Today the US State Department added Muhammad Hisham Muhammad Isma’il Abu Ghazala, a Hamas operative who is linked to Iran and al Qaeda and fought with Ansar al Islam in Iraq, to the list of specially designated global terrorists. The designation allows the US to freeze his assets, prevent him from using financial institutions, and prosecute him for terrorist activities.
Abu Ghazala “plays an integral role in Hamas,” the State Department said. “He has links to Iran, the world’s leading State Sponsor of Terrorism, and al Qaeda.”
In addition to his connections with Iran and al Qaeda, Abu Ghazala has aided terrorist networks in northern Iraq in conducting roadside bombings and rocket attacks.
“He is an improvised explosive device (IED) facilitator with connections to multiple IED networks throughout northern Iraq and is also responsible for disseminating numerous remote detonation device designs used by former regime elements and terror organizations in Iraq,” the designation reads. “He has worked with rockets and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs).”
In July 2006, the Iraqi government listed Abu Ghazala as one of the 41 most-wanted individuals in the country and offered a $50,000 bounty for information leading to his capture. The Iraqi government placed him 33rd on the list, and identified him as “Muhammad Hisham Muhammad (AKA Mansur / Khadim al-Husayn).”
The Iraqi government described Abu Ghazala as an “Ansar al-Islam/al-Sunna affiliated improvised explosive device facilitator,” according to the list, which was issued by US Central Command on July 2, 2006.
Ansar al Islam (AAI) was formed in late 2001, when Osama bin Laden and Kurdish Islamist groups decided to combine their efforts in northern Iraq. AAI’s co-founder, Mullah Krekar, lived in Iran for a time before fleeing to Norway. Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the deceased leader of al Qaeda in Iraq, assumed a leadership position in AAI after fleeing Afghanistan. Zarqawi and other al Qaeda-linked terrorists established camps in northern Iraq in 2001 and 2002. Contrary to popular belief, Zarqawi and other AAI operatives also operated in Baghdad prior to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
AAI has evolved over time, adopting multiple names and suffering from various reported schisms. Members of the group adopted the name Ansar al Sunna for a time, but reportedly reverted back to calling themselves AAI. The name Ansar al Sunna has stuck, however, and is still used by some jihadists under the AAI/AAS banner.
AAI and AAS have longstanding ties to Iran. Kurdish officials routinely complain about Iran’s support for the jihadis. Since they were first routed from their safe haven in northern Iraq by US forces in 2003, AAI/AAS leaders have operated inside Iran. As Esquire reported in 2003, “most” of AAI’s members and its leaders “escaped to Iran” following the US-led invasion.
Guards on the Iranian side of the border also allow members of the group to pass into Iraq, where they fight government forces and commit terrorist attacks.
In June 2007, the Jamestown Foundation’s Terrorism Monitor reported on the relationship between Iran and AAI. “Kurdish officials, like many others who reside along the border areas, express concern that Iran has perhaps played a role in Ansar al Islam’s resurgence,” the Jamestown Foundation reported. “Various regional newspapers have reported on Iran’s involvement with Ansar al-Islam, and some have leveled this accusation since 2004.”
In October 2007, the Dallas Morning News reported on ties between Iran and AAI. “From time to time Iran uses them [Ansar al-Islam fighters] as a pressure card to make trouble for us,” Salam Omer Ibrahim, mayor of the Iraqi border city of Said Sadiq, told the newspaper. “They’re saying, ‘If you help our opposition, we have ways to respond,’ ” Ibrahim added.
The US government has also long accused AAI and AAS of receiving support from terrorists based in Iran.
In December 2005, the US military announced that an Iraqi court had issued an arrest warrant for Mullah Halgurd Al Khabir, who was a senior AAS leader in Baghdad at the time. The military described AAS as “a terrorist organization with links to terrorists in Syria and Iran,” which has “committed multiple suicide bomb attacks in Iraq that have resulted in the deaths of Coalition Forces, Iraqi Army Soldiers, Iraqi policemen and Iraqi citizens.”
The US military also said that Khabir had ties to Zarqawi and was the “prime suspect” in both the August 2003 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad and the October 2003 bombing of the Turkish embassy in Baghdad.
In July of this year, the US Treasury Department designated six members of an al Qaeda network headquartered in Iran. Treasury alleged that the network operated as part of an “agreement between al Qaeda and the Iranian government.” Although neither AAI nor AAS were mentioned in the designation, at least two of the six operatives targeted by the Treasury Department provide support to al Qaeda in Iraq. [See LWJ report, Treasury targets Iran’s ‘secret deal’ with al Qaeda.]
Thus, Iran allows its soil to be used by various branches of the al Qaeda hydra operating in Iraq and elsewhere.