Icy roads wind through the mountains of northern Iraq. A pro-U.S. Kurdish military patrol perches on a hilltop above town. Men with raw hands and rifles peer through the mist, searching for what they know is out there but can’t always see: Islamic militants sneaking south.
The extremist group Ansar al Islam once controlled this terrain along the Iranian border, but U.S. missile strikes early in the Iraq war chased the guerrillas from their strongholds. Over the last two years, according to Kurdish security officials, Ansar has altered its strategy and expanded its theater of operations, aiming suicide bombers and ambushes toward cities in the interior, such as Mosul and Kirkuk.
The organization is small but has remained a key threat to U.S. forces in Iraq. It has recently carried out beheadings, dozens of kidnappings and some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. troops and their allies.
The Ansar al Sunna Army, a guerrilla group descended from Ansar al Islam, claimed responsibility for the Dec. 21 assault on an American base in Mosul that killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. soldiers. Ansar al Islam’s suicide bombers also killed 109 people last year, when they attacked the offices of two Kurdish political parties in the northern city of Irbil.
Intelligence officials say Ansar has a history of using bomb vests and striking at holiday celebrations, a tactic that U.S. and Iraqi security forces will be watching for when Iraqis go to the polls Sunday.
Ansar emerged in 2001 as a group of religious extremists, mainly Sunni Muslim Kurds, bent on destroying the two main secular Kurdish parties. Circumstances have shifted Ansar’s territory and ambition. Kurdish militias and Iraqi national guard units have tightened Iraq’s northern border and added at least 41 checkpoints.
Kurdish authorities have arrested more than 100 suspected Ansar members since March 2003. As the group’s northern bases withered, Ansar’s leadership, influenced by militants trained in Afghanistan, focused on the broader campaign to disrupt U.S. plans in the region. With many of its leaders dead or imprisoned, the group has merged with other insurgent cells to form the Ansar al Sunna Army, which claimed responsibility for the Mosul attack.
“Ansar has no camps in northern Iraq anymore,” said Sarkawt Kuba, the chief intelligence and security officer for northeast Iraq. “So they meet with young men and prospective followers in mosques and other places in the north. They keep in contact through the Internet and e-mails. They then send recruits to Kirkuk and Mosul, where they are well organized and do have camps.”
Abdurahman Ali Khurshid, an Ansar militant, was arrested in Kirkuk in July after a failed suicide bomb attack.
In a prison interview this week, Khurshid told The Times that Ansar’s operations in Kirkuk centered on 10 to 12 guerrillas, including one bomb maker, who split into three teams that went underground until activated for missions. A leader, known as the prince, controlled the teams and was responsible for money, logistics, safe houses and munitions.
“One day in May 2004,” said Khurshid, whose story was corroborated by a Kurdish security agent, “I was ordered to tail two men who the prince believed were British contractors. They turned out to be a man from South Africa and a man from New Zealand.
“The men were well armed. I followed them for two days, and each day they went to the U.S. base in Kirkuk. I also followed them to their house. On the third day, in the morning, we ambushed them, killing them in front of their house before they got to their car.”
The U.S.-led coalition confirmed that on May 10, two reconstruction contractors, a South African and a New Zealander, were killed in front of their home near the Kirkuk-Baghdad road.
Khurshid said he also carried out two other attacks. He pressed the remote control that detonated a roadside bomb near a Humvee carrying three U.S. soldiers. There were no casualties. He recounted later driving a car alongside an Iraqi police vehicle while two gunmen opened fire and killed two officers on Kornish Street in Kirkuk.
“I am not a terrorist,” said Khurshid, wearing plastic sandals and sitting around a kerosene heater in his cell. “A terrorist kills innocent people. I wouldn’t do that for 1 million Iraqi dinars. I believed then that I was fighting an armed enemy, somebody who wanted to destroy me. It was a war. I was motivated by the jihad teachings I had learned in the mosque.”
Ansar was founded in a commingling of Kurdish extremist groups along the Iranian border, land coveted for generations by Islamic radicals seeking to fashion a religious state. Ansar’s guerrilla war against Kurdish forces changed in 2002 when about 60 Arab Al Qaeda fighters fleeing Afghanistan joined the group and guided it toward global jihad. They built a camp for suicide bombers -- known as “young lions” -- and conducted crude experiments with chemicals. U.S. forces destroyed the group’s bases in 2003, killing more than 100 of Ansar’s 500 to 700 guerrillas.
Ansar’s leadership and about 300 of its members escaped into Iran. Many were arrested and released; others dispersed into Iranian villages. The extent of Iran’s influence with the militants is difficult to gauge.
In its early days, Ansar’s weapons and recruits were smuggled easily through Iran, which sought to keep its neighbor and longtime enemy off balance. Some Kurdish security officials believe, however, that U.S. pressure and acrimony between Iran’s Shiite Muslim population and Iraq’s Sunni militants may mean that Tehran has become less supportive of Ansar and similar groups.
Ansar also has a presence far beyond these mountains of shepherds and pilgrims. In recent weeks, Germany arrested 22 alleged Ansar members, claiming they are part of a European network to provide forged passports, money and sanctuary for extremists enlisting to fight in Iraq. Three other Ansar radicals, according to German prosecutors, plotted to assassinate Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi when he visited Berlin in December.
Ansar regrouped in the spring of 2003, and one of its principal leaders, Mullah Aso Hawleri, directed his fighters to travel south to a new base in Mosul. Militants would be dispatched from there to aid the insurgency in Kirkuk, the so-called Sunni Triangle and Baghdad. Khurshid and Kurdish intelligence officials say Ansar merged with Baghdad-based insurgent organizations known as Moahaddin and Mansour to form Ansar al Sunna. The new name was an attempt to recruit Sunni fighters waging attacks against U.S. and Iraqi forces.
The group suffered setbacks over the last year when Hawleri and Ayub Afghani, Ansar’s primary bomb maker and strategist, were arrested in Baghdad. A third leader, Omar Baziyani, left Ansar over ideological differences and joined Abu Musab Zarqawi’s group, which is believed to have ties to Al Qaeda. He was later captured.
Khurshid said that when he was arrested in July, Ansar and Zarqawi were not unified because Ansar, composed mostly of Iraqis, did not want to submit to Zarqawi, a Jordanian.
“Most of the Kurdish operatives in Ansar al Sunna are either arrested or dead,” said Khurshid, the brother of a radical cleric who joined Islamist groups in 1996 and helped smuggle Ansar’s weapons across the region. “I don’t know what happened to the Arabs who joined Ansar. Out of all our top leaders we have only two left.”
But Ansar cells are lethal. Mohammed Haji Mahmoud, leader of a social democratic party in northern Iraq, estimates the group has as many as 2,000 members scattered across the country in small, clandestine battalions. Despite more patrols along the border, he said, Ansar’s operatives are using northern Iraq’s jagged landscape as a transit point.
“The reality is no one is keeping the border tight,” Mahmoud said. “In the daylight the border’s protected. At night it’s not. It’s almost impossible to stop them. Five days ago in Mosul, they assassinated a member of my party. He was a college professor. They shot him in a restaurant. That followed two other recent killings of my officials.”
Said intelligence chief Kuba, “Ansar wants to kill the Kurd leaders. The plans of a group of 31 militants we arrested showed they wanted to kill me, bomb our headquarters and assassinate the interior minister. They watch their targets and we watch them. Last July, our forces shot and killed the driver of a BMW loaded with [880 pounds] of explosives as he was racing toward the Palace Hotel” in Sulaymaniya in northern Iraq.
Except for the patched blue dome on the mosque, damaged when U.S. forces routed Ansar from its stronghold, there is little in Biyara to suggest that this village was once under a Taliban-like rule. Shepherds move across bare fields, shops are open, and lamb is sliced and grilled. Mohammed Abdulqadir Murad, the caretaker for the religious school, said villagers keep an eye out for strangers and report anything suspicious to police.
“We don’t want that kind of thing again. Ansar had nothing to do with Islam,” said Murad, adding that the militants took over the mosque and desecrated the bones of Shiite mullahs and imams buried beneath. “They were devils and reckless followers. They left behind documents when they fled. We pulled them out of the ruins. They kept videotapes of all the atrocities they had done.”
Up the road, past boys playing in the sleet, Abid Karim sits with his Kurdish militia on the hilltop. The men have cellphones and radios and say they watch all that moves but concede the border has secret openings. They were told the other day to be extra-vigilant -- informants had alerted authorities that several Ansar guerrillas were on the move.
“The best way to fight these terrorists is to unite the people,” said Karim, a stout man whose eyes were watery from the cold. He was shot in the arm and leg in a battle against Ansar two years ago, he said.
“We study new faces. We listen for Arabic. We look out for fake IDs and smugglers. The men of this village stay armed.”