Inside Al Ansar

Taha Mahmud remembers thinking he was going to die. He was thrashing through knee-deep mountain snow toward his last hope of safety, the Iranian border. High overhead in Iraq's sky, U.S. warplanes homed in on him and nearly 120 other Islamic radicals belonging to the Qaeda-linked Kurdish group Ansar Al-Islam. American bombs and missiles had already obliterated Ansar's stronghold in the valley below. While Mahmud wondered whether to risk being shot by Iranian border guards, a pair of American bombs solved his dilemma. Two thunderous explosions sent him staggering into Iran, his path traced by blood from his shredded left knee. "Only Allah saved me," Mahmud says.

Most Kurds were glad to think Mahmud and his cohorts were gone forever. For 18 months Ansar had waged a fratricidal jihad against its secular Kurdish neighbors instead of helping them fight Saddam Hussein. After the U.S. assault on its enclave last March, the group seemed to vanish. Tehran still insists that none of Ansar's 900 or so fighters were allowed into Iran. Hundreds of them managed to get in anyway, welcome or not. Now they're sneaking back across the border to continue their battle against the West. L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, estimates that "several hundred" Ansar fighters have returned since spring. "They're a very dangerous terrorist group," he says, "and that's a lot of terrorists."

Ansar infiltrators are already prime suspects in some of the deadliest terrorist strikes against Americans and their allies in Iraq. The attacks include the Aug. 7 truck bombing outside the Jordanian Embassy and the Aug. 19 destruction of the United Nations' Baghdad headquarters. The former Qaeda associate suspected of masterminding the Jordanian Embassy bombing, Abu Mussab al-Zarqawi, remains on the loose. And Ansar's founder, the man known as Mullah Krekar, makes no secret of his enthusiasm for holy war even as he fights efforts to deport him from Norway (box). Increasing evidence suggests that Ansar fighters are joining forces with Baathists and members of Al Qaeda. In one such case, a suspected Qaeda operative was caught with 11 surface-to-air missiles in Ar Ramadi, west of Baghdad; he told investigators he had trained with Ansar members to use the weapons against Americans.

Dozens of Ansar foot soldiers have been captured in recent months and are being interrogated by U.S. and Kurdish intelligence officers. The prisoners who were made available to NEWSWEEK presented an unsettling picture. The young men themselves were a diverse lot, not unlike the rank and file of any fighting organization. But they described a group that has mutated and adapted since being forced out of its former base in Iraq, and whose leaders have an implacable hatred of America.

U.S. and Kurdish security officials say roughly 300 Ansar militants are holed up in small Iranian towns along the border. The group seems to be recruiting new members in Baramawa, a Kurdish refugee camp inside Iran, and the fighting force is said to have been reorganized into small units of 10 to 15 members, each headed by an "emir." Most captured operatives have been unarmed. Before leaving Iran they were told only where to go for further instructions, usually a shop or house near the border where they would be sent on to another meeting place. Only after several stops would they receive weapons and specific orders for an attack.

Military analysts in the region aren't sure how much help Ansar is getting from Iranian officials. Tehran gave at least tacit support to the group before expelling Krekar in 2002 as a conciliatory gesture to Washington. Now Iranian police stage frequent sweeps of the border towns, arresting and quietly expelling any members of the group they catch. Nevertheless, some of those expelled have been given weapons upon departure, and some continue to use Iran as a sanctuary. "It's not like Ansar has set up an office in Tehran. It wouldn't be good for the Iranian government to be linked with them," says Sgt. Bill Fleck, 33, a member of the 101st Airborne Division who has interviewed numerous detainees. "But it seems like the Iranians have decided to contain them near the border."

That's as much as the group needs to continue its operations. Mariwan Hussein, 20, spent about four months hiding out with other Ansar members there after the Americans drove them out of Iraq. His superiors sent him to join four other fighters at a house in the border town of Marivan. He says there were as many as 30 such houses in town, some holding 10 or 15 members. Plainclothes agents raided his house one day and arrested four other Ansar members, but Hussein got away. He says he changed houses three times to avoid arrest before his superiors sent him back to Iraq in late August. Kurdish security officials caught him with a crate of pistols on --Aug. 24. During the interview with NEWSWEEK he giggled wildly, then stopped himself. "Ansar fighters aren't afraid of anything," he declared, staring straight ahead.

That's what their leaders say. Yet Sangar Mansur, 19, found out they were lying. He lived with his father and two sisters in Biyara, a village near the Iranian border, when Ansar fighters arrived in the fall of 2001. The group's Taliban-style restrictions were harsh: no smoking, no jeans, no music. The punishment for drinking was 100 lashes. But when Mansur was invited to join the group, he accepted. "It was hard to say no," he says. "I'm the eldest son, and joining Ansar made life easier for my family." He grew his hair and beard to blend in with the other fighters, who included not only Iraqi Kurds but Saudis, Turks, Afghans, Iranian Kurds and Chechens. Still, he noticed that the foreigners rarely mixed with the Kurds--a habit that was driven home when the Americans started bombing. The Arab leaders ordered the Kurds to stand and fight. Then they fled. Mansur turned himself in to Kurdish authorities. He says he's sorry he had anything to do with Ansar: "It was a big mistake."

Mahmud doesn't claim to be sorry. When he stumbled down the snowy mountainside, Iranian border guards packed him off to a detention cell with more than 100 other Ansar fighters. A few days later he was driven to a military hospital where surgeons spent two hours working to repair his knee. Two weeks later the Iranians took him and roughly 300 other Ansar men back to the Iraqi border. The fighters were given weapons, blankets, food and a warning: "Don't come back." As he started toward home, he could see some members of the group doubling back, following other mountain trails into Iran. The border guards watched without trying to stop them. Mahmud didn't get far before a Kurdish patrol picked him up. He says he was headed home to see his wife. His captors say he was sent back to Iraq on a suicide mission. If so, he's safely behind bars now. But hundreds of fighters like him are not.