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The Rise of Ansar al-Islam

Inside the birth of the Kurdish terrorist organization.

10:20 AM, Jul 28, 2005 • By DAN DARLING
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IN A LETTER WRITTEN to the al Qaeda leadership in early 2004, Abu Musab Zarqawi described the Iraqi Kurds in less than favorable terms. As far as Zarqawi was concerned, they were "a Trojan horse" who had opened their land to the Jews and established a society that served as the antithesis to his extremist conception of Islam. There are many reasons, however, to suspect that bin Laden differed with the man he would later name as his representative in Iraqi Kurdistan in this view.

While the puritanical strains of Islam favored by bin Laden and Zarqawi hold little popular appeal to most Iraqi Kurds, al Qaeda's interest in exploiting the region runs deep. According to a former Ansar al-Islam commander who was interviewed by the Christian Science Monitor under the pseudonym Rebwar Kadr Said, the links between Kurdistan's Islamist minority and what would later become al Qaeda run all the way back to the 1980s in Afghanistan, when bin Laden's mentor, Sheikh Abdullah Azzam, took aside two men (a Kurdish Islamist named Faraj Ahmad Najmuddin and a Palestinian) and told his followers to look after the two groups that both men represented, effectively placing the fate of the Kurds on par with that of Palestinians in the eyes of Azzam's followers.

Like far too many other groups of foreign veterans of Afghan War, the Kurdish Islamists returned home radicalized and--believing that Saddam secular Baathism could be overthrown just as easily as the Soviet communism--rallied for jihad against Baghdad during the late 1980s and early 1990s. During the uprising following the 1991 Gulf War, the Kurdish Islamists appear to have caught bin Laden's eye. The 9/11 Commission Report noted the al Qaeda leader's past sponsorship of Kurdish Islamists in the hopes of convincing them to join the nascent terrorist coalition that he was assembling in Sudan. Rohan Gunaratna, one of the world's leading experts on al Qaeda, identified two propaganda tapes, amidst the dozens of al Qaeda videos found in Afghanistan by CNN, as having been produced by the Kurdish Islamists. These tapes, among other things, identify Saddam Hussein as an enemy of Islam and call for jihad against the infidel Baath party.

WHILE MANY OBSERVERS and analysts have cited bin Laden's early support for the Kurdish Islamists--such as his early attempt to dissuade the Saudi leadership from accepting Western support following the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait by offering to lead an army of mujahedeen against Saddam Hussein--as evidence of the ultimate incompatibility between the two men, they forget that as early as 1992 an internal Iraqi intelligence document lists bin Laden as an intelligence asset, suggesting that his prior willingness to field an army against the Baathists had given way to more pragmatic thinking.

Similarly, while bin Laden was more than willing to sponsor Kurdish Islamism against Saddam Hussein in the aftermath of the Gulf War, any eagerness to aid in the overthrow of Baathism in Iraq appears to have paled in comparison to his desire to accommodate Hassan Turabi, who was al Qaeda's primary host while the organization operated in Sudan. As noted in the 9/11 Commission Report, Turabi (who had previously backed Saddam during the Gulf War) brokered an agreement under which bin Laden would cease supporting anti-Saddam activities. And while the 9/11 Commission Report noted that bin Laden continued to support Kurdish Islamism even after this agreement, it failed to note that by 1993 the group had, by and large, ended its anti-Saddam activities and instead was focusing on creating a parallel Islamist Kurdish administration in contrast to the more secular authority of the leading Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). This move culminated in armed clashes with the PUK in December 1993.

From an Islamist perspective, this should be seen not only as a challenge against the major Kurdish authorities but also as a challenge to the establishment of anything resembling secular democratic society in the Middle East. As with their previous jihads against Saddam, the Kurdish Islamists were defeated and eventually splintered into a number of factions along the northern Iraqi border with Iran. At the time, most observers believed that the threat posed by Iraqi Islamism was at an end.