How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
“Jihadism has existed here for decades, and ISIS will be defeated just like the rest of them,” a confident senior Kurdish intelligence official told us. The Kurds are particularly self-assured when it comes to the threat that the Islamic State poses to the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan, which the group menaced before the Kurdish peshmerga forces (and Western airpower) began beating it back in August 2014.
We spent two weeks in Iraqi Kurdistan in order to gain a better understanding of ISIS and the war against it. Our research involved interviewing Kurdish security officials, peshmerga commanders, intelligence officers, and Kurdish prisoners who had joined ISIS. We learned more about the conditions that take someone away from his or her home, family, and friends to the so-called caliphate.
During a peshmerga-guided trip to Taza, a settlement just outside Kirkuk that represents one of the front lines against ISIS in Iraq, Kurdish commanders appeared genuinely relaxed. The head of the base there told us that, since the start of the U.S.-led air campaign in 2014, ISIS has been unable to mount any serious assaults in the area. “All we see now are a few mortar shells,” he said, “just to remind us that they are there.” In some cases, ISIS has resorted to using shells laden with chlorine and mustard gas. A week prior to our visit, Taza was the site of one such attack, which led to hundreds of casualties. Despite the concern it caused, this attack was more a demonstration of the group’s increasing desperation than anything else.
ISIS, however, is not just a terrorist insurgency threatening the borders of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is also a domestic problem, and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) internal security services have been hard at work preventing ISIS attacks within its territory, arresting Kurdish and Arab members (and even Western foreign fighters, we were told) and dismantling the group’s remarkable recruitment and logistics network.
Jihadist groups have historically found it difficult to gain wide appeal within Kurdish culture, which is defined by centuries of secular nationalist struggle against Arab regimes. But they do have a historical presence in the region. Kurdish jihadist groups emerged as splinters of earlier, more moderate Kurdish Islamist movements. Among the first of these was the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK). It was established in 1987 by a number of Islamist Iraqi dissidents fighting Saddam Hussein’s Baathist dictatorship, some of whom had trained and fought in Afghanistan during the Russian invasion.
The IMK and other Kurdish Islamists traditionally sought refuge in the east of what would become Iraqi Kurdistan and had a strong base in Halabja, a more religiously conservative province there. This location also ensured that the group was in close proximity to its patrons in the Iranian regime, which at the time was engaged in its eight-year war with Iraq.
The Halabja province is best known as the site of Saddam’s 1988 chemical weapons strike, an atrocity that took the lives of around 5,000 Kurds. Unsurprisingly, the bombing had a significant radicalizing effect on the population, which the IMK exploited by declaring jihad on the Iraqi government in response. Throughout the early 1990s, the IMK continued to receive training and financial and logistical assistance from Saddam’s enemies. The Iranians were joined by Syrian Baathists in their efforts to destabilize both Saddam’s dictatorship and the Kurdish region’s newly elected secular nationalist government, which was run by the two giants of Iraqi Kurdish politics and society, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
The stories of Kurdistan’s ISIS members should serve as a reminder of the complexities of the region’s problems. There is no holy grail, and one should be wary of those who promise it.
The Islamists in the IMK were only too happy to oblige, organizing a number of attacks in the region against both PUK and KDP targets. Although intermittent fighting broke out between secular Kurds and the IMK, the KDP and PUK were soon distracted by their own civil war, which took almost all of their attention between 1994 and 1998. At the end of the war, the IMK joined the secular KRG, angering its more hardcore elements and leading to the creation of the country’s first Salafi-jihadist groups.
The biggest of these was Jund al-Islam, which in the late 1990s began establishing militant and ideological training camps in the Halabja region in the hope of preparing the ground for a Salafi-jihadi revolution in Iraq. By 2001, it had been renamed Ansar al-Islam and began receiving assistance from al Qaeda. It was also during this time that the group attracted the attentions of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the eventual founder of al Qaeda in Iraq. He saw northern Iraq as an effective safe haven for the consolidation of his own movement, Jund al-Sham, which he had established in Afghanistan following the 2001 invasion. After the subsequent 2003 invasion of Iraq, and with Zarqawi’s assistance, it became one of a number of jihadist organizations waging jihad against Western and Kurdish forces. Its single worst atrocity in Iraqi Kurdistan came in 2004, when a suicide car bomb killed 109 people, including Kurdistan’s then deputy prime minister, Sami Abdul Rahman.
It is here where the roots of ISIS lie. For the Kurdish authorities, the group is little more than the latest incarnation of a movement that has proven on numerous occasions its capacity to revitalize and reorganize itself in the region. What this long-term Kurdish experience with jihadists also means is that its security services and military are very well versed in fighting, and defeating, such groups. This may partly explain the confidence of all the officials with whom we spoke.
ISIS has lost over 40 percent of its territory in Iraq, and around 20 percent in Syria. In the months since the attacks in Paris in November, it withdrew from more than seven major towns and cities. U.S. military officials in Kurdistan told us that its overall network and leadership is being decimated by the international coalition that has a significant presence in the skies as well as on the ground, where they work with local forces such as the Kurdish peshmerga.
Since May 2015, ISIS has been unable to launch a successful operation in Iraqi Kurdistan. Yet there is no room for complacency, since the ISIS network that extends throughout the region relies upon and takes advantage of the historical jihadist roots in the area. According to officials, there are currently 400–450 Kurdish ISIS members either in the KRG or among ISIS ranks that can keep the group going.
This network survives in large part because ISIS, which operates in that grey area between a mafia and an insurgent group, is still able to prey upon and exploit the weak. “Let me give you an example,” explained a senior internal security agent. “ISIS goes to a lorry driver in Syria or Iraq whose livelihood depends on going back and forth from ISIS-controlled areas to Kurdistan. Faced with a choice of either becoming a messenger or delivery boy for ISIS, or having his family killed, of course he’ll go for the first option.” This is just one part of a wider logistics network the group has managed to establish. Unsurprisingly, it has also made extensive use of the internet and social media, trawling Facebook for possible Kurdish recruits among sections of the region’s vulnerable and impressionable youth.
Kurds’ reasons for joining ISIS are varied and do not necessarily line up with the factors that have influenced their Arab Iraqi counterparts. Many of the latter are joining in protest against the Shia-dominated government in Baghdad that they perceive to be sectarian and that ISIS (and al Qaeda in Iraq before it) presents as anti-Sunni. This type of messaging simply does not resonate among the vast majority of Iraqi Kurds, who are largely disentangled from the Sunni-Shia divides found in the rest of the country. Although our sample of Kurdish ISIS members is admittedly too small for us to make any sweeping conclusions, our conversations with them nonetheless helped to provide a better understanding of how the group operates and whom it recruits.
Our first encounter was with Araz (the names of all prisoners have been changed), a prisoner in his late teens. He had been using Facebook for just two weeks before he was contacted by ISIS recruiters and began to inject himself into their virtual world. A young and impressionable online rookie, he was the perfect target for ISIS recruitment.
When we asked him how ISIS was able to find him, he told us that, due to his interest in Islam, he had posted photos and images of Islamic scriptures and symbols. His profile picture was an image of the Al-Quds mosque in Jerusalem. This caught the attention of ISIS recruiters, who approached him and began a dialogue that would help determine how realistic his prospects of joining the group were.
According to Araz, over a period of three months, his online ISIS contacts convinced him of their utopianist project, and he decided to pack his bags and head to ISIS-controlled Mosul. Although he had a fairly comfortable life and good relations with his family, he was convinced to leave them behind in search of adventure and because of the prospect of being part of what ISIS presents to recruits as one of the most pivotal moments in the entire history of Islam: “They told me that they could offer me a place in their community, status and the chance to fight for a God-given cause.” He became certain that Kurdistan was corrupt and getting tied up in petty nationalist politics, all while the United States continued to humiliate Muslims by occupying their lands and attacking them. It made no difference what his background was in the caliphate, or what his job was: “They said that we were all equal since we all adhere to the same cause.”
How, we asked, could he possibly trust these people whom he had never met? According to what he told us, he had no previous experience with jihadist groups and ostensibly had little reason to find the movement appealing. As a newcomer to Facebook, however, he did not have many other friends to engage with online. Araz told us that, using the social network’s messenger service, he spoke to three different individuals before he signed on. A bond soon began to form, and he warmly described how they began to refer to each other as “brother.” He was not, however, immediately won over by their initial conversations about methods of combat and suicide bombings: “I did not accept what they were telling me, I wasn’t convinced.”
Despite this, the exchanges continued, and he came to feel close to them as the months wore on. They presented him with stories of heroism, martyrdom, and the glorious new life he could have in the caliphate. He was warned of the evils of the Shia and fellow Sunni Muslims who did not follow the ISIS ideology, but theological discussions did not take center stage.
He never felt as if he was being forced to accept their message, and this soft approach appears to have worked: “They did not tell me to accept [Abu Bakr] al-Baghdadi [the current leader of ISIS], but did tell me what it was like to be his follower…theology did not come up during our discussion in great detail; they explained to me that the Quran provides guidance for every aspect of our lives and that the laws of the caliphate were from the Quran, were not made by the corrupt, and that the laws were divine and supreme.” Despite only having engaged in basic discussions about Islam, Araz was eventually convinced of the merits of hijrah, or migrating to fight for the cause of Islam. However, as he prepared to leave his home for ISIS-held territory, he was arrested by Kurdish authorities who had been monitoring his online activities.
This process took place entirely in cyberspace and, while the majority of research related to so-called online radicalization has stressed the importance of some level of contact with an offline, physical network, it is also acknowledged that there are a significant number of exceptions to this rule. In some cases, the power of the virtual network has proven to be enough to convince would-be fighters to take action. Other interviewees were also recruited via Facebook and used Whatsapp and Telegram (a messenger application with an encrypted “secret chat” function that makes it popular with ISIS supporters around the world) to communicate with ISIS recruiters and minders.
For ISIS recruiters, online recruitment is almost entirely cost-free. They are able to identify potential fighters who are in close proximity to ISIS territory based on their social media posts, and they cast their net as far and wide as possible. Operating within their own territory means they are running almost no risk of being arrested for their activities. If new recruits are picked up by authorities en route to joining the group, they have little actionable intelligence on the location or true identity of their ISIS online contacts.
Unlike Araz, another prisoner we spoke to, Ali, had long-standing ties to Kurdish jihadist networks, and a number of his friends had become ISIS members. After one of them was killed fighting for ISIS in Iraq in 2015, he was jolted into action. Shortly after, Ali posted a photo of his friend on Facebook along with a message that he was “martyred in defending the caliphate” and was blessed to have been killed during the month of Ramadan. The death of his friend was, according to him, “when I first entertained the idea of joining ISIS.”
His posts piqued the interests of online ISIS recruiters, and he was soon in contact with them via Facebook and Telegram. Although he had no formal Islamic training, throughout his adult life he too considered himself a religious practicing Muslim. ISIS only became an appealing prospect to him, though, once others he knew had become involved. He told us that conversations with friends and online ISIS recruiters led him to conclude that the group was practicing and implementing Islam in its original and purest form.
When we asked him how he could join a group that represents one of the most potent enemies of the Kurdish people, he explained how he was “misled by people I already knew, Kurds who had gone to the caliphate and contacted me from there, friends I continued to stay in touch with. My friendship with people I knew and the ayats [verses from the Quran] and hadith [accounts of the words and actions of the Muhammad] helped to manipulate me and convinced me to join ISIS.”
Friends of his who had already joined ISIS then arranged for him to meet a contact of theirs in Kurdistan. During the meeting, he was urged to travel with other recruits to Mosul, but he hesitated, not wanting to leave his family behind. Identifying an opportunity to grow their network within KRG territory, the ISIS member told him to stay home and await further instructions. In contrast to the young, childless Araz, who was ready to travel to Mosul, Ali had a commitment to his young family.
When we asked him why he chose his family over making hijrah, he replied, “Because they offered me the chance to be part of the caliphate from where I was; it was not necessary for me to go to Mosul and I did not want to leave my family.” The recruiters provided him with money, “but this was not the main motivation for me,” he said. Now claiming to have disavowed his extremist views, he revealed that “I used to believe in the Islam that they told me and believed in the caliphate and Baghdadi, but not anymore. And even then I had my doubts.
As a Kurdish intelligence official explained to us, ISIS plants couriers and messengers within the Kurdistan region as part of its logistics network. “They wanted me to pick things up,” he told us; “collect bags and assist drivers coming into Kurdistan from Mosul and other cities.” On at least three separate occasions, he met lorry drivers acting as couriers for ISIS. They gave him bags full of weapons and ammunition which, using a dead-drop method, he would leave in specified locations for someone else to pick up, watching from a distance to ensure their safe retrieval.
However, the final delivery he took contained something different: it was a large IED which he was to place in his local Shia mosque in the city of Sulaymaniyah during the Shia holy festival of Ashura. According to Ali, it was an obvious choice: “The Shia mosque was always crowded and they are apostates and legitimate targets.” He was also keen to show remorse, pointing out that “I was not thinking straight at the time and was manipulated”; though it was impossible to know whether this sentiment was real or feigned given the circumstances of our meeting. That he eventually decided against carrying out the attack certainly suggests some level of regret, however. Leaving the device at his home, he visited the site of the intended target carrying the same bag he was given, fearing that he was being watched by ISIS minders. His hope was that he could convince them that he decided against planting the bomb due to a high security presence. He too had by this time caught the attentions of Kurdish intelligence, and was arrested as he approached the mosque.
Ali’s story fits more closely to current orthodoxy on how people become involved with terrorist groups. He was influenced by a combination of his own religious devotion along with involvement in a friendship network with connections to ISIS that helped to encourage him to join. Although his online activities certainly played a role, it is unlikely that he would have become interested in ISIS were it not for his friend’s membership in the group and his eventual death.
The last prisoner we met was the most difficult to understand and obtain a clear story from. He appeared more interested in offering a version of events that exonerated him, and was regularly interrupted by Kurdish security officials who questioned the facts he was presenting. Unlike the others, Juma displayed little knowledge or interest in ISIS and its ideology, claiming to have acted out of a mixture of ignorance and the promise of financial incentives.
An out-of-work laborer at the time, Juma was put in contact by his brother-in-law with a man who apparently wanted to help him find a job. Only later, Juma claimed, did he discover that this man was an ISIS operator. He was offered a new car, which he could use as a taxi, something he told us he could not afford to turn down. In return, he was asked to provide ISIS with information. Taxi drivers can offer the group various benefits, including the ability to scout locations for possible kidnappings and attacks without arousing suspicion. Although he denied taking part in any of this, Kurdish officials told us that he had given ISIS information related to the locations of key prisons and other sensitive sites in Kurdish cities.
According to Juma, he only realized he was dealing with ISIS two months after his initial contact was made, when he was asked to pick up a new car. “We went to a location to collect a car with three other men. When we got there they told me ‘We are ISIS and we want to use this car for a bombing operation.’” This, he claimed, was when “I washed my hands of them and told them to go away, that I want nothing to do with them. I feared for my life and my family’s life and told them I will not tell anyone else if they let me go.” He presented himself to us as a vulnerable victim of ISIS duplicity, and insisted that “I am illiterate and wanted to make a living with the car and was manipulated with money. As soon as I found out they were ISIS I told them to leave me alone. I left them but was then arrested.”Again, this was refuted by the Kurdish authorities, who had evidence that his sister and a number of other family members were ISIS members based in Iraq, arguing that this explained how his brother-in-law was able to connect him with the ISIS network in Kurdistan.
Both versions of the story were full of holes, and it was impossible to get anything resembling a clear picture of how Juma came to be involved with ISIS. Nonetheless, Juma’s story (however murky), and those of the others we spoke to, helped us to begin understanding how ISIS operates in the region, and the motivations among Kurds for joining the group.
The stories of Kurdistan’s ISIS members should serve as a reminder of the complexities of the region’s problems. There is no holy grail, and one should be wary of those who promise it. No single reason, or theory, can explain how radicalization happens, and each individual’s path is unique and influenced by personal as well as external factors.
Indeed, it could be argued that too much time is spent trying to figure out why people become terrorists when perhaps we should also be asking another very obvious question: why not? If we are able to better understand the reasons behind an individual’s resisting the call to jihadist violence, this will vastly increase our knowledge about the phenomenon of ISIS.
Given the close proximity of Kurdistan to ISIS-held territory, and the fact that the majority of Iraqi Kurds are Sunni Muslim, the number of Kurds who have joined ISIS is strikingly low. It is difficult to say with any certainly why, unlike their Arab neighbors, Kurds have proven to be more resistant to the allure of global jihadism. Among the possible explanations is that the Kurdish struggle for survival and statehood has ensured a culture and identity defined by nationalism, not religion. However, as our research shows, even here ISIS has succeeded in making itself attractive to a significant number of people. The search for answers will go on for some time yet.