The spotlight is now on Ansar al-Islam, a guerilla group of Islamists causing trouble in the extreme southeast of Iraqi Kurdistan. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell pointed to the group as Exhibit A in America’s case to link Baghdad with al Qa’ida. On Saturday, Ansar agents killed Shawkat Hajji Mushir, a PUK general and member of the ruling council, along with several other people (accounts vary on the number killed.) Members of the FreeRepublic web site are convinced this is the opening shot in the war and that a major attack on the United States is imminent. Their fears are based on events in Afghanistan on Sept. 9, 2001, when Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Northern Alliance was assassinated by Qa’ida agents posing as journalists two days before the attacks on Washington and New York City. His death robbed the Taliban’s opposition of their most charismatic and militarily competent leader.
Saturday’s killing is not the same thing. Ansar has been involved in assassinations for some time, killing a governor of a Kurdish region and narrowly missed killing one of the Kurdistan Regional Government’s prime ministers. In February 2001, they killed Franso Hariri, a prominent member of the Kurdistan Democratic Party leadership. Not to dismiss the seriousness of the killings, but Ansar’s actions are not a new tactic and Mushir is not a figure on the level of Massoud to the Kurds. For that matter, it’s unlikely the peshmergas would be as effective as the Northern Alliance was even if Mushir had lived.
So while Ansar is definitely dangerous, how dangerous is still unclear. Powell claims the group proves a link between al Qa’ida and Baghdad. He also claimed that the group is operating a “poison and explosive training center camp” but, when opened to journalists over the weekend, the site proved to be underwhelming. The International Crisis Group has a PDF available that attempts to downplay the group’s significance, calling it a “minor irritant in local Kurdish politics.” That’s not entirely true, either, as Ansar is extremely destabilizing to the PUK and to a lesser degree the KDP.
The real question is how tight is Ansar with Baghdad and how tight is it with al Qa’ida. There’s no question Baghdad is helping to fund Ansar, using it as a proxy force against his Kurdish enemies to the north. And there’s no question the group’s leader, Mullah Krekar, has at least been inspired by Osama bin Laden and the Taliban — villages under Ansar control live under harsh restrictions found in Afghanistan prior to the Taliban’s fall. But the links aren’t clear — as with most things in the intelligence business.
However, Jeffery Goldberg of the New Yorker — who should have journalism awards named after him — has another great piece that touches on links between al Qa’ida and Baghdad via Ansar al-Islam. The piece is ostensibly about how the CIA and other intelligence agencies run their analysis process, but at the end, he lays out the current thinking in the CIA regarding Ansar, al-Qa’ida and Baghdad.
Information gleaned from the interrogations of high-level Al Qaeda prisoners pushed Tenet to rethink the opinion, advanced by C.I.A. officials such as Paul Pillar, the National Intelligence Officer for the Middle East, that ideological differences between the secular Saddam and Islamic radicals, such as Al Qaeda, made it unlikely that these two enemies of America would form an alliance. Clearly, the Rumsfeld view, which maintains that the commonly held hatred of the United States trumps ideology and theology, is ascendant, at the C.I.A. as well as at the Pentagon. Pillar himself, in a faxed comment, conceded that, “despite major differences, tactical coöperation is possible,” but added that “the contingency that would be most likely to motivate Saddam to develop a relationship with radical Islamists that would be deeper than limited tactical cooperation would be a belief that he was about to lose power” — such as in a United States-led attack on Iraq. [Emphasis added — Ed.]
According to several intelligence officials I spoke to, the relationship between bin Laden and Saddam’s regime was brokered in the early nineteen-nineties by the then de-facto leader of Sudan, the pan-Islamist radical Hassan al-Tourabi. Tourabi, sources say, persuaded the ostensibly secular Saddam to add to the Iraqi flag the words “Allahu Akbar,” as a concession to Muslim radicals.
In interviews with senior officials, the following picture emerged: American intelligence believes that Al Qaeda and Saddam reached a non-aggression agreement in 1993, and that the relationship deepened further in the mid-nineteen-nineties, when an Al Qaeda operative — a native-born Iraqi who goes by the name Abu Abdullah al-Iraqi — was dispatched by bin Laden to ask the Iraqis for help in poison-gas training. Al-Iraqi’s mission was successful, and an unknown number of trainers from an Iraqi secret-police organization called Unit 999 were dispatched to camps in Afghanistan to instruct Al Qaeda terrorists. (Training in hijacking techniques was also provided to foreign Islamist radicals inside Iraq, according to two Iraqi defectors quoted in a report in the Times in November of 2001.) Another Al Qaeda operative, the Iraqi-born Mamdouh Salim, who goes by the name Abu Hajer al-Iraqi, also served as a liaison in the mid-nineteen-nineties to Iraqi intelligence. Salim, according to a recent book, “The Age of Sacred Terror,” by the former N.S.C. officials Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, was bin Laden’s chief procurer of weapons of mass destruction, and was involved in the early nineties in chemical-weapons development in Sudan. Salim was arrested in Germany in 1998 and was extradited to the United States. He is awaiting trial in New York on charges related to the 1998 East Africa embassy bombings; he was convicted last April of stabbing a Manhattan prison guard in the eye with a sharpened comb.
Intelligence officials told me that the agency also takes seriously reports that an Iraqi known as Abu Wa’el, whose real name is Saadoun Mahmoud Abdulatif al-Ani, is the liaison of Saddam’s intelligence service to a radical Muslim group called Ansar al-Islam, which controls a small enclave in northern Iraq; the group is believed by American and Kurdish intelligence officials to be affiliated with Al Qaeda. I learned of another possible connection early last year, while I was interviewing Al Qaeda operatives in a Kurdish prison in Sulaimaniya. There, a man whom Kurdish intelligence officials identified as a captured Iraqi agent told me that in 1992 he served as a bodyguard to Ayman al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s deputy, when Zawahiri secretly visited Baghdad.
Ansar al-Islam was created on September 1, 2001, when two Kurdish radical groups merged forces. According to Barham Salih, the Prime Minister of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the group seized a chain of villages in the mountainous region outside the city of Halabja, and made a safe haven for Al Qaeda fighters. “Our intelligence information confirmed that the group was declared on September 1st at the behest of bin Laden and Al Qaeda,” Prime Minister Salih told me last week, in a telephone conversation from Davos, Switzerland. “It was meant to be an alternative base of operations, since they were apparently anticipating that Afghanistan was going to become a denied area to them.”
Salih also said that a month before the September 11th attacks a senior Al Qaeda operative called Abdulrahman al-Shami was dispatched from Afghanistan to the Kurdish mountain town of Biyara, to organize the Ansar al-Islam enclave. Shami was killed in November, 2001, in a battle with the pro-American forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.
The Ansar al-Islam enclave, according to Salih and American intelligence officials, soon became the base of operations of an Al Qaeda subgroup called Jund al-Shams, or Soldiers of the Levant, which operates mainly in Jordan and Syria. Jund al-Shams is controlled by a man named Mussa’ab al-Zarqawi, a Jordanian of Palestinian extraction. Zarqawi is believed by European intelligence agencies to be Al Qaeda’s main specialist in chemical and biological terrorism. Zarqawi is also believed to be behind the assassination, on October 28th, of an American A.I.D. official in Jordan, and also two unsuccessful assassination attempts: last February 20th, Ali Bourjaq, a Jordanian secret-police official, escaped injury when a bomb detonated near his home; and on April 2nd gunmen opened fire on Prime Minister Salih’s home in Sulaimaniya. Salih was unhurt, but five of his bodyguards were killed; two bystanders were killed in the Bourjaq assassination attempt.
The Administration believes that Zarqawi made his way to Baghdad after the United States’ invasion of Afghanistan, when he was wounded. According to American sources, Zarqawi was treated in a Baghdad hospital but disappeared from Baghdad shortly after the Jordanian government asked Iraq to extradite him. American intelligence officials believe that Zarqawi was also among an unknown number of Al Qaeda terrorists who have sought refuge in the Ansar al-Islam over the past seventeen months.
OK. I have a great deal of respect for Goldberg; his article on Iraqi Kurdistan was the inspiration for my own trip. I can’t just dismiss the contacts that he has detailed here, even if he does preface the whole thing with a “This is what the CIA thinks” kind of statement. It is likely there is some kind of contact between Iraq and al Qa’ida. The questions are how long has it been going on? How deep are the contacts? Have the contacts grown in the last two years (i.e., because of a fear of an American invasion of Iraq?) Are these isolated contacts or do they show just the most visible strands of a tangled skein of integration? I don’t know. And I don’t think anyone else does either.