In a sleek propaganda video complete with special effects, the Islamic State’s (IS) Raqqa authority targets Kurdish audiences. Four bearded IS militants seated in a serene setting rail at the Kurdish political leaders and groups in Iraq, Turkey and Syria, promoting the cause of jihad against IS' long list of enemies in the region and beyond.
Exercising due diligence, the video's producers have been careful not to make this appear as an attack on the Kurdish people and instead have attempted to build a case to lure Kurds to their cause. The video includes an echoing sound bite from Abu Omar al-Baghdadi, the deceased leader of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, IS' predecessor, in which he praises Kurds for their contribution to Islamic civilization.
Resurrecting the memory of such prominent Kurdish scholars in Islamic studies, such as Ibn Salah al-Shahrazuri, Baghdadi then mentions Salahaddin al-Ayubi (Saladin), whom he describes as the “conqueror of al-Quds [Jerusalem] and the breaker of the cross,” referring to the Kurdish Islamic leader's defeat of the crusader armies in the 12th century.
By invoking Saladin, IS propagandists clearly aim to present a role model for today's Kurds and encourage them to follow his path of confronting Western armies in the region, which IS and other jihadi groups often refer to as crusaders in their literature.
Referring to numerous injustices that the Kurds have endured in their history, the video mentions the 16th century founder of the Shiite Safavid Dynasty, Shah Ismail, and modern-day revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's killing of Sunni Kurds. Interestingly, the reference to those alleged atrocities against the Kurds is supported with horrifying images of dead children that appear to be actually from Saddam Hussein's gassing of the Kurdish town of Halabja in 1988. Curiously, however, the video leaves out any mention of the Halabja massacre itself, in which an estimated 5,000 Kurdish civilians were killed by the Iraqi dictator who was of Sunni Arab origin.
The video is released at a time of major territorial losses for IS in both Iraq and Syria. Kurdish forces have been instrumental in both countries in turning the tide against the extremist group.
“IS has been contained by Kurdish military and security forces and hasn't been able to make any breakthrough in the front lines for months,” Mariwan Naqshbandi, a senior official at the Iraqi Kurdistan's Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, told Al-Monitor. “But they still have some Kurds who sympathize with them and so — through such propaganda — they are addressing this type of people.”
Naqshbandi estimated that more than 500 Iraqi Kurds have joined IS over the past couple of years. Media reports also indicate that many Kurds from the impoverished Kurdish region of Turkey might have entered IS ranks. However, no figures are available on Syrian and Iranian Kurds within the jihadi organization.
Naqshbandi, who has been a vocal proponent for tougher measures in combating the ideology of IS and similar groups, said many Kurds who ended up in IS initially went to Syria to fight with Jabhat al-Nusra against the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but eventually joined IS after the group emerged and gained strength.
Many consider the secular nationalist character of the bulk of Kurdish political movements as a major reason Kurds have not embraced the group in large numbers.
The Kurdish militants accuse Iraqi Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani of collaborating with the West and Israel. Branding current Kurdish leaders as tyrants, IS calls on Kurds to join the organization because, as the representative of monotheism, it will eventually triumph.
The latest IS video laments the spread of nationalist ideologies among the Kurds, which it attributes to their ignorance of the concept of “al-walaa wal-baraa,” or loyalty and disavowal. A popular concept among many Salafist groups such as IS, the notion refers to love and disavowal for the sake of God or supports fellow Muslims and rejects infidels.
Perhaps the most interesting feature of the new IS video release is that it is entirely in the Kurmanji dialect, which is spoken by Kurds in Turkey, Syria and parts of Iraqi Kurdistan. This stands in contrast to the group's previous Kurdish-language propaganda videos, which have used mostly, if not entirely, the Sorani dialect, spoken by the majority of Kurds in Iraq and Iran. Kurds still lack one standardized language, and texts produced in Kurdish are either in Kurmanji or Sorani, which are the two main dialects of the Kurdish language.
Middle East scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science Ranj Alaaldin, who is also an associate fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at King's College in London, said IS recognizes that there is a strong contingent of Kurdish Islamists and religiously conservative Muslim Kurds that may not subscribe to the ideals of any of the Kurdish nationalist movements, including the jihadi group's archrivals in Syria, the Democratic Union Party (PYD) and its affiliated armed forces, the Kurdish People's Protection Units.
“[IS] is deploying the same propaganda techniques it has used elsewhere, selling its message in Kurmanji Kurdish in the same way it appeals to potential European recruits in English and other European languages,” Alaaldin told Al-Monitor.
He added, “Although most Kurds have a secular outlook, they also have a history of entertaining and embracing jihadi movements, as was the case toward the late 1980s and 1990s. IS is clearly attempting to swell its ranks with these Kurds and others by adopting the Kurmanji dialect to reinforce its message."
In late 1980s and 1990s, a home-grown jihadi movement took shape in Iraqi Kurdistan and even controlled some territory for well over a decade, until they were eradicated or disarmed after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003.
One militant, who appears to be speaking in an accent used by Kurds in Turkey, lashed out at Abdullah Ocalan, the leader of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), and calls him an “unbeliever” and an agent of the Syrian regime because of the party's historical ties with Damascus. Given the close ties between the PKK and the PYD, which is dominant in Syria's Kurdish area, the message aims to accuse Kurdish fighters in Syria of being apostates and collaborators with the Assad government.
Another militant, whose accent again appears to be from Turkey's Kurdish region, deplores how the “enemies of religion” have been successful in driving Kurds away from religious ideology and toward nationalist zeal.
Perhaps fearing the video might convey an overall anti-Kurdish message, a quote from IS' spokesman Abu Mohammed al-Adnani is invoked reassuring the Kurds that his organization's fight is only with the “infidels” among Kurds and has nothing to do with ethnicity — and instead with religious ideology.