"Fighting a jihad against the Americans and their allies is something obligatory in our religion," says Wushyar Salah Hama Aref, 26. Until he was arrested last October by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, Aref was a top commander in Ansar al-Islam, the Kurdish terror organization. "We know that the Americans have the technology and the power," he said last Saturday, when TIME was allowed into the Kurdish-run jail to see imprisoned Ansar leaders. "But our belief is stronger."
Tiny cells lining a long, dimly-lit corridor contain people who until recently were considered some of Iraq's most dangerous insurgents. Their inspiration, they say, comes directly from al-Qaeda. So too did some of their instructions, until the American invasion of Iraq smashed Ansar's base in northern Iraq, and sent its members fleeing into Iran. "About 35 Saudis came to see us from al-Qaeda before the war, in order to cement their relationship with us," says Quds Hassan Abbas, 32, who led one of Ansar's fighting battalions until shortly before the war erupted.
Both men concede that the invasion dealt a heavy blow to Ansar. With no base to call their own, ranking members lie low just over Iraq's eastern border in the Iranian town of Marivan. Iranians there do a busy trade producing fake identity cards for Ansar fighters for their return to Iraq across the 5,000-foot mountains. With overburdened Iraqi border patrols guarding a 1,000-mile frontier, Ansar's return is almost impossible to block, and Kurdish guards expect little help from Iranian officials in stopping the infiltration.
Both Aref and Abbas say it was simple walking back over the mountains into Iraq to join the war against the Americans. Once inside, however, they faced a splintered insurgent movement, continually hiding from the Americans. "We had different ideas. Some of us thought the suicide bombs were useless," said Abbas. When he was arrested last October near Baqubah, about 30 miles north of Baghdad, he had been trying to start a break-away armed force of radical Muslims, which could operate separately from Ansar's forces.
Resuming that work might be a long way off. Months after they were imprisoned, the men have yet to see a lawyer, or receive a date for their trial.