Skip to main content

Iraqi Kurdistan more vulnerable to Al-Qaeda attacks

The war in Syria, including the spread of radical Islamist terrorists, is spilling over into the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.
A Kurdish security forces member stands guard outside a polling station after its closing in Arbil, capital of the autonomous Kurdistan region, about 350 km (217 miles) north of Baghdad, September 21, 2013.  Iraqi Kurds voted on Saturday for a new parliament that analysts said was poised to lead the oil-producing region further down the road to greater autonomy from Baghdad. REUTERS/Azad Lashkari  (IRAQ - Tags: ELECTIONS POLITICS BUSINESS) - RTX13TNL

On Nov. 3, the Kurdish security forces prevented another suicide attack on the security headquarters building in Akre, Dahuk, arresting two Syrians who were members of the al-Qaeda-affiliated Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The security operation shows the Kurdish security forces' vigilance, and it also indicates that the Syrian war has increased security risks for the Iraqi Kurds, who have managed to keep their region safe from attacks for six years.

Reports suggest that the Iraqi Kurdish border security has been tightened and that some Iraqi Arabs who want to visit Iraqi Kurdistan are turned away. The increased security threat to Iraqi Kurdistan is linked to the empowerment of al-Qaeda as a result of the civil war in Syria. Despite this, the Kurdish security forces are well-prepared to prevent any threat to the security of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and have increased security measures to prevent any attack.

A report based on police sources from the Kurdish TV station NRT suggested that 500 ISIS fighters have come to the province of Kirkuk from Syria, which has aroused concern among the Kurdish security forces. Kirkuk is not officially part of the Kurdistan Region of Iraq, but it borders the provinces of Erbil and Sulaimaniyah and is also mostly under the control of security forces linked to the Kurds.

The official ISIS media outlet, the Ministry of Information, claimed responsibility on Oct. 6 for the Sept. 29 suicide attack in Erbil that killed seven people and wounded more than 70. The group claimed that it was a response to alleged aid by Kurdish President Massoud Barzani to Baghdad against al-Qaeda and for Barzani’s statement promising help to the Kurds in Syria.

The statement by the ministry, which was also tweeted (@e3tesemo), read: “In response to the threats issued by criminal apostate Massoud Barzani — the head of what is known as the Kurdistan Region of Iraq and he who issued a statement in preparation of sending members of the evil Kurdish security, known as the 'Asayish' — to stand with the Safavid [reference to the alleged Iranian-controlled Iraqi government] government and protect the Rafidites [derogatory term for Shiites] against the rising attacks of the mujahedeen, saying they failed to stop the attacks, despite their efforts."

The contents of the statement is most likely a reference to the help the Iraqi Kurds provided to Baghdad after the storming of Abu Ghraib prison on July 21, in which many al-Qaeda members escaped. Reuters reported in August that the Shiite-led Iraqi government and the Kurdish government were looking to launch a joint security operation and share intelligence to combat the al-Qaeda threat, after the latter increased its presence in the provinces that are disputed by Baghdad and the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). In May, a security agreement was signed by the Kurdish government and Baghdad to form a supreme security committee for security cooperation.

The al-Qaeda statement also mentioned threats by Barzani to support the Syrian Kurds, who are under threat of Islamist brigades linked to al-Qaeda. “Another threat by the mentioned criminal [Barzani] against the mujahedeen in Sham [Syria], announcing his intention to support the war criminals of the PKK [Kurdistan Workers Party] who are fighting the Islamic state and other jihadists in the border areas of Deir al-Zour-Baraqqa, Hassakeh, Raqqa and Aleppo.”

“There has been news recently that al-Qaeda groups have declared war against the Kurds in Syria and engage in beheadings of Kurdish women and children,” Barzani said in a letter to the organizers of the important Kurdish National Conference scheduled to be held in Erbil on Nov. 25-27, after having been postponed several times before.

The letter continued, “If those reports are true, the Kurdistan Region of Iraq is ready to do everything in its power to protect the lives of the Kurds in western (Syrian) Kurdistan.”

However, in reality, there have been tensions between Barzani’s Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the PKK-linked Democratic Union Party (PYD), which resulted in the KDP refusing entry to PYD leader Saleh Muslim in October.

Fighters of the PKK-linked People’s Defense Units (YPG) have been engaged in clashes with Islamist groups linked to the Free Syrian Army and al-Qaeda since July 16 in Raqqa, Aleppo and Hassakeh. They have been making progress, especially in Hassakeh, while losing out in the more mixed areas in Raqqa, where al-Qaeda is strong. On Oct. 26, they captured the Iraqi border crossing and took control of several villages in Hassakeh.

The ISIS statement mentions that the operation was prepared for more than a month and was part of a series of operations, claiming the headquarters of the Kurdish security in Erbil to be a "criminal tool of oppression and injustice" and part of the "war against Islam."

The statement further mentions how the al-Qaeda group attacked the Kurdish security forces in Erbil.

On Sept. 29, the Kurdish security authorities confirmed in a press conference that ISIS was behind the attack.

Although Kurdish media reported that Kurds were possibly involved in the Erbil attack, Masrour Barzani, the KRG’s director of security and intelligence services, announced that no Kurds were involved, and that three ISIS suspects — Samer Baker Younis, Muhammad Khalil Khadosh and Hashim Salih Muhammad — from Mosul were arrested and confessed to being ISIS members.

“The investigation is still ongoing, but no Kurds were involved in any of the attack's stages. The terrorists used 150 kilograms [330 pounds] of TNT in the attack,” Masrour Barzani said, as reported by the Kurdish news website Bas News.

Idrees Mosa, a lecturer in international relations at the University of Dahuk's department of political science, told Al-Monitor by email, “Maintaining stability in the region is a pillar of KRG strategy. It is a driving force behind the economic development in the Kurdistan Region of Iraq.”

He continued, “It [the attack] mainly has had a psychological effect. I cannot verify the NRT report. However, the KRG is increasingly becoming more vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The KRG has been deeply worried about the terrorist threat coming from Syria even before the attack.”

Translation assistance provided by Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi.

Start your PRO membership today.

Join the middle East's top business and policy professionals to access exclusive PRO insights today.

Join Al-Monitor PRO Start with 1-week free trial