was no pre-existing relationship between Baghdad and al-Qaeda."

The evidence, of course, suggests that this analysis is wrong. Even as naysayers in the States continue to deny any connection, such staunchly anti-Iraq War publications as Le Monde have long since conceded the point. One day before the Time article, on July 9, the French daily published a news story that declared Ansar al Islam "was founded in 2001 with the joint help of Saddam Hussein--who intended to use it against moderate Kurds--and al Qaeda, which hoped to find in Kurdistan a new location that would receive its members."

On this, at least, the French are right.