Iraqi Kurds wary of resurgence of home-grown terrorism

Erbil has been the site of attacks by Kurdish extremists who do not belong to ISIS.
Sunday 29/07/2018
Kurdish security forces gather at the governorate building in Erbil, on  July 23. (Reuters)
In the shadow of violence. Kurdish security forces gather at the governorate building in Erbil, on July 23. (Reuters)

LONDON - Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) officials expressed concern about the threat of acts of terror by home-grown extremists as political divisions in the Kurdish-majority region widen.

Three armed Kurdish teenagers stormed the governor’s headquarters in Erbil on July 23, killing one employee and wounding several members of the security detail before dying during a 4-hour shootout. Two of the teenagers reportedly killed themselves with explosive devices.

No group claimed responsibility for the attack but security officials blamed the Islamic State (ISIS). “We believe that the attackers are from the Islamic State because of the tactics they used in breaking into the building,” an unidentified security official told Reuters.

Two of the gunmen were 16 years old and the third was 18. The family of one of the gunmen released a statement condemning the attack.

“If we had any clue about the fundamentalist mentality of our teenager, we ourselves would have given him to the Kurdistan Region’s security forces to avoid such a tragic event,” read the statement.

'Secure from radicalism'

“We ask the Kurdistan region Asayesh [security] to confront those who seduced our teens with harsh punishment, so other teens can be secure from radicalism,” the statement added.

Security officials arrested a radical cleric named Ismael Susai three weeks before the Erbil attack. Susai, whom security officials said confessed to pledging allegiance to ISIS, had reportedly contacted the teenage gunmen.

While terror attacks are rare in KRG-controlled areas, they are not new.

The region had hosted Kurdish al-Qaeda-affiliated fighters known as Ansar al-Islam, which controlled several villages near the Iranian border before 2003. Many of those fighters fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

In 2007, a group called “al-Qaeda Kurdish Battalions” was established in KRG areas and staged a number of attacks there. The US State Department branded the group in 2012 a “Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity”.

Kurdish ISIS fighters

With the rise of ISIS in 2014, some 2,000 Kurds reportedly joined the militant group before its defeat last December. However, ISIS is seeking to make a comeback, albeit with hit-and-run tactics as opposed to holding territory, and there is no reason it wouldn’t attack KRG-controlled areas, given the chance.

Erbil has been the site of attacks by Kurdish extremists who do not belong to ISIS. There is also the threat of a new jihadist group, White Banners (or White Flags), which includes Kurds and Arabs.

Jihadist groups are not the only source of terrorism in the Kurdish-majority region. The Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) has long undermined peace and stability in the region. KRG Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani branded the presence of PKK militants in Iraqi Kurdish areas an “occupation” that is responsible for civilian casualties.

“Why are [Turkish military] operations conducted in the Kurdistan region? They are conducted in the Kurdistan region because PKK has occupied large parts of Kurdistan and used them to attack Turkey and then return,” said Barzani.

There are fears that some of the KRG’s terror allegations stem from political rather than security motivations.

KRG courts 'used to settle political rivalries'

Security authorities in Erbil issued an arrest warrant for a Kurdish member of the Iraqi parliament, Salim Shushkayi, for alleged membership of ISIS. Shushkayi, who belongs to the opposition Komal party, dismissed the claim as politically motivated.

The Komal party voted against the extension of a counterterrorism law in the KRG parliament on July 1, citing fears that it would target people who are not terrorists.

“Everyone knows that some of the [KRG’s] courts, in times of political rivalry, lose their neutrality and are used to settle political rivalries… I strongly reject these accusations and I consider it an effort to undermine my character,” said Shushkayi while in hiding, reportedly in Sulaimaniyah.

Security forces in Erbil are controlled by the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) while those in Sulaimaniyah are under the command of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).

“The PUK and the KDP are part of the KRG, which should be in charge of the Kurdistan region but, in reality, on security issues, there is hardly any collaboration between the PUK and the KDP security forces,” wrote journalist Fazel Hawramy for Al-Monitor.

Failure to reform the peshmerga 

The Netherlands sent a delegation to the KRG to discuss reforming the peshmerga. There have been many previous international attempts to pressure the KRG to have a unified security apparatus that is not subjected to the political manipulation of the KDP and PUK. All failed.

The Erbil attack came when Iraqi Kurdish politicians, like parties in the rest of the country, accused each other of voter fraud in May’s national elections.

The infighting is not only likely to make the region more vulnerable to terror attacks but it could negatively affect the elections of the KRG’s parliament in September.

“If the opposition parties don’t get it together in these upcoming elections, then there will be a political crisis in Iraqi Kurdistan for sure,” Abubakr Karwani, a member of the Islamic Union, a small Kurdish opposition party, told website.

“Because the major parties that have caused so many problems in the region will remain in power and there will be no opposition that the people trust, no second choice. That can only lead to a continuation of the political crisis here,” he said.