TIME: How al-Qaeda's Ally
Saturday, August 16, 2003
By MICHAEL WARE / BAGHDAD
When U.S. special forces led an assault in March on a
compound in northern Iraq belonging to the militant
group Ansar al-Islam, U.S. officials said they had
taken out a significant terrorist threat. Before the
war, Bush Administration officials identified Ansar,
some of whose members are believed to have trained in
al-Qaeda camps, as a link between Saddam Hussein and
Osama bin Laden, a claim based on reports that Saddam
had dispatched an agent to northern Iraq to establish
ties with Ansar. On March 26, after the strike on the
compound, Bush said the U.S. had "destroyed the base
of a terrorist group in northern Iraq that sought to
attack America and Europe with deadly poisons."
Now it appears that the damage to the group was less
than Bush had hoped. Last week Ansar was among the
groups U.S. investigators named as possible culprits
in the bombing of the Jordanian embassy in Baghdad. A
U.S. intelligence official told TIME that the U.S. is
looking at Ansar in part because before the war, the
group was known for using car bombs that resemble the
one that detonated last Thursday.
Specialists combing the bomb site say emerging clues
point to professional terrorists. "Certain materials,
remnants of the trigger mechanism--these things are
saying a lot," says an Iraqi intelligence officer who
works with the CIA. And while some locals insist the
attack could have been the work of any number of
perpetrators--from Shi'ite extremists to
foreign-security agencies--most Iraqis believe it was
carried out by former Baathists, an Islamic extremist
group like Ansar or some combination of the two. A
coalition spokesman says, "We know that [Ansar] is in
the country, and we know that they would want to do
that, but it's too early to say."
The U.S. believes that Ansar has ties to bin
Laden--at least one Ansar prisoner in U.S. custody
has confessed to being a member of al-Qaeda--but the
relationship between Ansar and Saddam is still
unclear. A senior intelligence official says the U.S.
believes a Saddam "agent" infiltrated Ansar, but the
group's leaders may not have known the agent was
loyal to Baghdad. Either way, Ansar, which had more
than 1,000 fighters before the war, has proved
difficult to pin down. In March, despite a week of
pummeling by U.S. missiles and a ground assault by
close to 10,000 Kurdish fighters and about 100 U.S.
special-ops troops, most of Ansar's fighters slipped
away to Iran.
Since then, U.S. forces in Iraq have monitored their
return. In April Ansar issued a statement declaring
that it would no longer operate from a central base
and warning that suicide bombers remained key in its
arsenal. Two months later, the U.S. attacked a camp
in Rawa in northwestern Iraq, killing at least 75
foreign fighters. The U.S. says many of those killed
in the strike were members of Ansar plotting to join
the resistance against the U.S. occupation.
Military and intelligence officials fear they haven't
heard the last from Ansar. In mid-July, U.S. forces
uncovered a seven-member cell during a raid in
Baghdad--which suggested that Ansar has expanded its
area of operations. A senior U.S. intelligence
official says most of the group has survived the U.S.
assaults. Warns the official: "It doesn't take many
of them to be troublesome."
Michael Ware/Baghdad. With reporting by Massimo
Calabresi/Washington and Peshwaz