TIME: How al-Qaeda's Ally Came Back


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."

--By Michael Ware/Baghdad. With reporting by Massimo Calabresi/Washington and Peshwaz Saadulla/Sulaimaniyah