In the last week, a series of attacks have hit the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq. On May 9, a truck bomb exploded outside of the Interior Ministry in Irbil, and on May 13, a truck bomb targeted the offices of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Makhmoor (The Daily Star, May 10). Despite these latest attacks, Kurdistan has been the only part of Iraq in which al-Qaeda has had troubling operating due to the region’s robust security forces. Yet, with the establishment of the Kurdistan Brigades from remnants of Ansar al-Islam, Ansar al-Sunnah and other Kurdish Islamic movements loyal to the Islamic State of Iraq (ISI), the recent attacks show that al-Qaeda is stepping up its operations and is slowly trying to establish a foothold in the fortified Kurdish areas. The Kurdistan Brigades only recently declared itself in a video put out in March of this year and has already carried out a number of operations.
The Kurdistan Brigades first surfaced in a March 14 four-part video release by al-Qaeda entitled “Back to the Mountains.” In addition to showing ISI activity in Kurdistan, the last segment of the video featured a statement by Abdallah Hassan al-Surani, in which he declared the group’s allegiance to al-Qaeda and enjoined Kurdish militants to join them: “In Kurdistan and in Iraq, the mujahideen have been working tirelessly…[to continue] their jihad against…the Kurdish collaborators who sold themselves, like Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani, who abandoned the Islamic faith and are carrying out their masters’ order day and night. They want to spread polytheism and corruption in Kurdistan, but they should know that the mujahideen, who are carrying their lives in their hands from the Brigades of Kurdistan, are defeating the plans of the apostates and the infidels. They are going into the cities of Irbil, Sulaymaniyah and other cities with martyrdom operations and jihad operations…we are at the service of the dear brothers in the Islamic State of Iraq” (http://www.alommh.net, March 14).
In addition to confirming their allegiance to the ISI and its leader Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the Kurdistan Brigades also indicated that elements of the group were loyal to al-Qaeda before the establishment of the ISI. While al-Surani is the official spokesman and public face of the group, sources indicate that a man by the name of Dilshad Kalari, also known as Dilshad Garmyani, is the organization’s leader.
Kurdish security services have moved quickly against the Kurdistan Brigades, hoping to suppress the movement before it becomes a bigger problem and threatens Kurdistan’s image as a bastion of security in an increasingly violent state. Kurdish newspapers reported the arrest of 14 members of the Kurdistan Brigades early this month. According to news reports, Kurdish security services had the insurgents under surveillance for some time before their arrests in the Sulaymaniyah area. Authorities said that all of the members were Kurds and many were former members of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (Kurdistani Nuwe, May 4). According to Kurdish security services, the group intended to conduct chemical attacks and had already “attended workshops in neighboring countries,” such as Afghanistan and Pakistan, to learn how to conduct terrorist attacks using chemical weapons. Also, according to Kurdish security services, the group had planned to use remote-controlled aircraft to carry out chemical attacks and blow up the Qaragul Bridge, which connects Sulaymaniyah to the southern towns in the province, in addition to other attacks that involved putting poisons on the handles of official cars (Kurdistani Nuwe, May 4). News reports also stated that the terrorists confessed to importing chemical substances into Kurdistan and that they were planning on carrying out attacks. While Iraq has witnessed a spate of recent chemical attacks, the claims by the security services have special resonance in the Kurdish community given that they were the target of chemical attacks by the former Baathist regime.
Some have argued that since the Baghdad Security Plan and the al-Anbar Salvation Council have begun to push out al-Qaeda elements from their traditional areas of operation, they are popping up elsewhere. Even Mosul Deputy Governor Khisro Koran believes that al-Qaeda activity in the Kurdish areas will increase as some of them have fled Baghdad in the face of the surge, pointing to recent attacks against KDP offices in Tal Asquf and the recent killings of Kurdish Yazidis (al-Sabah al-Jadeed, April 25). (Yazidis are adherents of an ancient religion with Islamic and pre-Islamic undertones that Salafis consider “devil worship.”) Others argue that recent missteps by the traditional power centers in Kurdistan—the KDP and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK)—are what have led to resurgent militant Islamist activity in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Another possibility is that the recent attacks are in retaliation for peshmerga participation in the Baghdad Security Plan.
These are all probable causes. Al-Qaeda, however, has been trying to establish a presence in the Kurdish areas for some time, therefore recent changes in the security situation elsewhere in the country are not the sole reason for the emergence of the Kurdistan Brigades. The upcoming referendum on Kirkuk is also another explanation for the increase in violence. Other insurgent groups, not just al-Qaeda, are interested in establishing a presence in the area to thwart any referendum that would bring Kirkuk under the administration of the KRG. This would explain the recent arrest of insurgent leaders tied to national insurgent groups like the 1920 Revolution Brigades, which is operating in and around Kirkuk.
Although the Kurdistan Brigades present a wholly different kind of threat to the Kurdish areas, Kurdish security forces are better positioned to deal with the al-Qaeda threat than are security forces in other parts of Iraq. Peshmerga security forces are better trained and more experienced fighters than the nascent Iraqi security forces. Despite an increasing segment of the population that is disgruntled and unhappy with the power monopoly of the KDP and PUK, the majority of the Kurdish population is not sympathetic to al-Qaeda regardless of their feelings toward the current regional government. Nevertheless, the demonstrated strength of the Kurdistan Brigades is a disturbing development. The Kurdish government should make sure that it manages the Kirkuk referendum, a key element in the KRG strategy for greater autonomy, with political finesse and increased security measures so that Kirkuk does not become a rallying point for the Kurdistan Brigades and other militant Islamist groups.