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Rumbles of radicalism in Kurdistan

Al Qaeda's presence stunned Iraq's moderate north.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / November 3, 2005


In the gathering dark inside the cavernous mosque, Mullah Omar Sweri takes his time leading the last Muslim prayer session of the day.

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The Sunni preacher speaks of moderation, a message commonly heard in the officially monitored mosques of the Kurdish north. The contrast could not be greater, measured against the harsh rhetoric of the Sunni militants to the south, who drive Iraq's insurgency.

So it was a surprise to many Kurds that small Al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunna cells were among six groups of extremists arrested in Arbil this summer - and that nearly all the militants were home-grown Kurds.

"Kurds are religious people, but they have never been extremists - God does not need extremists," says Mullah Sweri. "Extremism is not an action, it is a reaction. So the more injustice grows in a society, the more extremism there will be."

While the cells were small, they were lethal. Among them were militants deemed responsible for suicide bombings on May 4 and June 20 that killed more than 75 people in Arbil, mostly police recruits. In confessions shown on TV, some described mortar attacks on South Korean coalition troops, and a botched remote-controlled bombing.

In the totality of violence in Iraq today, the northern Iraq attacks and subsequent arrests might seem little more than a footnote. But the fact that these militants are Kurds highlights a little-known history of how Islamist ideology first came to northern Iraq - and how today it is helping bolster the ranks of the insurgency.

Analysts say that key factors include Saudi Arabia's proselytization and mosque-building here in the 1990s, combined with the return of mujahideen veterans from the Afghan war against the Soviet Union.

"They were trying to create a new generation of jihadists in Kurdistan," says Nyaz Saeed Ali, a specialist on Islamic Fundamentalism who heads the "Cadre's Institute" of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two main political parties in northern Iraq.

"When they came back they wanted to duplicate the [Afghan] experience in Kurdistan, and fight the secular government," says Mr. Ali, who says he was unsuccessfully targeted last year by one Ansar cell. "The purpose of their return was not to fight Saddam Hussein, but secular Kurds."

Many bolstered the ranks of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), which fought the PUK from 1993, and later joined its regional government. By the time the US invaded Iraq a decade later, Islamist groups had split and split again, and targeted most Kurdish political factions. The most significant to emerge, by 2001, was Ansar al-Islam.

Though it had ties with Al Qaeda, Ansar al-Islam bases were limited to a remote strip of villages on Iraq's northeastern border with Iran where, ironically, they were part of the Kurdish safe haven protected by US and British warplanes. The bases were destroyed by US airstrikes in 2003.

But their growth here is also a cautionary parable of how a few persistent seeds of Islamic radicalism, no matter how unwelcoming the soil, can take tenuous root. Experts and security officials, as well as arrest patterns of Kurdish militants, indicate that after fleeing to Iran, one wing of dispersed Ansar members hooked up with Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's Al Qaeda in Iraq, which works out of Baghdad, Fallujah, and western Anbar Province. A second wing, under the rubric Ansar al-Sunna, operates from points north such as Baquba, Tikrit, Mosul, and Kirkuk.

"There are two million people [in Kurdistan], and they have their ideas - at least 20 would follow radical thinking," says Esmat Arkoshi, the chief of security for the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) in Arbil. "When they were captured [and confessed publicly], they didn't know their religion deeply - they knew they had been cheated."

The lack of local sympathy for the extremists, and efficient Kurdish security operations, mean that most attacks here are ordered from bases elsewhere.