Analysis: ISIS in Kurdistan – the hidden enemy surfaces

Sleeper cells on the borders of the so-called Islamic State appear to be an ever-growing threat

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Just months after a car bomb tore through a busy street outside the U.S. consulate in Erbil’s Ankawa district, the State Department on July 30 issued an emergency warning to its citizens about another credible threat.

More than a year into the international fight against ISIS, sleeper cells operating in territory on the borders of the so-called Islamic State appear to be an ever-growing threat. A suicide bomber targeted Kurdish activists on the Turkish border in July, while the U.S. consulate’s warning points to the continued menace that ISIS factions still pose in Iraqi Kurdistan.

Thousands of Kurds are fighting ISIS in both Syria and Iraq, but Dr Tariq Nuri, director of the Erbil Asayish, or security service, said that hundreds have also joined the Islamists’ ranks. Attacks by Kurdish cells within Iraqi Kurdistan hold a clear advantage for ISIS, he said. “They wanted to use Kurds because they can get past security more easily,” he said.

Renad Mansour, a Kurdistan expert from the Carnegie Institute, said that in the past, security of the Kurdish territories had often focused on Arab terrorists within majority Kurd areas. “Talking to members of the security apparatus, they would say, ‘the Salafists were Arab so they were easily spotted. We were able to get rid of Al-Qaeda [from Kurdistan] in Iraq because we could see them in the street’."

However, the May 18 arrest of a Kurdish six-member ISIS cell shows that the threat that Kurdistan faces is by no means just an Arab one. While Mansour sees ISIS sympathizers as a small minority within Kurdish society, he outlined a “growing trend of Islamization” in Kurdistan – a factor underlying ISIS sympathies. “This has led to people putting religion before ethnicity, which is quite new and strange in the Kurdish context,” he added.

Tale of two cities

As ISIS advanced last summer and Iraqi forces retreated in disarray, Kurdish forces moved into Kirkuk for the first time, taking control of the city. With a new Arab population to police, many see the city as weakness in Kurdish defenses against terror strikes.

“Our strategy is to expect that car bombs are coming from Kirkuk,” said Sheikh Ja’afar Sheikh Mustafa, ex-minister of Peshmerga – Kurdistan’s military forces – and now a central figure in the fight against ISIS. Mustafa is one of several security officials who admitted that much of the support for ISIS’ Kurdish agents in Erbil comes from Kirkuk.

Although the Ankawa bomb was built in a car-bomb factory in ISIS-held Hawija (since destroyed by a coalition airstrike), Asayish director Dr Nuri said that support from Kirkuk was central to its successful detonation.

Hidden in Kirkuk after being smuggled across the frontlines, interrogations of ISIS supporters arrested after the blast showed that it then was routed to Kuwair to evade the strict security controls between Kirkuk and Erbil.

Kirkuk has also been an important recruiting centre for Kurds sympathetic to ISIS. According to Nuri, it was in Kirkuk that the bombers behind the Ankawa attack made contact with ISIS and received their orders. However once in Erbil he believes they operated independently, employing similar tactics to other ‘lone wolf’ ISIS-linked attacks across the globe.

Even after the Ankawa blast, officially there seem to be few worries about increasing security measures. Within the Kurdish territories “there’s not really strict checkpoints because we’re all Kurdish,” Nuri said.

New neighbors

The estimated 500,000 Arab internally displaced people (IDPs) evacuated to Kurdistan from ISIS’ sweeping advance also pose a new challenge to Kurdish security, some say. “We think there are ISIS members everywhere, there's a lot of IDPs that came to Kirkuk. We didn't filter them,” said ex-Peshmerga minister Sheikh Mustafa.

However, as the majority of refugees are minority groups fleeing religious persecution, the threat of ISIS infiltration is arguably small. “I don’t think it’s the same situation as Palestinian refugee camps with political grievances,” Mansour said. “It’s hard to imagine ISIS immersing themselves in a Christian camp in Erbil or elsewhere.”

Regardless, building information-gathering networks within these new communities has been central to Kurdish counter-terror strategy. Even with Arab refugee camps, “this does not mean that there are places just for Arabs,” Dr Nuri said. “We receive small and [larges pieces of] information from all communities to find terrorists.”

Uncertain future

“There is no absolute safety, sometimes [an attack] happens,” Nuri told Al Arabiya News. Pointing to the attacks in Paris, he added matter-of-factly, “sometimes it happens in the best security [environments].”

While Kurdish security forces have enjoyed considerable success historically in eliminating foreign terror threats, Mansour described their past reluctance to accept the possibility of a home-grown enemy as “worrying”.

“They’re beginning to realize that this is an issue but they don’t have the same experience and know-how to get rid of it within their own society and culture,” he added.

Security officials are adamant that the threat from ISIS sleeper groups has been firmly neutralized. “I believe that in the future [ISIS] will not be able to do any more attacks,” Nury said. “There are no more ISIS left in Erbil.”

With no end to the war against ISIS in sight, the people of Kurdistan must hope that such confidence is enough to keep them safe.