Initially construed as the vital link between Saddam Husayn’s Iraq and al-Qaida in the runup to the Iraq war, the Ansar al-Islam (AI) group formed in Iraqi Kurdistan in December 2001 has been the subject of intense debate and huge media coverage. In academic research, however, its history, evolution and affiliation have received surprisingly little academic scrutiny. Commonly depicted as an al-Qaida affiliated group or a sub-group controlled by al-Qaida’s emerging organization in Iraq (AQI), the AI group should—this article argues—instead be understood as a strong independent-minded group with an ideology and operational pattern distinct from that of AQI. Although sharing many commonalities, the AI and AQI became de facto rivals, not allies. Contrary to accepted wisdom, the AI and its first successor group remained a distinct Salafi-jihadi insurgent group largely focused on fighting ‘the near enemy’, i.e., Kurdish and Iraqi authorities. It strongly resisted repeated calls for joining al-Qaida’s new umbrella organization in Iraq, the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) in 2006, and it paid no homage to AQI’s or ISI’s leaders. Also on the international level, the groups were fundamentally different. As opposed to al-Qaida’s terrorist plotting abroad, the AI’s international network were hierarchical structures, geared towards raising logistical and financial support as well as recruitment. The article highlights the need for greater attention to the complexities and nuances in patterns of contacts and cooperation between militant Islamist extremists. Informed by the growing scholarship on the multifaceted nature of contemporary jihadism, its numerous manifestations in local settings, and its strong internal rifts, this paper seeks to redress the early reductionist portrayal of the AI movement.
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