IT WASN'T SHOCK AND AWE, BUT the bombing of Jordan's embassy in Baghdad had plenty of firepower for residents of the city's once-wealthy Mansour district.
The Aug. 7 blast destroyed one wall of the embassy and sent nearby vehicles flying through the air. Remains of one car flew onto the roof of a nearby building. When it was over, several bodies could be seen still sitting in some of the vehicles damaged by the explosion. By last week investigators could confirm 19 dead and more than 50 injured.
Although no Americans were killed or wounded, the attack signaled U.S. forces that a new chapter of fighting in postwar Iraq is underway. "This was not the usual guerrilla attack we have been seeing in Iraq, which makes it look like something different, perhaps a new threat," said Jonathan Schanzer, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy who specializes in radical Islamic movements.
While FBI investigators combing the embassy rubble will be slow to conclude publicly who was behind the attack, Iraqi forces aren't waiting for a U.S. lead. Iraqi Kurdish fighters captured 50 people on Aug. 12 whom they suspect belong to Ansar al-Islam, a terrorist enclave with links to al-Qaeda that has long operated at the Iranian border and just inside northern Iraq. Well versed in car-bomb tactics, the group is the lead suspect. Kurdish forces, long opposed to Saddam Hussein and long targets of Ansar al-Islam attacks, say they have zero tolerance for resurfacing terrorists in postwar Iraq.
"We shall do our investigations to know who are those people and what is their plan," said Adel Murad, Baghdad spokesman for the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. Mr. Murad said the suspects entered Iraq through the mountainous northern borders with Iran, coming from Afghanistan. "Now we think the group returned to the area to resume their terrorist acts in Kurdistan and to participate in terrorist operations inside Iraq," he said.
Although Kurdish officials have worked closely with coalition forces, they admit privately that the United States has been less than enthusiastic about dealing with Ansar al-Islam.
U.S. authorities, for instance, passed on an opportunity to take custody of a key Ansar al-Islam leader, Mullah Krekar, when he was arrested a year ago at the Amsterdam airport. He was on his way from Iran back to Norway (where he and his family have refugee status). Authorities took Mr. Krekar into custody because he appeared on a U.S. wanted list for helping al-Qaeda produce "toxic chemical material." But an anticipated U.S. extradition order never materialized, and he was released earlier this year from Dutch custody.
In March, while in Dutch hands, he threatened U.S. forces with suicide-bomb attacks once war in Iraq was underway. He also admitted he knew in advance of plans to assassinate Patriotic Union of Kurdistan co-founder Shawkat Haji Mushir, who was ambushed and killed along with a half dozen other Kurds by Ansar al-Islam in February. Despite the terrorist crimesheet, Mr. Krekar upon his release sued the Dutch government for unjustifiable detention. Earlier this month a Dutch court ordered the government to pay him $5,000 in damages.
With the reversal of fortune, Mr. Krekar (also spelled Kerikar and Kreikar) is now a feature on the speaker's circuit, according to Mr. Schanzer. A Lebanese television station recently asked Mr. Schanzer, author of an upcoming book about al-Qaeda's affiliates, to debate Mr. Krekar on a satellite news show. Mr. Schanzer said he refused. "Mullah Krekar is very slippery, and it appears he has slipped the noose," he said.
Mr. Krekar likes to tell the Western press he has no ties to al-Qaeda, but he has told Arab journalists he met with Osama bin Laden as early as 1988. The meeting, he said, took place in Afghanistan at a luxury villa owned by a Saudi emir. When Ansar al-Islam was formally organized in 2001 (under the name Jund al-Islam), three bin Laden operatives showed up in Iraq to hand $300,000 to the new terror base, which swore to "undertake jihad in this region."
Between 2001 and 2002, the group advanced from acquiring rocket launchers to making ricin, a poison that U.S. officials believe Saddam wanted to use in chemical attacks. The organization grew from 150 Iraqis and Iranians to a force of nearly 1,000 "Afghan Arab" mercenaries.
Kurdish and American forces raided the Ansar al-Islam stronghold near Biyare in late March, as well as 18 villages in the surrounding area northeast of Baghdad suspected to house Ansar compounds. For two days "there was ferocious fighting," Patriotic Union of Kurdistan member Boorhan Saeed said at the time. They found computer disks and foreign passports belonging to Arab fighters from around the Middle East. The disks showed evidence of meetings between Ansar and al-Qaeda, while the passports indicated many of the fighters were Yemenis, Turks, Palestinians, Pakistanis, Algerians, and Iranians. Coalition forces also found a phone book containing numbers of alleged Islamic activists based in the United States and Europe.
But Kurdish and Turkish intelligence officers reported at the time that, given advance warning that Ansar was a target by the Bush administration and Central Command, as many as 700 Ansar al-Islam fighters slipped into Iran before the U.S.-led attack.
Should the United States have done more to eliminate Ansar al-Islam? "It's a mixed bag," said Mr. Schanzer. "We did not hold the Kurds back in going after Ansar, but we did not provide them air power when we should have. Air support could have taken out this enclave."
Without Iranian cooperation, it's impossible to keep jihad fighters from leaking back into Iraq. And while some government officials express support for the global war on terror, Iran's ruling Islamic Revolutionary Council is a longstanding exporter of jihad. Iran last week called for "strong ties" with Iraq, but conditioned renewed relations on the pullout of U.S. troops.
Tehran officials say they have arrested 500 foreigners for possible connection to al-Qaeda. "We are serious in our fight against terrorism," foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi told reporters. But so far the government has refused to name any of the captured. Coalition forces believe they are holding Abu Musab Zarqawi, who Secretary of State Colin Powell has said is the Ansar/al-Qaeda go-between. Jordan wants to extradite Mr. Zarqawi in connection with the October 2002 assassination of U.S. diplomat Laurence Foley.
Even before coalition forces destroyed the Ansar al-Islam stronghold, Kurdish authorities in northern Iraq were certain of its links to the larger war on terrorism. The Patriotic Union of Kurdistan began capturing Ansar fighters with ties to both Afghanistan and the Saddam Hussein regime beginning soon after the start of the U.S. war in Afghanistan. (WORLD interviewed one of the prisoners in Sulaymaniyah last year, who admitted to training in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden before returning to Iraq.) Kurdish authorities tried to persuade the United States to interview the Ansar-linked prisoners from Afghanistan, but only managed to do so after the war began.
Critics of the U.S.-led war are trying to downplay the al-Qaeda threat in Iraq. And the U.S. State Department is slow to acknowledge it, too. Ansar al-Islam does not appear on its terrorist list, although it does appear on the Treasury Department's list of "specially designated nationals and blocked persons."
Terrorism experts, however, emphasize that the post-9/11 al-Qaeda is operating in just this sort of decentralized enclave. "It's important to look at some of these smaller groups because you just don't know where they are going," said Mr. Schanzer. "An affiliate such as Ansar is certainly a local group, but it draws from other countries until it becomes a joint operation for Arab fighters who are sent by Osama bin Laden or have gravitated there for their own reasons."
Similar groups exist in Egypt, Chechnya, Bosnia, and Asia. Jemaah Islamiyah, another al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed responsibility for the Aug. 5 suicide bombing of the Marriott Hotel in Jarkarta that killed 12 and injured 150. It was also behind last year's bombing in Bali that killed nearly 200.
Recent events in Iraq have officials there more prepared to avoid similar threats. Bomb attacks shortly after the Jordanian embassy explosion killed two U.S. soldiers and wounded two others. Earlier this summer coalition forces took out a camp in Ar Rutbah in western Iraq that housed 75 foreign fighters, including Sudanese, Syrians, and Egyptians, according to acting Army Chief of Staff Gen. John Keane.
"We believe we have a significant terrorist threat," L. Paul Bremer, U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, said soberly last week. His challenge: to make a postwar, post-Saddam Iraq also post-bin Laden.