An attack on an Erbil government building by three young Kurds in the early hours of July 23 killed one person and wounded four members of the security forces. The attack not only revealed the increasing threat of homegrown terrorism in Iraq's Kurdistan region, but also laid bare a dangerous security fissure: Various forces tasked by the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) with stopping these kinds of attacks do not share intelligence with each other.
Just after 7 a.m. on July 23, three young men who had said their early morning prayers that day walked up to the single police officer sitting on a chair in front of the Erbil government building, according to the closed-circuit TV (CCTV) footage released by the security forces afterward.
One of the young men, Rahel Mohammed, was a 16-year-old teenager, who, according to his friend, was boisterous and fun to be around. “He was smiling and joking, but after he became Salafi, he turned very religious and instead of saying hello, he would say, ‘May God forgive us,’” one of his friends told Kurdistan 24. “He was on the way to mosque 24 hours a day.”
One boy shot the police officer with a pistol, while another fired a volley of bullets using an AK-47. They are then seen sticking together inside the building, walking around not knowing exactly what to do. The young men knew how to use the guns, but their movements in the CCTV footage do not appear to show that they were professionally trained gunmen. They appear ordinary, like any other young men in the Kurdistan region, except that they were radicalized enough to launch a daring raid with the intention to kill that day. Their only victim was Mam Farhan, an old Christian man who had worked in the building since 1996 and was liked by all the people of Erbil. The young men took up arms on the top floor of the old building and fought the security forces for over six hours before they were killed.
“The Asayish [Kurdish security force] officials were worried that there would be a simultaneous attack on the Asayish main building where a number of dangerous Daesh [Islamic State (IS)] prisoners are held,” one security source briefed about the attack told Al-Monitor. “They were worried that the main target was to free Daesh prisoners. That is why most of the Asayish force was on alert that day protecting other sensitive buildings.” Al-Monitor understands that the security forces have been on high alert and are taking serious measures to protect sensitive government buildings, prisons where IS captives are held and oil installations.
Tareq Nuri, the head of Erbil Asayish, the main force responsible for maintaining security in the Kurdistan region, said that as the attack was unfolding the morning of July 23, his forces raided the houses of the three men and arrested some suspects. “We did not have intelligence that there would be an attack on the provincial building, but when we arrested Mala Esmail Sosayi [three weeks ago], we realized he was planning something,” Nuri said July 24, referring to a radical Kurdish cleric who appeared to be connected to the attack. “We seized some guns from Mala Esmail Sosayi. … He confessed that he had given a pledge of allegiance to Daesh. … On top of that, we had arrested a terrorist network that assisted Daesh and was related to the Mala Sosayi circle.” One Erbil resident told Al-Monitor that the night before the attack, the Asayish were in full force and on high alert in the city, setting up several impromptu checkpoints across the capital checking everyone’s identity.
In the same interview, Nuri, who is the most senior security official in Erbil, told the official website of the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), which is in charge of security in the capital, that his forces had no coordination with the Asayish forces of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) in Sulaimaniyah. “No, we don’t have that kind of connection with Sulaimaniyah,” Nuri replied when asked if his forces worked with the Asayish in Sulaimaniyah to detain those wanted by the law. “There are a number of people who have an arrest warrant on them, but they are residing in Sulaimaniyah,” Nuri said. The PUK and the KDP are part of the KRG, which should be in charge of the Kurdistan region, but in reality on security issues, there is hardly any collaboration between the PUK and the KDP security forces.
This is alarming for a region whose peshmerga forces fought IS for over three years across the 1,000-kilometer (621-mile) front line and lost more than 1,800 men. In a recent attack on Qarachokh Mountain in southwest Erbil, the peshmerga, backed by Belgian and US soldiers, lost six men. Over 700 young Kurdish men departed the Kurdistan region in recent years to join IS and other extremist groups. On July 23, IS’ propaganda arm Nashir News announced on Telegram that the group members carried out several attacks in the Iraqi provinces of Diyala, Kirkuk, Salahuddin and Ninevah, but there was no mention of Erbil. IS has intensified its campaign of attacking Iraqi security forces.
Furthermore, the July 23 attack shows the homegrown terrorism in the Kurdistan region that threatens the peace and coexistence of various religious and ethnic communities that live in this region side by side. The Kurdish region has become a safe haven for thousands of Sunni Arabs who have fled war and violence across Iraq since 2003. But despite the efforts of the authorities in regulating the mosques and vetting the religious preachers through the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs, some extremist clerics are inciting hatred and sectarianism and encourage outright attack on foreigners, including the coalition forces.
“The Americans are apostates; we have no doubt about that,” Sosayi, the extremist cleric connected to the July 23 attack, said as he answered a question back in December 2012. “Whenever an apostate soldier comes to a Muslim land … and occupied it and did not leave,” the cleric continued, “it is a religious duty … to go and kill them until they leave your land … but sadly we, the clerical establishment and the public, have no courage and willpower.” In another sermon in September 2010, Sosayi, who had been arrested several times by the Asayish in Erbil, described Shiites in a derogatory way. “They [Shiites] see the Sunnis as infidels and worse than the Jew,” Sosayi said. “We need to be vigilant about them … wherever they [Shiites] go, they’ll destroy it.”
The Kurdish authorities believe that while IS is no longer a serious threat, the extremist school of thought still poses a danger to the Kurdistan region. “It is true that Daesh is not organized in Kurdistan and has no armed men,” Nawzad Hadi, the governor of Erbil, told Voice of America. “But the three men who attacked the provincial building in Erbil proved that Daesh still exists ideologically [in Kurdistan].”
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