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Militants' Crude Camp Casts Doubt on U.S. Claims

Ansar al Islam's bases show that the Al Qaeda surrogate posed no serious threat beyond its mountain borders, despite what Powell asserted before the war.

April 27, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

DAGA SHERKHAN, Iraq — In this mountain crease beyond the orchards, a stream meanders past abandoned houses scattered with prayer caps, sunflower seeds, religious scrawling, a ski mask, spent bullet casings and the remote control for a half-finished bomb.

Before U.S. Special Forces and Kurdish fighters overran the region last month, this was the redoubt of Ansar al Islam, the radical Islamic group that the Bush administration alleged was the nexus between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, and therefore part of the justification for invading Iraq. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell asserted in February that Ansar was running a "poison factory" and was intent on exporting terrorism from the Middle East through Europe and into the United States.

Many of the guerrillas who lived here are dead now. Others vanished through the white-rock canyons of northern Iraq. They left behind thousands of pages of documents, letters, wills and computer files that reveal the extent of their ambitions -- and call into question the U.S. allegations.

Documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times, along with interviews with U.S. and Kurdish intelligence operatives, indicate the group was partly funded and armed from abroad; was experimenting with chemicals, including toxic agents and a cyanide-based body lotion; and had international aspirations.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday April 29, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 3 inches; 110 words Type of Material: Correction
A front-page headline Sunday about the radical Islamic group Ansar al Islam was inaccurate and unbalanced. The headline said, "Militants' Crude Camp Casts Doubt on U.S. Claims," and its subheadline said, "Ansar al Islam's bases show that the Al Qaeda surrogate posed no serious threat beyond its mountain borders, despite what Powell asserted before the war."
The article described a more ambiguous picture of the group than the headline reflected. The article said, among other things, that Ansar was experimenting with toxic chemicals and had international connections to terrorist organizations. Also, the article should have stated more prominently that it remains unproved whether Ansar had links to Saddam Hussein's government.

But the documents, statements by imprisoned Ansar guerrillas and visits to the group's strongholds before and after the war produced no strong evidence of connections to Baghdad and indicated that Ansar was not a sophisticated terrorist organization. The group was a dedicated, but fledgling, Al Qaeda surrogate lacking the capability to muster a serious threat beyond its mountain borders.

The main intent of the group's 700 to 800 guerrillas was to battle the secular U.S.-backed Kurdish government in northern Iraq. Last month, they were swept from their camps in a three-day campaign by 6,000 Kurdish fighters supported by U.S. warplanes and Special Forces. An estimated 250 Ansar members were killed, and 40 to 100 Arabs in the group fled to neighboring Iran and other countries. Under U.S. pressure, Iran denied refuge to 300 other guerrillas, some of whom surrendered to Kurdish authorities. About 200 others are believed to be hiding in caves and villages near Iran.

The documents -- culled from the group's mountain bases and from the bodies of dead fighters -- provide a window into the mind and strategy of militant Islam. One floppy disc, for example, contains 22 files in Arabic relating to military tactics, intelligence and discipline. A 317-page manual -- similar to ones found in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan -- contains dozens of pages and graphics copied from U.S. Army training texts, as well as details on how to rig booby traps, construct a bomb out of a hairbrush and sabotage airports, bridges and tunnels.

Hundreds of pages of scientific materials include information on mustard gas, the venom of black widow spiders and the risks of tainting mail with biotoxins. One file shows how to concoct "fatal doses" of heroin, which can be given as "Valentine presents" to unsuspecting victims. Other files contain the biography of Osama bin Laden, rambling accounts of Islamic battles throughout history and how to inspire the credo: "Terrify the enemies of Allah."

Written in Arabic and Kurdish, the documents are woven with Koran poetry and dry tabulations, such as the velocity of a Kalashnikov bullet and instructions for operating a 120-millimeter Russian-made mortar. There are paeans to "martyred" suicide bombers and tips on "seducing" the enemy to provide information.

Ansar was seeking to form its own intelligence-gathering wings with secret contacts and code names. Many of the documents stress how "intelligence on the enemy gives the army victory." The group believes, according to the files, that Muslim organizations must be dedicated to understanding "the nonsleeping eyes" of satellites and information technologies in spying, or in preventing "the nonbeliever" from attacking "those whom God remembers."

Ansar was the commingling of radical groups seeking holy war against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the PUK, which governs the eastern portion of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq. One of the group's founding members was Mullah Krekar, who had ties to Bin Laden lieutenants in Afghanistan and Pakistan and is now under investigation in Norway.

In the summer of 2001, he led 300 fighters across northern Iraq into the radical Islamic belt near the Iranian border. Krekar merged with another militant group, Jund al Islam, founded nine days before the Sept. 11 attacks on the U.S., and in December 2001 the new Ansar spread through villages.

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