A spokesman of the Kurdish arm of al-Qaeda in Iraq recently announced the group’s intention to eliminate Iraq’s Kurdish leadership: “To the two Kurdish puppets, Jalal Talabani and Masoud Barzani, I swear by God that we have no mercy or sympathy towards the traitors who sold themselves to the enemies of God. Your throats will be slit.” The challenge from the Kurdistan Brigades came in an October video released by al-Furqan, the media arm of the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI). The Kurdish-language video shows group members doing military training and chanting in Kurdish while masked men read a statement condemning the top Iraqi Kurdish and Shiite leaders. The statement expresses the group’s opinion that the religion of the Kurdish people is in danger, as Kurdistan is under the control of the United States, the UK and the Jews. Entitled "Eid Gift #4 – The Kurdistan Brigades," the video contained footage of attacks with small arms and road-side bombs on patrols of the security forces of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) (muslm.net, October 8; paldf.net, October 4).
KRG officials usually refer to the Kurdistan Brigades as a group linked to the Salafi-Jihadi Ansar al-Islam movement, the insurgent group bombed by U.S. forces during the 2003 American invasion. The stance of the Brigades differs from the conclusion reached recently by the exiled leader of Ansar al-Islam, Mullah Fatih Krekar, who said he saw no reason to clash with the ruling parties in Kurdistan at the moment, suggesting patience while waiting for this stage in Iraq’s political evolution to pass (Islam Online, November 5).
Beside the Kurdistan Brigades, there are four major Islamist political movements active in Iraqi Kurdistan:
• The Islamic Movement in Iraqi Kurdistan (IMIK) – Formed in 1987 in Halabja. IMIK fought against Saddam’s regime in the 1980s. In the 1990s IMIK engaged in fighting with Jalal al-Talabani’s Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). The movement is led by Mullah Ali Abd al-Aziz Halabji. In its last conference IMIK announced reforms and elected women for the first time to its supreme command. A pledge was also made to play the role of the political opposition in Kurdistan.
• The Islamic Group of Kurdistan (IGK) – Headed by Mullah Ali Bapir, the IGK formed in 2001 as an offshoot of the IMIK. The movement participates in the regional government and parliament. The group does not currently advocate jihad and has announced its willingness to work with Sufi as well as Salafist forms of Sunni Islam.
• The Islamic Union of Kurdistan (IUK) – Unlike the Salafist IMIK and the IGK, this group, which is the biggest Islamic party in Kurdistan, represents the Muslim Brotherhood in Kurdistan. The IUK is headed by Salah al-Din Muhammad Baha’a al-Din and is considered the third party in Kurdistan, with members in both the central and regional parliaments.
• Ansar al-Islam – A Salafi-Jihadi group founded by radical elements of IMIK in 2001 with the name of Jund al-Islam. The group is headed by Mullah Krekar, who lives in Norway. In 2003, the movement was driven from its base in Iraq by PUK peshmerga and U.S. Special Forces units. Most members fled to Iran but are believed to have now regrouped in Iraqi Kurdistan. Although the group denies any link to al-Qaeda, it has called for jihad against Coalition forces and still advocates jihad in the Muslim world.
Right after the Iraqi parliament passed a law to pave the way for the formation of autonomous regions within Iraq, al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) declared the formation of the Islamic State of Iraq in the Sunni areas of central and western Iraq. The justification was that the Kurds had their autonomous region in the north, while the legislation paved the way for the Shiites to form their own region in the south and center. Nevertheless, the Islamic State, which was initially supposed to extend over the Sunni-Arab part of Iraq, turned out to have a Kurdish wing.
Emergence of the Kurdistan Brigades
In the first half of 2007, the name of the Kurdistan Brigades started to appear in jihadi internet forums. On April 21, 2007, a letter signed by Haji Arif, who claimed to be the leader of the Brigades, was placed on a number of jihadi forums. In his letter Arif declared clearly that his group is part of al-Qaeda and presented his group to the public as a Salafi-Jihadi group:
People of Kurdistan, We promise to carry Allah’s message and keep it pure by not mixing it with any infidel legitimacy such as democracy and secularism… You will see how we will destroy the enemies of Allah and restore dignity for the bearers of Allah’s religion… your brothers in the Kurdistan Brigades will prevent Kurdistan from being a pastureland for the Jews, the Crusaders and their agents (majdah.maktoob.com, April 21, 2007).
Arif went on to condemn the Kurdish leaders, Masoud al-Barzani, KRG president, and Jalal al-Talabani, the president of Iraq. Arif called on the moderate Islamists in Kurdistan, some of whom are involved in the parliament and the regional government, to change their course:
Our demands are for those movements that carry Islamic slogans but are aligned with the secular parties and are part of the so-called regional government of Kurdistan… they are not ashamed of sitting with the American occupiers as if they have no relation with the war between America and Islam, as if jihad does not include them. We tell them, leave the Americans and their agents and refer to the Quran verses about belief and infidelity.
Arif ends his statement by calling on Muslims everywhere to support his group with funding. Arif also confirmed his group’s loyalty to al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden and to the leader of the Islamic State in Iraq, Shaykh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi.
The vast majority of the population in Iraqi Kurdistan is Sunni Muslim. Nevertheless, AQI could not operate freely in that area in post-war Iraq. Unlike the rest of the country, Kurdistan was already beyond the control of Saddam’s central government. The area was secured by the regional government, controlled by the two main Kurdish parties; Barzani’s Partiya Demokrata Kurdistan (PDK) and the PUK, headed by Jalal al-Talabani. For most Kurds the invasion was a historic opportunity to get rid of Saddam’s threat,, but al-Qaeda did not give up its attempts to influence the Kurds. In an interview published earlier this year on al-Sahab, the media wing of al-Qaeda, Dr. Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s second-in-command, gave his views on the Iraqi Kurds:
The Kurds are a genuine part of the Muslim nation, every Muslim is proud of their sacrifice and history. All Muslims sympathize with the Kurds for the oppression they suffered under the fanatical Ba’athist regime. I think that their brothers the mujahideen in Iraq, whether Arab, Kurdish or Turkman, sympathize with the Kurds and understand many of the Kurds’ demands as stated by Shaykh Abu Omar al-Baghdadi (may Allah protect him). But what no Muslim, Kurdish or non-Kurdish, can possibly accept is that Iraqi Kurdistan be ruled by a secular government, loyal to the Crusaders and cooperating with the Jews (Al-Sahab Media Productions, December 2007; see also Terrorism Focus, June 24).
The Kurdistan Brigades are active in the border sector between Iraq and Iran, especially around the town of Halabja. This area east of al-Sulaymaniyah is traditionally the main stronghold of the Kurdish Islamists. It was the gateway for the first group of al-Qaeda fighters who came from Afghanistan and set up their camps there. One of those fighters was the then little known Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the late leader of AQI, killed in 2006.
Marwan Naqshabandi, a Kurdish researcher specializing in armed groups, believes that Iran supports the Brigades. In an interview with Dubai’s al-Arabiya satellite TV, he indicated that Shiite Iran could get over the sectarian barrier with the Sunni Salafi-Jihadis; “Iran is not a sectarian state but a national one, they are clever in dealing with armed groups out of their territories. Iran is helping the Kurdistan Brigades of al-Qaeda to the extent of hitting the targets set by Iran against its political opponents. I do not believe that the Brigades are strong enough to embarrass Iran or to create trouble inside it.” (al-Arabiya TV, November 16).
It is hard to find concrete evidence that Iran is supporting the Kurdistan Brigades, though the Brigades’ need for bases in Iran is crucial. They are isolated geographically from their comrades in the Arab part of Iraq; for example, Mullah Krekar described the long journey his followers in Ansar al-Islam had to undertake when they fled their bases in Iraqi Kurdistan after the American bombing in 2003:
More than 80 fighters were killed and the same amount was captured by the two major Kurdish parties. Fifteen were captured in Iran and the rest disappeared in the Iranian Kurdish villages until they managed to forge identification documents [that] enabled them to pass the Iranian-Iraqi borders through Shiite southern Iraq. They then reached Baghdad, Rumadi Diyala and Mosul, where they are now (Islam Online, November 5).
The Arab and Kurdish branches of al-Qaeda in Iraq will likely work to bridge the geographical gap between them. Full coordination between the regional government of Kurdistan and the Iraqi central government will be required to prevent this. There was a big row recently when Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki wanted to form tribal armed groups backed by the central government in Kurdistan and the surrounding areas, with the Kurds strongly condemning the move. Kurds,worrying that the Sunni Arabs might turn against them, have opposed forming Awakening councils in disputed areas where the population is a mix of Kurd and Sunnis Arab (Moheet.com, November 18). If this dispute develops into a crisis, it would present a golden opportunity for al-Qaeda to connect the mountain bases of the Kurdistan Brigades along the Iranian border east of al-Sulaymaniyah with one of the few remaining AQI strongholds west of al-Sulaymaniyah in the Himreen Mountains.
While the Brigades are urging the moderate Islamists in Kurdistan to turn violent, moderate Kurdish Islamists must try to influence the members of the Brigades, especially those whom they knew and worked with in the past. Both the central and regional governments should support such initiatives in an effort to curb the spread of radical Islam in the relatively secure Iraqi Kurdistan.