Filling the ISIS vacuum: Al-Qaeda’s ghost returns to Iraq under the name Ansar al-Islam
After nearly five years of disappearance from the Iraqi arena, the so-called group Ansar al-Islam, which is affiliated with al-Qaeda, has returned to operate within Iraq again, as the group claimed responsibility for an attack on the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) in the Jalawla area of Diyala province. The media committee of the terrorist organization issued a statement on Telegram in which it claimed to detonate an explosive device against the PMF, killing one and wounding another. This was a first for al-Qaeda since the group's disappearance following ISIS's takeover of Sunni provinces in 2014.
Ansar al-Islam between al-Qaeda and ISIS
Ansar al-Islam was founded on December 10, 2001 through the merger of three terrorist groups: Jund al-Islam, Kurdish Hamas and Tawhid Movement. Its most prominent leaders were Abu Abdullah al-Shafi'i and Mullah Krekar (Najmaddin Faraj).
The group's presence since its founding has focused on areas of Iraqi Kurdistan, and the group has been mainly communicating with al-Qaeda and considers itself a branch.
During the US invasion of Iraq, US aircraft bombed Ansar al-Islam's headquarters and camps in Kurdistan, and a number of the group's leaders and members were killed during US military operations. However, its leader Abu Abdullah al-Shafi’i fled to Iraq, specifically Baghdad, and revived the group.
The second founding of Ansar al-Islam coincided with the formation of the Jama'at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad group led by Jordanian Ahmed al-Khalayleh (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi), who pledged allegiance to al-Qaeda in 2004 and called itself al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.
In 2006, al-Qaeda and a number of armed factions allied to it, known as the Mujahideen Shura Council, announced the establishment of the Islamic State of Iraq in several Sunni areas.
One of the documents found at the residence of former al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden in Abbottabad and published by the CIA revealed that Abu Hamzah al-Muhajir, the minister of war in the Islamic State of Iraq, sent messages to Abu Abdullah al-Shafi’i to discuss the issue of reconciliation between them after the fighting that happened, which resulted in deaths on both sides.
In one of his letters, Muhajir offered Shafi'i to integrate Ansar al-Islam into another terrorist organization in exchange for the group's leaders to assume the posts of ministers of war and justice and to control the joints of the organization. But Ansar al-Islam refused to merge with the group.
With the outbreak of events in Syria and the entry of terrorist groups on the front line, Ansar al-Islam announced the establishment of a branch in Syria, as well as its participation in the fighting on the Sahel front.
In 2014, ISIS was able to take control of several Iraqi cities, including Mosul, the capital city of Nineveh province. After taking control of the territory, ISIS leaders refused to keep Ansar al-Islam on the ground without pledging allegiance to former ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. They chose between joining him or handing over their weapons and not engaging in any fighting.
A number of members and leaders of Ansar al-Islam agreed to pledge allegiance to Baghdadi. The allegiance to Baghdadi triggered a major disagreement within Ansar al-Islam, as the Syrian branch rejected the allegiance of members of the Iraqi branch, instead pledging to uphold their loyalty to al-Qaeda.
The Syrian branch of Ansar al-Islam took part in military operations against the Free Syrian Army. In 2018, it joined the Rouse the Believers Operations Room, which was set up by several armed factions close to al-Qaeda.
ISIS’s defeat opens the door for the return of Ansar al-Islam
In the same context, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal (LWJ), which is concerned with international terrorism, said that the new facts in Iraq indicate the return of Ansar al-Islam after a years-long hiatus.
Commenting on the attack carried out by the group in Jalawla, LWJ pointed out that it is not yet clear what mechanism the group will depend on or how it will operate.
The defeat of ISIS opens the door for the return of Ansar al-Islam and gives it a large space to deploy, according to LWJ.