"God willing, we will come back and trample over your dead bodies
until we reach Halabja," he said, threatening the region's "infidel"
ruling parties in a video made en route to Syria and posted on
social media sites. "Just wait and see".
Ako is one of around 200 young Iraqi Kurds who have joined the ranks
of militant Islamists in a conflict that has become a clarion call
for home-grown jihadists across the world, keen to prove themselves
amid fundamentalist fervor and war.
The trend is alarming for Iraqi Kurdistan, a region that has managed
to shield itself from the violence afflicting the rest of Iraq and
nearby Syria, and to attract investment from some of the world's
largest oil companies.
"Definitely, it's a big concern," said a senior official with
knowledge of security issues in the Kurdish capital Arbil, who spoke
on condition of anonymity. "The danger is that they will be used as
cells to mount attacks on targets here."
Kurdistan is not alone in worrying about jihadi backlash; the roll
call of those drawn to the cause of Sunni Islamist rebels battling
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is long and diverse — from veterans
of Iraq and Chechnya to young men from London and immigrants from
But the autonomous region's proximity to Syria makes it especially
vulnerable. And whilst Kurdistan is used to dealing with external
threats, not least along its tightly controlled border with majority
Arab Iraq, this one is posed from within.
The region suffered its first major bombing in six years last
September, which was claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and the
Levant (ISIL) — a Sunni group also active in Syria.
Publicly, officials in Kurdistan play down the threat and insist
that the region will remain safe, but oil companies operating here
are taking extra precautions.
"We decided to restrict movements to shopping malls and other
high-visibility target areas," said a source at an oil company in
Kurdistan. "We're just going to lower our profile a little bit."
"LITTLE TORA BORA"
Famed for its poets and pomegranates, Halabja lies near the
mountainous border area between Iraq and Iran, which was once a
haven for Sunni militants who formed a group there in 2001 that came
to be called Ansar al-Islam.
Ansar al-Islam banned music and forced men to grow their beards in
the enclave, named "little Tora Bora" after the Taliban stronghold
in Afghanistan where al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden once sheltered.
Many of the young Kurds who have gone to Syria come from this area,
including Ako, who joined Ansar al-Islam as a teenager.
One of the first targets of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003
was Ansar al-Islam. By that time, Ako had left the group and handed
himself in to the security services because he felt the game was up,
according to his friends.
Surviving members of Ansar al-Islam retreated into Iran, but
continued to carry out attacks including a twin suicide bombing
against Kurdistan's two ruling parties in 2004 that left more than
100 people dead.
Ako served time because authorities considered him to be a danger to
national security. After being released from jail, he married and
had a daughter. He got a job at an electricity generating plant and
was working at a tea house in Halabja until the day he vanished last
The rest is played out on Facebook. On December 8, he wrote that he
had joined ISIL in Syria and posted the group's black banner on his
page. Earlier pictures show him smiling at Halabja's sports club,
and he also posted a whole album of photographs of Barcelona
football player Lionel Messi.
Despite Ako's history with militant Islam, his friends were shocked
when they heard he was in Syria.
"I was very surprised because when he left Ansar al-Islam his views
changed dramatically," said a friend of Ako's from school. "Maybe he
still had contact with them, or perhaps there is a cell that
persuades these youths to go."
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It is not clear whether the young men go to Syria on their own
initiative or have been recruited and sent there. Mainstream
Islamist parties deny involvement. A committee has been set up by
the government to investigate the matter.
A spokesman for the Ministry of Endowments and Religious Affairs
said preachers at the region's more than 5,000 mosques, who are on
the government payroll, were forbidden to incite violence and would
be punished if found doing so.
"There is no evidence that any imam has incited people — directly or
indirectly — to go to Syria," Mariwan Naqshbandi said. "We have
asked the imams to advise worshippers not to go, but unfortunately
they haven't managed to discourage everyone."
Kurdish security services however raided 11 mosques one night last
December in the city of Sulaimaniyah on suspicion they were being
used as recruitment centers, seizing identity papers and laptops.
They have not disclosed what evidence they found.
Although Kurdistan shares a border with Syria, most of the young men
travel there through Turkey, some via Lebanon, and others southern
Iraq. Around 40 have come back to Kurdistan and are now either
behind bars because they are considered a threat to national
security, or are under close surveillance.
"I went there to be killed following the path of Allah," said one
young Iraqi Kurd who returned from Syria because he was convinced
the conflict was a western conspiracy to exterminate the world's
But many believe these aspiring Kurdish jihadists are driven as much
by the hardships of life as by their faith.
Asked why they thought Ako had gone to Syria, his friends and
acquaintances all cited economic pressures, and the fact he grew up
an orphan in Halabja, better known as the site of a 1988 chemical
weapons attack under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
The Kurds' fortunes have since changed, and their region is now
Iraq's most stable and prosperous, but the people of Halabja often
complain of neglect.
"The KRG (Kurdistan Regional Government) will need to focus on using
its oil wealth to increase opportunities for employment and to
reduce corruption if it is to address this threat effectively," IHS
Jane's said in a recent report about militancy in Kurdistan,
assessing the risk as "serious".
RELIGION VS. ETHNICITY
Ako's jihad lasted less than two months. ISIL announced his
"martyrdom" early this year in Syria, killed fighting not Assad's
forces but fellow Kurds, who have taken advantage of the civil war
to assert control in the country's northeast.
Kurds are predominantly Sunni Muslim, but identify overwhelmingly
with their ethnicity — the defining factor in a long history of
struggle in the four countries across which they are spread: Turkey,
Iran, Iraq and Syria.
ISIL and other Sunni armed groups in Syria have turned their weapons
against a Marxist-inspired Kurdish militia that stands in the way of
their vision of an Islamic state spanning from Iraq to the
Wearing a black leather jacket over his Kurdish clothes, the young
man who did return from Syria said he would have no qualms about
fighting his ethnic kin in the name of Islam: "My religion comes
before my Kurdishness — I make decisions based on my religion."
(Editing by Giles Elgood)
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