US forces in Iraq have captured one of the most senior members of Ansar al-Islam, an extremist group suspected of having ties to Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaida network, US defence officials said.
The arrest of Aso Hawleri, also known as Asad Muhammad Hasan, late last week in the northern city of Mosul has not been announced. Larry Di Rita, chief spokesman for Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, told reporters yesterday: “I’m not in a position to confirm” Hawleri’s capture.
Hawleri was taken by soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division, a defence official, adding that the capture netted a number of other people besides Hawleri, but there apparently was not a gunfight.
No other details were immediately available.
The officials said Hawleri is thought to be the third-ranking official in Ansar al-Islam, most of whose fighters were believed to have fled their stronghold in northern Iraq before US forces invaded in March. US and Kurdish forces destroyed the group’s main base in the early weeks of the war.
Ansar had taken control of a slice of the Kurdish-controlled area near the Iranian border, enforcing a version of Islam only slightly less stringent than the Taliban in Afghanistan in mountain strongholds outside areas of Iraq controlled by government forces.
In an analytical report in December 2001, Iraq expert Michael Rubin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy wrote that Hawleri had led the Second Soran Unit, the largest single military unit within an Iraqi opposition group called the Islamic Unity Movement.
In 2001 the Second Soran Unit merged with the Tawhid Islamic Front to form Jund al-Islam, later called Ansar al-Islam, according to Mr Rubin, who says the group received funds from bin Laden and trained in Afghanistan.
Tactics of Ansar have included suicide bombings, car bombs, assassinations and raids on militiamen and politicians of the secular Kurdish government. The group has killed scores of people over the last two years.
US officials say Ansar sent about a dozen people through al Qaida camps in Afghanistan in 1999 and 2000 and experimented with biotoxin ricin in 2002.
In late August, Army General John Abizaid, overall commander in Iraq, told reporters that elements of Ansar al-Islam had migrated south into the Baghdad area and presented an increased terrorist threat.
It remains unclear whether Ansar played a role in any of the recent bombings in Iraq, including the August 19 bombing of the UN headquarters in Baghdad that killed 22 people.
Ansar’s spiritual leader, Mullah Krekar, was taken into custody in the Netherlands in September 2002 and later was deported to Norway. He was released from a Norwegian jail last April after a court found insufficient grounds to hold him on terrorism charges. Police dropped the charges in July, but are investigating him on allegations he financed terrorist activities.