In a recent report, we focused on the historical aspect of ‘Kurds and Jihadi groups’ and posed the questions: how do Kurds join Al Nusrah in Syria and who are they? In this report, we aim through our conversations with some of them to consider two different questions: how do they operate and why they do fight their fellow Kurds in Syria?
According to our latest information, the number of Kurdish youth from the Kurdistan Region (KR) currently with Al Qaeda-affiliated militia groups – such as Al Nusrah, Free Army, Islamic State, Ahrar Islam (image below), Ansar Al Islam, and Kataib Al Haq in Syria – is nearing 300, all male and aged between sixteen and thirty three. The majority are either students or graduates.
In a brief conversation one of these Kurds, known by his initials as ‘JY’, criticised the ruling Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK): “Both ruling parties have been implementing the policy of zero tolerance towards us. We cannot practise our religion freely and without being put under surveillance. In the Kurdistan Region, there is a great deal of injustice; most of us have graduated but cannot get jobs because of ‘who we are’, ‘what we belief in’ and, ‘how we dress’.”
The issue of Kurdish youth leaving KR for Syria in order to participate in Jihad began in late 2011, especially after numerous influential Islamic scholars in the Middle East issued Fatwas justifying the war against the Syrian regime as Jihad and stating that those who die in it are considered martyrs. Among these scholars are Sheikh Sleman Alwan, Sheikh Mohammed Hasaan, Sheikh Sadiq Bin Mohammed Al Bidhani, and Sheikh Abdullah Al Ghaniman. Furthermore, 107 other Islamic scholars in a statement termed assistance for the Syrian people in their fight against the Assad regime as a ‘duty’ which should be interpreted as ‘obligatory by wealth and soul’.
However, there are currently no signs indicating direct links between them and Islamic parties in the KR. Leader of the Kurdistan Islamic Movement, Irfan Ali Abdul-Aziz (pictured on the right), has played down the Fatwa by Islamic scholars, stating that it is not Jihad for Kurds to travel to Syria.
Why do Kurds fight Kurds in Syria?
Over the past year, armed groups thought to be on the opposition side in Syria have been engaged in fighting with the Partiya Yekîtiya Demokrat (PYD)’s armed wing, Yekîneyên Parastina Gel (YPG) forces in Rojava (North Syria). This has been described by former Ansar Al Isam leader, Mullah Krekar, who is currently serving a five year imprisonment in a high security Kongsvinger prison in Norway, as “a pointless war, and should be avoided by Muslims”.
When we pointed out Krekar’s remarks to ‘KA’, one of the Kurds with Al Nusrah, he replied: “We have not specifically picked fights with them” (referring to the PYD/YPG forces). We are here to bring down the Assad regime, but they (PYD/YPG) confront us and prevent us from achieving our objectives. We are optimistic that soon, we will finish them both, the regime and PYD.” ‘AB’ commented on Krekar’s remarks: “We are looking at a Muslim Kurd and a Muslim Arab with the same eye. We equally look at a Non-Muslim Kurd and a non-Muslim Arab as our enemy. On this ground, we deem the PYD/YPG group as non-believers and part of the enemy, the Assad regime. Hence it is justified to go to war with them, even though they are Kurds.”
How are the Kurds seen by Al Nusrah?
‘AT’, another Kurd with Al Nusrah, originally from Halabja, spoke about their new way of life: “We have a very good lifestyle here, even better than our own home.” He elaborated: “At the beginning, there is an intense training programme for at least six months, and then step by step they guide us into the battlefield. They do not trust everyone who joins them, even after training, unlike us Kurds, some of those who have come from Western countries are being put under surveillance, even after they complete their training.”
Injuries and death
Many who go on the battlefield experience injuries or death. The majority of those killed are buried on the spot without making a note of the location; the areas are occasionally taken over by the regime forces, and hence families have no way of finding their bodies. Those with serious injuries, however, have a different story. They are transported to Turkey, where they receive appropriate medical treatment. According to our investigation, there are currently four Al Nusrah-affiliated Kurds who were seriously injured in the fighting and transported to Turkey – one of whom, ‘MA’, originally from Halabja, has been unconscious since August 2013 – and they are receiving medical treatment in a Turkish hospital. It is understood that MA’s brother has been in Turkey since August to look after him.
Recruitment, travel and training
In our previous report, we stated that there are Turkish nationals among the recruiters, disguised as businessmen and in the Kurdistan Region funding the process, while the main recruiters are thought to be members of the old Ansar Al Islam. None of the ten plus Kurds from KR we have spoken to, currently fighting alongside Al Nusrah, have denied that they travelled via Turkey to get to Syria. However, they have denied receiving training on Turkish soil, despite claims that there are obvious training camps inside Turkey. Families of those who have been killed or are currently fighting in Syria have confirmed to us that a number of them took no identification or money with them. The families believe they were given good quality fake identification which has not been spotted by immigration staff at the airports or border controls.
Asked whether he has freely chosen to go to Syria, AB replied: “We have come here willingly, nobody forced us. This is what we believe is the right thing to do.” But he refused to comment when asked: ‘Who are the recruiters?’ and ‘Who provided financial support?’ He said that he would not put them in danger, which implied that the recruiters are based in the Kurdistan Region. AB did, however, confirm that recruiters are meeting and organising the Kurdish youth from a Slemani mosque; the time and place of departure are arranged for them; everything is kept secret, even from families. There are usually two routes to take: either by airport or by car through Ibrahim Khalil Port, both of which involve travel via Turkey.
In a statement the security services in the Slemani province announced that several mosques where illegal gatherings have taken place were searched on 18 December 2013, equipment was seized and investigations are ongoing. This search was conducted using powers granted by the article seven of law number five of 2011. A source has confirmed that three Islamic scholars are being watched by the local security, two of them are members of the Islamic Movement leadership council. We contacted the Director of Halabja Islamic School, Mullah Abdul-Daiem Hawramani, whose school has provided the lion’s share of local Jihadists to the armed conflict in Syria, but he refused to comment. It is also understood that two members of the Islamic Movement leadership council in Halabja, one of whom is Mullah Osman Saeed-Ahmed (pictured left ), have been arrested by the security on 23 December and remain in custody, and sources say they are suspected to have encouraged the local youth to travel to Syria for Jihad.
Another man who has travelled to Syria for the purpose of participating in what he calls ‘Jihad’ is known by his nickname as Zaid Al Kurdi. Zaid is from Halabja and currently he fights alongside Al Nusrah in Syria. We contacted him by phone and asked him several questions:
Q) How many Kurds are there with you from the Kurdistan Region (KR)?
A) There are approximately eighty of us in my group. Among us are Kurds from Eastern Kurdistan (Iran), Northern Kurdistan (Turkey), and Southern Kurdistan (Kurdistan region of Iraq). There are also local Kurds among us from Western Kurdistan (North Syria).
Q) How do you find life there?
A) Our accommodations, foods, and clothes are very good. In terms of weaponry, we well equipped. This has particularly improved as direct result of seizing belongings of Assad’s regime. We have seized a number of villas from the regime officials and utilise them for our own use.
Q) When did you travel to Syria, and did you have any obstacles along the way?
A) I left Halabja in March 2013, there were no obstacles.
Q) How are the Kurds divided on to different forces and locations?
A) There are too many of us, from all parts of Kurdistan, we are in groups based on areas we are from or friendships.
Q) How many armed groups are there?
A) There are six armed groups in total: Al Nusrah, Free Army, Islamic State, Ahrar Islam, Ansar Al Islam, and Kitab Al Haq.
Q) Are there any high-ranking Kurds among you?
A) Yes, there are a number of our brothers with big responsibilities. One of them was Kak Samal Kosary, who was martyred recently; he was a high ranking frontline commander among Al Nusrah.
Q) In terms of training, how do you train, and where?
A) We conduct all trainings inside Syria in a number of training camps. There are different training levels to those who join, but we have all received training of some sort. Training can be six months, three months, or fifteen days, based on the capabilities of the trainees. We are being trained by experts on using weapons during conflicts and operate as part of teams.
Q) What is your relationship like with the Arabs?
A) There is a great deal of trust and love among us all, particularly between us Kurds and Arabs. The Arabs trust us more than others; in fact, we get most of the sensitive security positions. I’m currently in charge of several military bases. I have heard rumours that Kurds are always in frontline, it is not true. We engage in battles based on our divisions, and so far, not a single Kurd being captured. We fight the fight.
Q) Are there any connections between the old Ansar Al Islam and Kurdish youth currently in Syria?
A) We are all together on the same mission, against the Syrian regime and those affiliated with them. This is now an international conflict between Islam and non-believers. Old or new, we are all fighting for the same cause. All I can say is the current Ansar Al Islam chief commander is a Kurd by the name of Abu Ayoub Al Kurdia.
Q) As Kurds, do you have geographically different areas?
A) No, we are not separated. As previously mentioned, the only division among us is those who know each other tend to be in the units together.
Ferman Mohammed, also known as Abu Talha Kurdi, was born in 1992 in Slemani. He travelled to Syria in May 2013 and joined Al Nusra. Ferman committed suicide on 21 October 2013 when exploding a large vehicle in the YPG’s military headquarters (Shahid Damhat) in Tirpa Spee Town. Several people were killed in the explosion, including two YPG armed guards, two members of a Kurdish culture society, a civilian guest from northern Kurdistan (Turkey) and another local civilian.
Handren Muhammed (left) was born 1993 in Slemani – Ibrahim Pasha District, joined Al Nusrah after finishing year 12 in school. He is likely to have attended his local mosque, and probably joined Darogha mosque. He was arrested by local security several times before leaving for Syria, accused of fundraising to Jihadists. He was known to have encouraged local youth to join Al Nusrah in Syria for “Jihad” before joining himself seven month ago. He was known by Abu Dujanah AlKurdi, Handren was killed on 8 December 2013 in Halab.
Osman A. Omar (right) was born in 1994 in Halabja. He was a secondary school student in Halabja, before leaving for Syria and joining Al Nusrah on 15 June 2013. He was killed in Der Al-Zur on 18 December 2013.
Mariwan was taken to Turkey after being injured to receive medical treatment. He later returned to Syria and is currently fighting alongside the Al Nusrah group.