Islamic Movements in Iraqi Kurdistan (Video Available)

Monday, September 17, 2007

10:00 AM – 12:00 PM

Presenter: Dr. David Romano

Assistant Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College


On September 17, The Jamestown Foundation hosted a lecture by Dr. David Romano, an Assistant Professor of International Studies at Rhodes College. Dr. Romano shared the results of his research on Kurdish Islamist groups, based on fieldwork and personal interviews conducted in Iraq in 2003 and 2004. The culmination of his academic research and field interviews is an analytical map that shows the creation of and linkages between Islamic groups in Iraqi Kurdistan. This map outlines how linked the different groups are, and how many of them trace their origins back to one or two common sources. Once Dr. Romano had a preliminary map created, he began interviews in Iraq to verify his information.

In his lecture, Dr. Romano discussed the creation and transformation of various Islamic groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, the presence of Ansar al-Islam and suggested strategies to counter radical Islam.

He reached four main conclusions:

– There are four central motifs in Islamic movements: inequality, cultural struggles, focus on the golden age of Islam, and the creation of an alternative political system.

– All Islamic groups in Iraqi Kurdistan stem from the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood and use a three stage strategy to gain and maintain membership.

– Ansar al-Islam was formed due to a power vacuum, drew support from Iraq and Gulf charity groups, used mosques for organization, and has not successfully reformed after being routed in 2003.

– Strategies to counter radical Islam can take two forms: internal and external.


One of Dr. Romano’s primary research questions focused on the large number of Sunni Islamist groups, as opposed to Kurdish nationalist groups. According to his sources, all of the different groups in Iraqi Kurdistan have descended from the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood, which was founded in 1946.

These groups have a three stage strategy:

Stage 1:  Recruit core activists and educate people about Islam.

Stage 2: Improve formation and expansion. This includes broader recruitment, infiltration into other parts of society, improving organization, and creating programs to endear themselves to the population, such as charities, clinics and schools. The goal of stage two is the greater Islamicization of society. This stems from the belief that all of society’s problems stem from the failure to correctly observe Islam.

Stage 3: Implementation or direct action. In this stage, the movement attempts to gain control of the country, typically through legal means. However, extra-legal means are sometimes used when a group is restricted from using legal means. Dr. Romano then turned to a discussion of the group Ansar al-Islam.

He first outlined four general reasons for the existence of Kurdish groups in Iraqi Kurdistan:

1. Saddam Hussein’s strategy of trying to foment groups in the region.

2. Iran’s strategy of trying to support Islamist Kurdish groups in the area.

3. General widespread despair.

4. Globalization, including not only Westernization but also the globalization of Salafi interpretations of Islam. Dr. Romano described Ansar al-Islam as a group of approximately 700-900 militants, about 100 of whom are Arabs. The organization had a Taliban-style system of government and society, and controlled a geographical area around the Iranian border, including a re-supply and retreat route into Iran. They carried out a number of terrorist attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan from 2001 onwards. However, in March 2003, it was pushed out of its enclave by joint PUK-U.S. Special Forces attacks. Since then, Iran has not delivered any of the Ansar militants who fled there. Ansar al-Islam is believed to have regrouped elsewhere in Iraq, and collaborates with new groups such as Ansar al-Sunna and Al-Qaeda in Iraq.

Dr. Romano used a number of photos and videos to demonstrate the above points and to draw the following conclusions:

1. It was formed due to a power vacuum opening, gaining territory and support from Iran.

2. Ideologically, it was Salafi and jihadist.

3. It was organized using mosques, pre-existing Islamist groups, cellular networks, and a liberated territorial base with the army.

4. It had support from Iran, Gulf charities, and possibly Saddam’s Iraq and Syria.

5. It utilized globalization, including "Arab Afghans" and Gulf supporters.

6. Currently, it appears to have not yet recovered from the 2003 routing.

Dr. Romano concluded his presentation with four strategies for the KRG to counter radical Islam, and five strategies that Western governments can rely on to give assistance.

KRG Policy Suggestions:

1. Close mosques after prayers.

2. Supervise school curriculum.

3. Keep close surveillance on Islamist parties and imams.

4. Implement vigilant transparency rules for any money coming into the region from abroad.

Western Policy Suggestions:

1. Help the country to develop democratically.

2. Help NGOs and human rights organizations become more active.

3. Assist the government in providing jobs and training for the young, and a place to spend time.

4. Find some solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

5. Put pressure on Saudi Arabia for transparency, especially in terms of financing.


The Jamestown Foundation

1111 16th St. NW

7th Floor Conference Room

Washington, DC 20036