It is widely acknowledged that northern Iraq has escaped the chaos and violence wrought by the Iraqi insurgency, but this does not mean that al-Qaeda and affiliated groups have not attempted to operate in the Kurdish Regional Government’s (KRG) territory. Many al-Qaeda members have been arrested before carrying through their operations and are still held in Kurdish jails. Their presence in Kurdish custody, however, is not widely known or acknowledged. Just this past month, three al-Qaeda members, who were arrested in northern Iraq, were publicly acknowledged as being held by the KRG. The high profile arrests (two of the members were on the most wanted list) attest to the capability of Kurdish security forces, made up largely of former peshmerga, under KRG command. The last attack in KRG territory was over a year ago in May 2005 when terrorists targeted a police training center.
The Arabic newspaper Asharq al-Awsat recently managed to secure an interview with Abdullah al-Ramiyan and Mohammed al-Rashudi, two al-Qaeda members in Kurdish custody who are on Saudi Arabia’s list of 36 most wanted terrorists. They spoke of their arrest and life in Kurdish prison in the presence of Kurdish security officials. According to Lieutenant Artush, a senior Kurdish security official responsible for their custody, the two men confessed that they had traveled to Iraq to conduct terrorist operations. The two men were without identification and although they had given fake names at the border, their cover was blown by their undisguised foreign accents.
On one occasion, al-Ramiyan stated he had traveled to Kurdistan by first leaving Saudi Arabia, traveling to Syria, then Turkey and entering through the Ibrahim al-Khalil pass to visit Iraqi Kurdistan as a tourist. On another occasion, he reversed his story and said he had traveled to Iraq only to visit relatives (Asharq al-Awsat, May 30).
It is unclear how the suspects have been treated in Kurdish jails. The prisoners were first interrogated while in solitary confinement, but were then transferred to general quarters. Al-Ramiyan denied being abused or tortured by Kurdish security officials, but also said that his family visited him four times since he had been in jail, a claim denied by Artush who said inmates received no visitors (Asharq al-Awsat, May 30).
The interview with al-Rashudi did not reveal much information about his arrest or experience under Kurdish custody, but he indicated that one of the benefits was that he learned to speak Kurdish and eat Kurdish food. It is unclear why Kurdish officials did not extradite the two men to Saudi Arabia or central Baghdad. Most likely, Kurdish officials wanted to extract more information from the suspects and determine their fate themselves.
Not all al-Qaeda suspects have remained in Kurdish custody. One other al-Qaeda terrorist arrested by Kurdish officials was recently transferred to U.S. custody. Said Saad Said al-Qarni (also known as Abu Qatiba), was a former student of Imam Mohammed bin Saud in Riyadh. He was detained by Kurdish police in Mosul last year after a failed attempt to blow up the Kurdistan Democratic Party headquarters. Abu Qatiba also traveled through Syria to enter Iraq. According to the investigation, Abu Qatiba met an Iraqi named Abu Mohammed and stayed with him and four others. He was chosen to carry out the attack in Mosul and entered northern Iraq on forged documents (Asharq al-Awsat, June 1).
Thus far, none of the al-Qaeda members in custody have yet to stand trial. The Kurdish minister of state for the interior, Abdul Karim Sinjari, explained that they have not stood trial because anti-terrorism laws have yet to be approved by the regional assembly (Asharq al-Awsat, May 30). Yet for Kurdistan, the focus has been more on arrests and anti-terrorism measures through intelligence and interrogation rather than on legislating anti-terrorism laws.
Kurdish security officials rely on the vigilance of the security forces at the border and the cooperation of ordinary Kurdish citizens. Minister Sinjari has said that many people maintain direct contacts with Kurdish police and inform them of any foreigners or unknown individuals in the area. He even related that one woman informed the police that her husband participated in a terrorist attack saying, “It is best I hand over my husband to the police than for 50 women to become widows” (Asharq al-Awsat, May 30).
In a recent interview, Nechirvan Barzani, prime minister of the Kurdish region, extolled the cooperation and cohesion between Kurdish citizens and the security forces. He cited a similar story, but this time it was a mother who turned in her son. Clearly, Kurdish officials are building upon the myth of close citizen-to-security cooperation as a means to deter would-be terrorists (Asharq al-Awsat, June 3).
Why is there such close cooperation with the security services, and could this offer a lesson for other regions in Iraq? According to Barzani, Kurdish citizens have a direct stake in maintaining stability in the region. Establishing the KRG and building Kurdistan’s reputation over the past 10 years has been a unified effort. Although they may have grievances with their government as in other regions of Iraq, Kurdish citizens would rather have security and stability through the security services than establish alternative structures.