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.
Two intercepts in 2002--one in May, the other in October--illuminated the Iraqi regime's role in Ansar al Islam. The first revealed that an Iraqi Intelligence officer praised the work of the terrorist group and passed $100,000 to its leaders. The second, described in a report from the National Security Agency, reported that the Iraqi regime and al Qaeda reached an agreement whereby the regime would provide safehaven in northern Iraq to al Qaeda terrorists fleeing Afghanistan. Also, the regime agreed to fund and to arm the incoming jihadists.
In addition, there are numerous firsthand reports of this collaboration that come from the men at the center of it. The first reporting on this came in March 2002 from the New Yorker's Jeffrey Goldberg. His work was followed by reports on PBS, ABC News's Nightline, THE WEEKLY STANDARD and the Christian Science Monitor. Some of the sources were the same; others corroborated the original reporting. Writing in the Christian Science Monitor under the headline "Iraqi Funds, Training Fuel Islamic Terror Group," Scott Petersen reported from northern Iraq:
While Ansar is gaining strength in numbers, new information is emerging that ties the organization to both Osama bin Laden's Al Qaeda network and to Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein. The Al Qaeda contacts allegedly stretch back to 1989, and include regular recruiting visits by bin Laden cadres to Kurdish refugee camps in Iran and to northern Iraq, as well as a journey by senior Ansar leaders to meet Al Qaeda chiefs in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in the summer of 2000. A 20-year veteran of Iraqi intelligence alleges the Iraqi government secretly provided cash and training to Ansar.
Although the CIA showed little interest in investigating these reports, by February 5, 2003--when Colin Powell made his presentation to the U.N. Security Council--the intelligence community had collected enough information to include it in his remarks. He said:
But Baghdad has an agent in the most senior levels of the radical organization, Ansar al-Islam that controls this corner of Iraq. In 2000 this agent offered Al Qaida safe haven in the region. After we swept Al Qaida from Afghanistan, some of its members accepted this safe haven. They remain there today.
The Iraqi Intelligence official Powell mentioned is a man named Abu Wael. Several detainees--some from Iraqi Intelligence, others from Ansar al Islam--have cited Abu Wael as a critical link between the former Iraqi regime and al Qaeda. But many mainstream journalists in the United States remained skeptical.
Hours after Powell's presentation, ABC's World News Tonight ran video of Powell's presentation and flashed a graphic on the screen that read, "Weak Link?" "There's no doubt Ansar al Islam is a radical Islamic terror group," said ABC investigative correspondent Brian Ross. "Their own videos show it. Their ties to al Qaeda are also well documented. But they operate in a part of Iraq not controlled by Saddam Hussein and their leaders say they seek to overthrow Saddam Hussein and his government."
The ABC report cut to an interview with Mullah Krekar, the spiritual and sometimes operational leader of Ansar al Islam, who declared the Iraqi leaders "are our enemy. Really, they are our enemy."
The most interesting information from the ABC interview was never aired. Krekar had explained to an ABC producer that the goal of Ansar al Islam was "to overthrow the Iraqi regime and replace it with an Islamic state." Krekar was then asked about Abu Wael, the man Bush administration officials believe was a senior Iraqi Intelligence official. "I know Abu Wael for 25 years," Krekar said. "And he is in Baghdad. And he is an Arabic member of our shura, our leadership council also."
That Krekar placed Abu Wael in Baghdad was almost certainly unintentional. If the goal of Ansar was to overthrow the regime, and if Abu Wael was on its leadership council, it is highly unlikely that he would be in Baghdad at a time when the Iraqi regime was on highest alert. The more plausible explanation is that Mullah Krekar slipped by admitting Abu Wael was in Baghdad and that Abu Wael was in Baghdad precisely because his employer--the Iraqi regime--wanted him there.
A detained Ansar al Islam terrorist named Rebwar Mohammed Abdul told a reporter from the Los Angeles Times that he had heard about Abu Wael directly from Mullah Krekar. Abdul denied any personal knowledge of a relationship between Iraq and al Qaeda, but added an interesting detail. "I never talked to Wael but I saw him three times in meetings with Mullah Krekar. The mullah told us that Wael was a friend of his for 23 years and that they had met in Baghdad while Wael was an intelligence officer."
Consider the evidence. Abu Wael was in Baghdad six weeks before the Iraq War began. The spiritual leader of Ansar al Islam has apparently admitted that Abu Wael was an officer in Iraqi intelligence. Numerous individuals with firsthand knowledge of the Iraq-Ansar relationship have independently reported that Abu Wael works for both the Islamist group and Iraqi intelligence. And we have intercepts of Iraqi Intelligence officials offering support to Ansar al Islam.
Perhaps it was with this evidence in mind that Le Monde, in a separate article on June 27, 2005, wrote (without attribution) that 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."
Stephen F. Hayes is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard and author of The Connection (HarperCollins). Thomas Joscelyn is an economist and writer living in New York.