By Momen Zellmi and Harem Karem:
Ever since the start of Syria’s proxy war, people have travelled there to help the Syrians in their fight against the Assad regime; some for humanitarian reasons, some sponsored by rogue states, and others for ideological or religious purposes. They include people from all over the world. The Kurdistan Region (KR) – Syria’s next-door-neighbour and, historically, a safe haven for fundamentalists – is providing a significant share of human resources to the conflict: not to support the Kurds in Syria, but to fight alongside their adversaries.
While 235,000 or more Syrian refugees have poured into the region, a number of Kurds from KR have travelled to Syria for jihad with Al Nusrah. This report sheds light on how it all started, the jihad recruitment process and route taken, and it includes profiles of some of those who have recently died fighting alongside Al Nusrah.
To make sense of it all, one has to go back more than a decade. In 1999, an Islamic group, the Raparin Group, formed an alliance with another group, Yakbun, which was led by Mullah Ali Abdul-Azizi. Yakbun had approximately 8000 armed men, divided into eighteen groups stationed in the Halabja town of Slemani province. On 31 May 2001, Ali Bapir, a Yakbun bellwether, split away with fifteen of these forces and formed a political party, the Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG).
The remaining three units were split into three key factions:
(1) The pristine Islamic Union, led by Mullah Ali Abdul-Aziz and his sons – Irfan (who succeeded his dad several years later), Mohammed, Tahsen (who left for Afghanistan to join Al Qaeda in March 2003 during the Iraqi invasion and was later killed in Pakistan in 2011), and youngest son Saman (who left for Iran in March 2003 and is believed to be currently travelling back and forth between Iran and Syria).
(2) The Islah faction, led by Mullah Krekar who is today serving a five year sentence in a Norwegian prison for terrorism-related offences.
(3) The Soran Force 2 faction, led by Aso Mohammed Hassan (born in 1962 in Hawler), who was captured in late 2005 in a battle in Mosul, fighting alongside Al Qaeda, and is now believed to be in Suse prison in Slemani. Soran Force 2 was known at the time as the most extreme group, with most of its members coming from around Erbil province.
There were another two. small but effective, groups: the Hamas Union, led by Omer Bazyani, and Tawhid, founded by Hassan Sofi, who was killed in Halabjah in 2000. Soon after the formation of the KIG in May 2001, Soran Force 2 united with these two groups to form the extremist Jund- Al Islam, led by Abu Abdulla Shafiey. Seven months later this group allied with the Islah faction, and changed its name to Ansar Al Islam, led by (currently imprisoned) Mullah Krekar.
Ansar Al Islam comprised approximately 500 ideologically-driven, well-trained, armed men stationed in the remote areas of Hawraman, especially Byareh , Sargat and Gullp. It liaised with Al Qaeda through an Arab national known as Abu Waiel and sent its members to Afghanistan via Iran for training. The first group, led by Omer Bazyani, left for Afghanistan in summer 2001 and returned in summer 2002. Several years later, Omer Bazyani was killed in Fallujah.
The United States targeted the Ansar Al Islam base at 00:00 hours on 22 March 2003 with 101 Tomahawk missiles fired from the Red Sea, followed by a joint ground assault with local Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) forces. As a result, Ansar Al Islam was paralysed. Many of its fighters were killed, and the rest were captured or fled to Iran. The KIG was also caught up in this attack, with 43 of its men killed and about 50 injured.
However, having served their time and/or returned from Iran, cadres of the same Ansar Al Islam group are now thought to be mobilised and working underground in the Kurdistan Region. They are emboldening the youths – particularly targeting those in the 17-25 age group – through local mosques and secret meetings in groups of no more than eight people at a time. They are recruiting people to fight for Al Nusra in Syria. This is organised as a kind of human trafficking that bypasses Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) security. Young brainwashed men are handed over from one recruiter to another, travelling via Turkey until they reach Al Nusra in Syria.
Many of those currently in Syria have access to social networking sites and communicate with friends and families by mobile phones. The process of people leaving KR for jihad in Syria began in late 2011 and reached a peak in summer 2013. Among the recruiters are believed to be Turkish nationals who are in the KR on the pretext of running businesses and are helping to fund the operation.
In an interview with ‘Hawlati’ newspaper (10th December 2013 – No 1199), the head of the KRG’s National Intelligence Agency, Lahur Jangy, stated: “In total, 240 youths have so far travelled to Syria for the purpose of taking part in Jihad; 60-70 from Slemani, 100 from Halabja, 60-70 from Kerkuk and Khurmato, and 25 of whom have been trained and ready to commit suicide”. Jangy also confirmed that 17 jihadists have been arrested on their return to the Kurdistan region.
Relatives and friends of those killed in Syria have spoken to KT on condition of anonymity. They criticised the steps taken by local KR security forces to try and keep the extremists, or those identified as being affiliated with them, under control. They claimed that these measures – including arbitrary arrests, constant surveillance and compulsory attendances at local police stations – are counter-productive and sometimes push people towards jihad in Syria as an escape.
The Kurdistan Islamic Group (KIG) issued a statement on 8th December distancing itself from those who go to Syria for jihad.
Hawkar Muhammed was born in 1994 in the city of Slemani. After failing to complete his degree in physics, Hawkar travelled to Bangalore in India in November 2011 while registering to study for a pharmacy degree at East Point College in Rajiv Gandhi University. Described by his close friends as a very polite and profoundly religious individual who dedicated a great deal of his time to practising Islam, he attended Yusif Mosque in Bangalore which is influenced by the Islamic scholar, Ibn Taymiyyah. While he was in Slemani, Hawkar was arrested by local security, accused of distributing CDs and DVDs that spread extremism and held in custody for six months without any charges, his family and friends claim. In October 2012 he travelled to Turkey, and then to Syria, alone, with the intention of volunteering at local hospitals. His father is affiliated to the Kurdistan Islamic Group. Hawkar was killed in an air raid on Halab Airport in Syria on 12th February 2013; there are claims that he was unarmed. One of the last posts on his Facebook account reads: “Wherever there is oppression and iniquity, that’s my country”.
Osman Hama-Tofeq was born 1993 in Banishar Village, near Khurmal town in the Kurdistan Region. Osman attended Kurmal School till year nine, then went to the Halabja Islamic school, where he graduated as a Mullah. He later became Mullah at different villages around Khurmal town. Osman left for Syria in 2012 to join Al Nusrah. He remained in contact with his family by phone. His parents travelled to Syria, hoping to convince him to abandon Al Nusrah, but he refused to go home with them. After being injured twice in the conflict, he was killed on 19th November 2013.
Samal Othman was born 1994 in Slemani. He dropped out of secondary school, and was known to be very religious, influenced by the Islamic scholar, Seid Qutb. He culled a famous scholar’s name as his sobriquet, Ibn Taimiya. Before leaving for Syria, he taught Islam to local children at local mosques in Slemani, particularly ‘Noor’ and ‘Bekhud’ mosques. Samal was killed in fighting alongside Al Nusrah in Halab on 19th November 2013.
Kaiwan Muhammed (right) was born 1989 in Tawella Village, near Khurmal. He graduated from the University of Slemani, Halabja College. Kaiwan is known to have been a very good footballer in Halabja, who also taught Islam to local youths. He was on the local security radar for a while before leaving for Syria on 15th July 2013. Kaiwan was killed on the battlefield on 18 October 2013. Before leaving for Syria, Kaiwan wrote on his Facebook page: “Those who have gone for Jihad in Syria are good people, we don’t want our youths to go to Syria not because we against Jihad, but because we do not know the aims and objectives of the war in Syria. Those who have gone for Jihad in Syria were all good people; fighting alongside Al Nusrah with good hearts; we shall remain supportive of them. Our youths love Islam and humanity; they have decided to fight in Syria against injustice and oppression our brothers and sisters enduing; this is beyond nationalism. Those who criticize us for fighting against our fellow Kurds in North Syria, they should know that, we, as people of Halabja, know more than anybody about ‘Kurdayaty’ referring Kurdish nationalism. If a group of traitors siding with Assad regime calling themselves Kurds and their actions Kurdayaty, then it’s a false claim”.
Nabaz Sdiq was also known as Abu Qatada. Born in 1993 in Slemani, he participated in Islamic lessons at Darogha mosque in Slemani before leaving for Syria and joining Al Nusrah in July 2013. Nabaz was killed on 9th December 2013.
Kanan Abdulkareem was also known as Abdul Amnsur Iraqi. He was born in 1988 in Halabja, and was killed on 28th August 2013
Rabar Tariq (right) was born in 1989 in Halabja. He completed secondary school in Halabja and went on to take Islamic lessons in local mosques. Rabar travelled to Syria to participate in jihad during late 2012 and was killed on 22nd August 2013.
These are recent photos of Kurds from the Kurdistan Region who, at the time they posed for the pictures, were alive and fighting alongside Al Nusrah in Syria: