On February 1, Iraqi Kurdish political leaders marked the Eid al-Adha holiday much as they have for the past ten years. In each provincial capital, the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan [PUK] hosted receptions where local constituents could meet with party leaders and communicate their concerns. However, the festivities were brutally interrupted when suicide bombers entered the PUK and KDP headquarters in Erbil, detonating themselves almost simultaneously, killing 109 people, including KDP Deputy Prime Minister Sami Abdul Rahman and KDP Minister of Agriculture Saad Abdullah. Adnan Mufti, a head of the PUK office in Erbil and a former deputy prime minister of the Kurdistan Regional Government, survived the attack in his headquarters only because suspicious bodyguards rushed the bomber, shielding him from the full force of the blast (he was nonetheless badly wounded).
Responsibility for the blasts was claimed by a hitherto obscure group calling itself Ansar al-Sunna (Defenders of the Tradition), which trumpeted the attack as a blow against "two dens of the devils . . . inflicting harm on the collaborators with the Jews and Christians." The simultaneous suicide bombings - the first to cause mass civilian casualties in the once-peaceful Kurdish enclave heralded the rise of a dangerous new amalgam of Kurdish Islamist militants who have returned to Iraq from Iran and foreign al-Qaeda operatives who have infiltrated the country from Syria.
Ansar al-Sunna is an outgrowth of Ansar al-Islam [Defenders of Islam], a group with ties to Iran and which administration officials have linked to al-Qaeda. Initially operating under the moniker Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), Ansar al-Islam grew out of the September 2001 unification of several militant Islamist groups which had taken root in the mountains of northern Iraq along the Iranian border.
Prior to the US occupation of Iraq, Ansar al-Islam based itself in the mountains around Khurmal, a small town three miles from the Iranian border. On March 29, 2003, US Special Forces, coupled with PUK peshmerga, attacked the town, killing or scattering hundreds of fighters. In the wake of the fighting, Ansar al-Islam went underground. Most fled to Iran, which continues to provide safe-haven to a variety of wanted individuals. In February 2004, Kurdish intelligence officials uncovered a cache of Syrian, Yemeni, and Saudi passports - all bearing Iranian entry stamps - in an Ansar al-Islam safe-house on the Iranian side of the border. That the passports have Iranian stamps indicates that the terrorists did not secretly infiltrate into Iran, but entered with the cognizance of the Iranian authorities.
During the summer, the jihadists began infiltrating back to Iraq, often bribing corrupt Kurdish border guards for safe passage. By August, according to American intelligence reports, hundreds of Ansar terrorists had re-entered the country, many of them acting as "local fixers" for the influx of foreign al-Qaeda operatives into Iraq.
A large number of the returning jihadists chose to settle in Mosul. With its ancient, narrow alleys and population nearing two million, the city was a more ideal setting for covert terrorist activity than the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan. Iraqis say that Mosul was also an effective nexus for coordination between Ansar militants and newly-arrived foreign terrorists because of the reconciliation policy implemented by Major-General David Petraeus, commander of the 101st Airborne, during his year of residence in the city. Petraeus entrust Syrian border security to General Mahmoud Muhammad al-Maris, a former Baathist who may have facilitated infiltration of insurgents from Syria. Maris is also a member of the al-Shammari tribe, which spans the Iraqi-Syrian frontier and is perceived by Iraqis to be sympathetic to Saddam Hussein. In October, coalition forces in Mosul captured a senior Ansar leader, Aso Hawleri. A week later, Lt. Gen. Norton Schwartz, director of operations for the Pentagon's joint staff, warned that Ansar al-Islam had reemerged as the coalition's "principal organized terrorist adversary in Iraq."
Ideology and Structure
Ansar al-Sunna, which officially declared its existence in a September 20, 2003 Internet statement, evolved from the coalescence of Kurdish Ansar al-Islam operatives, foreign al-Qaeda terrorists, and newly mobilized Iraqi Sunnis. "A group of mujahidin . . . have gathered a number of scattered jihad factions and groups operating in the arena from north to south and formed a big army under one emir," its inaugural statement declares. The independent Kurdish newspaper Hawlati traced the formation of the group to a schism within Ansar al-Islam dating back to July 2002.
The intelligence services of the Kurdistan Democratic Party [KDP] and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan disagree slightly as to the identity of the group's self-declared emir, Abu Abdullah al-Hassan bin Mahmoud. The Los Angeles Times, relying on KDP sources, reported Abu Abdullah to be a Jordanian with close ties to Osama bin Laden and an associate of Abdullah Shafi, an Ansar al-Islam leader who took control of that group following the arrest in Norway of Mullah Krekar. Hawlati, apparently relying on PUK sources, said that Abu Abdullah is the brother of Abdullah al-Shami, whom it identified as an Ansar al-Islam commander killed in battle with PUK peshmerga (which would suggest that he is Kurdish). According to Hawlati, Abu Abdullah's deputies, in order of rank, are Hemin Bani Shari and Umar Bazynai. Hawlati alleges that Bani Shari was once a KDP peshmerga. Subsequent claims of responsibility and statements indicate that in addition to its political leadership, Ansar al-Sunna maintains both military and information operation committees.
Ansar al-Islam adheres to a rigid Salafi ideology. Its founding declaration states that "jihad in Iraq has become an individual duty of every Muslim after the infidel enemy attacked the land of Islam" and that its members "deriv[e] their jihad program and orders from the instructions of the holy Koran and the Prophet [Muhammad]'s Sunna (tradition)." The goal of Ansar al-Sunna is to achieve in Iraq "the Muslims' hope of an Islamic country where Islam and its people are strong."
Ansar al-Sunna unequivocally presents itself as a pan-Islamic movement. Of seven Ansar al-Sunna suicide bombers who have given pre-operation interviews on video, the accents and appearance of six clearly suggest that they are non-Iraq Arabs; one is an Iraqi Kurd. This is not bombast its membership does appears to be increasingly pan-Islamic (or, at any rate, pan-Arab). In February 2004, Italian police arrested a Abdelkader Laagoub, a 38-year-old Moroccan, after they analyzed a computer in his possession and found that it had been used to author Ansar al-Sunna claims of responsibilities. Two months later, Swedish authorities arrested four suspected members of the group in Stockholm and Malmo, one of whom was a Lebanese-born Swede (the other three were Iraqi). These arrests contradict the initial US military assumption that Ansar al-Sunna was homegrown in Iraq. Unfortunately, the US military appears to de-emphasize the involvement of forces external to Iraq to mitigate criticism of porous border security.
According to Iraqi intelligence officers, captured Ansar al-Sunna militants have confessed to receiving assistance from Iranian and Syrian officials. PUK leader Jalal Talabani has also accused neighboring countries of providing haven and passage for Ansar al-Sunna terrorists.
Methods and Missions
Although Ansar al-Sunna erupted onto the world stage with the Erbil suicide bombings, the group claims to have carried out a string of attacks stretching back to October 2003. A propaganda video it released in February offers the precise tally of 285 attacks and 1,155 people killed. In addition, Ansar al-Sunna claims to have destroyed 26 tanks, 22 armored vehicles, 15 fuel tankers, 71 personnel carriers, and 30 Humvees.
Many of these claims are clearly inflated. For example, Ansar al-Sunna claims that it killed several hundred US troops in a December 2003 car bomb attack against a US facility in Tel Afar, a largely Shia and Turkmen city west of Mosul. The bomber, however, was prevented from close approach by alert guards and so pre-maturely detonated his explosives. No US soldiers were killed, although 30 were wounded.
Other attacks for which Ansar al-Sunna claims responsibility include the following:
14 October 2003: car bomb attack against the Turkish Embassy in Baghdad, killing the driver and one bystander.
20 November 2003: car bomb attack on the PUK headquarters in Kirkuk, killing six.
29 November 2003: ambush of two vehicles carrying Spanish intelligence officers, killing seven. Ansar al-Sunna's claim of responsibility credited the hamzah sariyah squadron of the al-Mansurah brigade. The group later showed the Spaniards' identity documents on video.
12 December 2003: car bomb attack on a US facility in Ramadi which killed one soldier.
5 January 2004: Alleged ambush and killing of Canadian and British citizens. Ansar al-Sunna showed captured identification and credit cards and lambasted the Coalition for failing to acknowledge the operation, which Ansar al-Sunna says it videotaped.
31 January 2004: Bombing of the al-Taqafah police center in Mosul, killing nine.
23 February 2004: Bombing of the Rahimawa police station in Kirkuk which killed 13 (Ansar al-Sunna claimed the attack killed 30).
9 March 2004: Launched Katyusha rockets at the Kirkuk airport.
27 February through 17 March 2004: Ansar al-Sunna claimed fifteen lethal attacks in or around Mosul, most involving assassinations of Iraqi "collaborators."
28 March 2004: Ambush of British and Canadian contractors near Mosul. Ansar al-Sunna published photos of their victims' identity cards and passports.
Many of Ansar al-Sunna's statements appear to be as much recruiting tools as claims of responsibility. In a February 2004 video, the group not only asserted its responsibility for other attacks, but also showed Hamas-style depositions by suicide bombers. As has Lebanese Hezbollah, the group has provided videotape that allegedly shows bombs destroying US vehicles. The February video further claims that the insurgents are enjoying far more success than the American military will admit, and shows the exhumation of bodies which it claims are from "a mass grave for the killed American soldiers whose remains were hidden from their families."
Ansar al-Sunna's activities show a well-trained group able to operate throughout much of northern Iraq and Western Iraq, though it does not appear able to operate effectively in the Shiite heartland. Although Ansar al-Sunna has not claimed responsibility for any operations outside of Iraq, in early May Turkish authorities arrested nine suspected members of Ansar al-Islam who allegedly planned attacks on a synagogue in Bursa and on the June 28-29, 2004 NATO summit in Istanbul. While journalists conflate the two groups, Turkish authorities suspect that those arrested to have Ansar al-Sunna affiliation.
As is evident from the above target list, Ansar al-Sunna is eager to attack both Iraqis and Coalition members, both military and civilian. On March 29, it released a statement threatening the lives of Iraq's Governing Council. "We will fight you more fiercely than we fight the Americans," said the statement, released on Islamist websites. "The judgment of Sharia over those people is that they are apostates for being part of a government in which the final say is that of the American ruler and not God." It continued to refute calls by moderate Sunni clergy to not attack Iraqi police officers.
Ansar al-Sunna is not purely a homegrown terrorist operation. Many of its recruits appear to be infiltrators from beyond the borders of Iraq. It has taken root in Iraq, and especially the area around Mosul, both because of Coalition failure to secure the Syrian and Iranian borders with Iraq and because of a reconciliation policy which mitigates pressure upon planning and organization. Iranian and Syrian officials are likely involved in facilitating the group member's infiltration to Iraq given the evidence of visas and safe houses. The wide variety of weapons the group appears to have at its disposal, as well as the level of its media sophistication, suggests that the group may have access to outside financial resources. The group's militant Salafi ideology suggests that co-option may not mitigate the Ansar al-Sunna threat in Iraq. At the same time, the group's failure to establish itself in southern Iraq suggests that the group's area of operations inside Iraq will be contained to Baghdad, the Sunni triangle, and northern Iraq. Nevertheless, Ansar al-Sunna's clear attempts to expand outside Iraq necessitate further military pressure inside Iraq to prevent the northern Iraqi city of Mosul from transforming itself into a safe-haven for terrorist planning that could threaten not only Coalition forces and Iraq's interim government, but also Western targets beyond Iraq's borders.
1. "Insurgent group claims responsibility for twin suicide bombings in Irbil," The Associated Press, 4 February 2004; Hani al-Siba'i, "Ansar Al-Islam, Ansar Al-Sunna Army, Abu-Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, and Abu-Hafs Brigades," www.albasrah.net, 14 March 2004.
2. Secretary of State Colin Powell, Remarks to the United Nations Security Council, 5 February 2003. The US Treasury Department Office of Foreign Asset Control lists Ansar al-Sunna as an alias of Ansar al-Islam, as does the United Nations Security Council. According to the Kurdish newspaper Hawlati, Ansar al-Sunna is a splinter group of Ansar al-Islam. See: "Kurdish paper says Al-Qaeda-linked suspects in Arbil blasts were Iraqis," Agence France Presse, 11 February 2004.
3. Interview with senior Kurdish security official, March 2004.
4. Interviews with several senior Kurdish officials, August 2003 and March 2004.
5. "Terror group seen as back inside Iraq," New York Times, 10 August 2003.
6. Interviews in Mosul, January and February 2004. For more on General Petraeus' views, see: Pamela Hess. "General outlines Iraq lessons." Washington Times, 24 March 2004.
7. Interviews in Mosul, January and February 2004.
8. Michael Rubin. "Failed Model: Coalition Concessions will not bring peace," National Review Online, 28 April 2004.
9. "Pentagon calls Iraqi extremist group the main terrorist threat to US forces," The Associated Press, 23 October 2003.
10. "Iraqi group 'Ansar al-Sunnah army' urges Muslims to join Jihad," Movement for Islamic reform in Arabia website, London. BBC Monitoring Middle East, 2 October 2003.
11. "Hawlati reveals the secret of Arbil explosions," Hawlati (Suleimanieh), 11 February 2004, translation by BBC World Monitoring.
12. Edmund Sanders. "Ansar, Al Qaeda seen as working more closely," Los Angeles Times, 26 February 2004.
13. "Hawlati reveals the secret of Arbil explosions," Hawlati (Suleimanieh), 11 February 2004, translation by BBC World Monitoring.
14. "Hawlati reveals the secret of Arbil explosions," Hawlati (Suleimanieh), 11 February 2004, translation by BBC World Monitoring.
16. Justin Huggler, "Foreign suicide bombers in video boast of jihad missions against US occupation," Independent, 2 March 2004.
17. "Italy arrests Moroccan after police find claim of responsibility for Iraq attacks on computer," The Associated Press, 28 February 2004.
18. Karl Ritter, "Suspected terrorists arrested in Sweden accused of committing murders," The Associated Press, 23 April 2004.
19. Coalition Provisional Authority Briefing with Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, Commander, Coalition Ground Forces, 27 February 2004.
20. See, for example, Vernon Loeb, "Commanders Doubt Syria is entry point; Officers see no sign of foreign fighters." Washington Post, 29 October 2003. Also see this exchange of letters in National Review Online.
21. Michael Howard, "Syria and Iran aiding militants, Iraq says," Guardian, 20 February 2004.
22. "Kurdish leader Talabani urges solidarity with Shi'is after Iraqi blasts," Kurdistan Nwe, 3 March 2004.
23. "Little-known group claims to be behind Iraq insurgency," The White House Bulletin, 27 February 2004; Exclusive translation of Ansar al-Sunna Army's 'Banners of Truth' video, TIDES World Press Reports.
24. Hani al-Siba'i. "Ansar Al-Islam, Ansar Al-Sunna Army, Abu-Mus'ab Al-Zarqawi, and Abu-Hafs Brigades" www.albasrah.net, 14 March 2004; Evan Osnos and Christine Spolar, "Alert GI thwarts bomber," Chicago Tribune, 10 December 2003.
25. Compiled from Hani al-Siba'i. Op. Cit.; and Ansar al-Sunna website (www.ayobi.com). The website has been discontinued.
26. "Little-known group claims to be behind Iraq insurgency," The White House Bulletin, 27 February 2004; Exclusive translation of Ansar al-Sunna Army's 'Banners of Truth' video, TIDES World Press Reports.
27. "Little-known group claims to be behind Iraq insurgency," The White House Bulletin, 27 February 2004; Exclusive translation of Ansar al-Sunna Army's 'Banners of Truth' video, TIDES World Press Reports; Justin Huggler, "Foreign suicide bombers in video boast of jihad missions against US occupation," Independent, 2 March 2004.
28. Amberin Zaman, "Nine held in alleged plot in Turkey," Los Angeles Times, 4 May 2004.
29. Muhammad al-Tamimi. "Ansar al-Sunna threatens Interim Council," Al-Hayat (London), 30 March 2004.
30. "Ansar al-Sunna says it killed over 1,000 in Iraq," Reuters, 28 February 2004.
31. Muhammad al-Tamimi. "Ansar al-Sunna threatens Interim Council," Al-Hayat (London), 30 March 2004.
Michael Rubin is a resident scholar at AEI. He would like to thank his research assistant Jason Fill for his invaluable assistance, which has made this analysis possible.