Ansar al-Islam came together as a group in September 2001, initially under the name of Jund al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam), but its constituent factions have existed for several years. Espousing an ultra-orthodox Islamic ideology reminiscent of Wahhabism, the group's leaders issued decrees imposing their strict interpretation of Islam on the local inhabitants and introducing harsh punishments for those who failed to comply with their decrees. Since its establishment, the group's armed fighters have engaged in intermittent clashes with the forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), in whose stronghold Biyara and Tawela are located.
During a mission to Iraqi Kurdistan in September 2002, Human Rights Watch investigated reports of human rights abuses perpetrated by members of Ansar al-Islam in areas under their control. These reports suggested that Ansar al-Islam had been responsible for arbitrary arrests of numerous Kurdish civilians, prolonged and illegal detention, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the killing of combatants after surrender. In Sulaimaniya and Halabja Human Rights Watch interviewed a number of people who said they had been targeted by Ansar al-Islam or had fled for fear of further abuse. Among them were victims of torture, the relatives of detainees, and internally displaced persons.
For its part, Ansar al-Islam has said that its members or supporters have been the targets of repression by the two principal political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan. Human Rights Watch met with dozens of Islamist detainees, some of whom were accused of links with Ansar al-Islam by the PUK and the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP). They were held in PUK and KDP custody in Sulaimaniya and Arbil respectively, for the most part in prolonged detention without trial and without any legal basis. Some of them reported being tortured or otherwise ill-treated during interrogation. Both KDP and PUK officials denied that torture was being used in their respective prisons, and told Human Rights Watch that any such allegations would be investigated and perpetrators would be punished. While in Iraqi Kurdistan, Human Rights Watch received information from a wide range of sources on persons allegedly targeted by both the KDP and the PUK for suspected links with Islamist groups, including Ansar al-Islam.
PUK officials have repeatedly accused Ansar al-Islam of having links with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, and that its members included Arabs of various nationalities who had received military training in Afghanistan. The PUK also said some fifty-seven "Arab Afghan" fighters had entered Iraqi Kurdistan via Iran in mid-September 2001. While Human Rights Watch did not investigate these alleged links, the testimonies of villagers who had fled Biyara and Tawela and were interviewed in September 2002 appeared to support this contention. A number of them, including former detainees, said that there were foreigners among Ansar al-Islam forces, that on occasion they were interrogated by non-Iraqis speaking various Arabic dialects, and that they had heard other languages spoken that they did not recognize.
Scores of Iraqi Kurds affiliated to Ansar al-Islam, including key leaders, consider themselves veterans of the Afghan war. They had spent time in Afghanistan, initially fighting against Soviet forces during the 1980s. Representatives of other Iraqi Kurdish Islamist groups who maintain links with Ansar al-Islam told Human Rights Watch that a small number of Iraqi Kurds affiliated to the group had also fought alongside the Taliban, and that they then returned to Iraqi Kurdistan following the latter's defeat.
There are also other indications of possible Ansar al-Islam connections with al-Qaeda operatives in Afghanistan. Documents discovered in an al-Qaeda guest house in Afghanistan by the New York Times discuss the creation of an "Iraqi Kurdistan Islamic Brigade" just weeks prior to the formation of Ansar al-Islam in December 2001, and some Ansar al-Islam members in PUK custody have described in credible detail training in al-Qa'ida camps in Afghanistan. The existence of any ongoing links between al-Qa'ida and Ansar al-Islam is unknown.
Human Rights Watch has not investigated the alleged links between the Iraqi government and Ansar al-Islam, and is not aware of any convincing evidence supporting this contention. On the other hand, the location of the group's bases very close to the Iranian border, taken together with credible reports of the return of some Ansar al-Islam fighters to Iraqi Kurdistan through Iran, suggest that these fighters have received at least limited support from some Iranian sources. Villagers living under Ansar al-Islam control, and mainstream Islamists who have visited those areas, reported to Human Rights Watch that Iranian agents had been present on occasion. However, the exact nature of relations between the two sides is unclear: PUK and other sources acknowledged that Iran had played a mediating role aimed at ending the clashes between PUK and Ansar al-Islam forces.
Armed Islamist groups in Iraqi Kurdistan
After Kurdish forces took control of Iraq's three northern provinces following the government's withdrawal in October 1991, numerous opposition groups operated in the region. Islamist political forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, which are exclusively Sunni Muslim, were represented in the Islamic Movement in Kurdistan (IMK), established in 1987. The IMK brought together several factions, some of whose members had fought in Afghanistan during the 1980s. By the mid-1990s the IMK was considered the third most significant political and military force in the Kurdish region, after the KDP and the PUK. After unsuccessfully contesting the 1992 parliamentary elections, the IMK operated largely outside the framework of the joint Kurdish administration, focusing instead on developing and strengthening a separate administrative, political and military infrastructure in areas under its control, notably in Hawraman and Sharazur, which bordered the region controlled by the PUK.
In December 1993 tensions between the IMK and the PUK peaked in armed clashes in parts of Sulaimaniya and Kirkuk provinces. The IMK was forced to retreat to areas close to the border with Iran. The leadership left the eastern region altogether and for some months remained under KDP protection in Salahuddin. When increasing tensions between the KDP and the PUK deteriorated into armed clashes in May 1994, IMK forces fought alongside the KDP against the PUK. Eventually, the IMK leadership was able to return to its strongholds in Hawraman and Sharazur, and to establish its headquarters in the city of Halabja.
The IMK splintered over power struggles as well as policy differences. In May 2001 'Ali Bapir, a long-time IMK military commander, announced the formation of the Islamic Group in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Several smaller factions within the IMK, which espoused a more puritanical and ultra-orthodox Islamic ideology, also broke away from the movement at different times. Some opposed any form of cooperation with "secular" political parties and disagreed with the IMK's 1997 decision to participate in the PUK regional government. They also called for stricter application of the shari'a (Islamic law) in IMK-held areas.
Of these factions, the most important militarily was a group known as the Soran Forces. It consisted of several hundred armed fighters (said to include non-Iraqi Arabs), some of who had fought in Afghanistan. A second faction was the Islamic Unification Movement (IUM, or al-Tawhid), said to be the most extremist of the splinter groups. Composed of some thirty or forty individuals, the IUM based itself for a time in Balek, in the Qandil mountains near Haj Omran and close to the Iran border. A third group, Hamas, also opposed the IMK's decision to participate in the PUK regional government. Among its stated aims was to launch attacks on secular institutions in Iraqi Kurdistan, including Western humanitarian and relief organizations.
The emergence of Ansar al-Islam
These smaller breakaway factions themselves gradually merged. In July 2001, al-Tawhid joined with Hamas to form the Islamic Unity Front (IUF), which the Soran Forces also joined the following month. On September 1, 2001, the IUF was dissolved and its three component groups announced the formation of Jund al-Islam. The group promptly declared jihad (holy war) against secular and other political parties in Iraqi Kurdistan deemed to have deviated from the "true path of Islam". Following armed clashes in which the PUK defeated Jund al-Islam, the group was dissolved in December 2001 and renamed Ansar al-Islam. A long-time member of the IMK, Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad, known as Mala Fateh Krekar, became its amir (leader).
The ideas and practices propagated by Jund al-Islam (and later Ansar al-Islam) represent a radical departure from mainstream Sunni Islam as practiced in Iraqi Kurdistan. The group appears to have more in common with ultra-orthodox Wahabi movements emanating from Saudi Arabia. This doctrine entails a literal interpretation of the Qur'an, and advocates a return to the proclaimed purity of the early Islamic community. Jund al-Islam declared it was seeking to "defend the areas under the influence of the Muslims from interference and control by the secularists," and that among its aims was "the propagation of virtue and the prevention of vice" (al-amr bil ma'ruf wal nahiy 'an al-munkar), as well as ensuring the application of shari'a and undertaking "the religious duty of jihad against the secularist apostates."
Human rights abuses by Jund al-Islam/Ansar al-Islam
On September 8, 2001, one week after it came into being, Jund al-Islam issued decrees, including: the obligatory closure of offices and businesses during prayer time and enforced attendance by workers and proprietors at the mosque during those times; the veiling of women by wearing the traditional 'abaya; obligatory beards for men; segregation of the sexes; barring women from education and employment; the removal of any photographs of women on packaged goods brought into the region; the confiscation of musical instruments and the banning of music both in public and private; and the banning of satellite receivers and televisions. Jund al-Islam also announced that it would apply Islamic punishments of amputation, flogging and stoning to death for offenses such as theft, the consumption of alcohol and adultery. Human Rights Watch is not aware of any amputations or stonings having been carried out, but local villagers reported the cases of three men who were flogged after being accused of drinking alcohol.
Jund al-Islam also announced a crackdown on religious practices it considered polytheistic. On September 4, 2001, its forces entered three villages whose inhabitants were members of a minority religious sect, Ahl al-Haq (known locally as Kaka'is), whose beliefs combine Zoroastrianism and Shi'ism. The families were rounded up and ordered to adhere strictly to the Jund al-Islam decrees. Over the ensuing weeks, efforts were made to force Kaka'is to abandon their faith. Those who refused were apparently told they would be made to pay a "religious tax" imposed on all non-Muslims, as well as risk having their property seized. A number of Kaka'i holy shrines were defaced or destroyed. One villager from the main Kaka'i village of Hawar told Human Rights Watch that on September 23, 2001, representatives of Jund al-Islam told the inhabitants that they had three choices: to adhere to the group's school of Islam, pay fines in lieu, or leave the area altogether. According to his account, the majority of the estimated 450 households from the three Kaka'i villages fled their homes and have since become internally displaced. According to more recent reports, Jund al-Islam laid mines in the agricultural plots owned by Kaka'i villagers, apparently in an effort to deter them from returning to their homes.
The community of Naqshabandi Sufis, another minority religious group whose shaikhs have long inhabited the Biyara and Tawela region, were also prevented from performing their religious rites. This crackdown had begun even before the founding of Jund al-Islam. Members of its groups had closed down several holy sites, including the burial place of Shaikh Husamaddin Naqshabandi, a traditional place of pilgrimage for members of the order. In mid-July 2002 his tomb was desecrated and his remains removed by Jund al-Islam and buried elsewhere. A Naqshabandi shaikh who had fled to Halabja told Human Rights Watch that Jund al-Islam has accused adherents of his faith of being infidels, and imposed on women a strict dress code and severely curtailed their freedom to leave their homes.
Jund al-Islam also targeted individuals as part of their campaign. One of their victims was a local singer from Biyara, Arjumand Hawrami, arrested on September 11, 2001 upon his return from a visit to Iran where he had given a performance. He told Human Rights Watch that he was held for almost two weeks and repeatedly beaten after being accused of being an infidel and of encouraging inappropriate behavior such as singing and dancing. He was released only after making an apology, promising that he would abandon his profession, and paying a fine of 1,000 dinars. Another case was that of Dr. Rebwar Sayyid 'Umar, who was abducted from his surgery in Halabja on September 22, 2001 and detained in the vicinity of Biyara. He was apparently accused of being a spy for the U.S., and was blindfolded and beaten during interrogation. He was released twenty days later after being exchanged for an Iraqi Arab detainee in PUK custody.
Several other villagers from Biyara, Tawela and the surrounding region gave Human Rights Watch similar testimony. Some of those taken into custody were accused by Jund al-Islam of being affiliated to the PUK. In others cases, they were accused of violating the Islamic codes introduced in the area. Two of those interviewed also said they were told by their captors that they would be exchanged for Arab detainees being held in PUK custody. Most said that the release of detainees was invariably contingent upon the payment of a sum of money to Jund al-Islam.
Former detainees also described the routine use of torture and other forms of ill-treatment during interrogation. In one case, a former policeman employed by the PUK administration had acid poured onto his hands on the day of his release. He gave Human Rights Watch photographs taken shortly after his release of the burn marks on his skin. The scars from the burns were visible to the interviewer. He had been abducted from Halabja on March 11, 2001 by one of the factions that later formed Jund al-Islam and held for three days. During those three days he was beaten and forced to lie down in the snow overnight while semi-clad. In another case, a school teacher from Tawela was arrested on August 24, 2002 and held for five days. The teacher told Human Rights Watch that he had been beaten so badly on his back that he was unable to lie down for three weeks following his release. He showed Human Rights Watch photographs of the injuries he had sustained.
Further human rights abuses were perpetrated in the context of the continuing clashes between Jund al-Islam and PUK forces. Tensions between the two sides led to the outbreak of armed clashes near the villages of Gomalar and Tapa Drozna on September 23, 2001. On the same day, thirty-seven PUK fighters were killed by Jund al-Islam in the village of Kheli Hama on the Sulaimaniya-Halabja road. Twelve were killed in an ambush or during the ensuing exchange of fire, but the remaining twenty-five were reportedly killed after surrender. A farmer from Kheli Hama interviewed by Human Rights Watch said that he was in the village when it was surrounded by Jund al-Islam, and that he had witnessed the killing of five PUK fighters after they had laid down their weapons and surrendered. Some prisoners' throats had been slit, while others had been beheaded; some of the bodies were mutilated, including by having their sexual organs severed. They were apparently found with their hands tied behind their back. Photographs taken by the PUK of the victims' bodies were shown on the party's satellite television channel, KurdSat, on September 26. Following the capture of the Shinirwe heights from Jund al-Islam in the first week of October, the PUK announced it had found among the materials seized a videocassette showing the victims' bodies, apparently filmed by Jund al-Islam. It was broadcast on KurdSat on October 5. None of the perpetrators have been apprehended to date, but at least one of the suspects was reportedly killed in subsequent clashes with PUK forces.
Fierce clashes continued between PUK and Jund al-Islam forces for over two weeks, killing scores on both sides. The fighting also spread to Halabja. By September 26, the PUK had reasserted its control over Halabja. In late September and during the first half of October 2001, the PUK arrested scores, reportedly on suspicion of complicity in acts of sabotage. They were said to include members of Jund al-Islam as well as the IMK and the Islamic Group. On October 11, 2001, the PUK announced a temporary ceasefire, reportedly to allow merger talks between Jund al-Islam and the Islamic Group to proceed. The talks failed and fighting resumed near Biyara and Tawela. Two weeks later, on October 25, the PUK issued a thirty-day amnesty for Jund al-Islam fighters, excluding those believed responsible for the February 18, 2001 assassination of the governor of Arbil, Franso Hariri, and those involved in the Kheli Hama killings of September 23. Jalal Talabani also said that foreign nationals in the ranks of Jund al-Islam would not be permitted to remain in Iraqi Kurdistan.
Despite the amnesty, armed clashes continued into November, as did killings outside the immediate context of the fighting. Following the dissolution of Jund al-Islam and its reconstitution under the name of Ansar al-Islam in December 2001, the group announced a ceasefire. Talks were held with the PUK between December 2001 and late March 2002, aimed at arriving at a political agreement, but the assassination attempt on April 2, 2002 against Barham Salih, prime minister in the PUK regional government, led to their suspension. A statement issued by Ansar al-Islam's Shura Council on April 3 denied any involvement in the incident, but PUK officials later released the names of three of the suspects it had apprehended and said there was evidence linking them to Ansar al-Islam. The evidence reportedly included military identification cards issued by the PUK to its armed forces and found in the possession of the suspects, which belonged to some of the PUK fighters killed at Kheli Hama.
The number of suspects arrested in the aftermath of the assassination attempt was not known at the time of writing: Ansar al-Islam said "hundreds" of Muslim youths were arrested by the PUK, among them six women. It said that the detained women were released following meetings with the PUK in Sulaimaniya on April 18 and 19. On May 4, the leader of Ansar al-Islam, Mala Fateh Krekar, issued an amnesty for PUK fighters and those of other political groups who had assisted them. At the same time, Ansar al-Islam accused the PUK of deploying additional forces in the vicinity of Biyara and Tawela in the first week of May 2002 and said that consequently it would suspend further talks until three conditions were met: the release of all "Muslim prisoners" in PUK custody, the withdrawal of PUK forces to the positions they had occupied prior to September 9, 2001, and the allocation of a monthly payment from the PUK regional government's revenues to meet Ansar al-Islam's expenses.
In June 2002, relations between the two sides deteriorated further as the PUK held Ansar al-Islam responsible for attempting to perpetrate more acts of sabotage. These included at least two attempted suicide bombings and the attempted bombing up of a cultural center in Sulaimaniya.
On December 4, 2002, a group of Ansar al-Islam fighters attacked two PUK posts near Halabja, briefly seizing control of them. PUK officials claimed that about half of the fifty PUK casualties had been killed after they had surrendered or been captured. Some surviving PUK fighters gave eyewitness accounts of executions of captured PUK fighters by Ansar al-Islam to international journalists.