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Not All Kurds Are Fighting Against the Islamic State — Some Are Joining It

Kurds across Syria and Iraq have put up a fearless resistance against the advance of the Islamic State. But some Kurds have actually joined its ranks, and are now helping the militants in the battle for Kobane.
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Kurds across Syria and Iraq have put up a fearless resistance against the advance of the Islamic State, most recently engaging in a battle for the town of Kobane that has become a symbol of Kurdish courage and defiance.

The opposition of the Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and the Syrian Kurdish YPG, aided by Kurdish volunteers from both countries as well as from Turkey and the broader diaspora, has eclipsed that of the Syrian and Iraqi militaries.


But not all Kurds are fighting against the Islamic State. Some have actually joined its ranks, and are now helping the militants' offensive on Kobane with their knowledge of local geography and Kurdish language and culture.

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Kurdish members of the Islamic State, led by a commander known as Abu Khattab al-Kurdi, are playing a major role in the battle for the town and against fellow Kurds, the AP reported. Many of them, including al-Kurdi, hail from the town of Halabja, in Iraqi Kurdistan near the Iranian border, but some of the fighters are from Kobane itself, and nearby Syrian towns.

"The fighter who is from Kobane is not like someone who hails from Chechnya with no idea about tracks and roads," Shorsh Hassan, a YPG spokesman in Kobane, told the AP.

The number of Kurds who have joined the Islamic State is minimal — up to 300 by analysts' estimates — but they have the same motives that have driven fighters from all over the world to join the militants.

"It's mainly ideological. It's this strict interpretation of Islam, basically trying to bring back the old days of Islam," Shwan Zulal, director of a UK-based risk analysis firm that focuses on Iraqi Kurdistan, told VICE News. "These people were recruited from the community, but they don't agree with the main political parties in Kurdistan. They see them as atheists, apostates, and corrupt."


Kobane Kurds remain defiant as Islamic State closes in. Read more here.

Kurdish Islamism is not new — nor particularly different from other forms of Islamic extremism in the region, Zulal added.

"It's a very common thing, they have existed in the community, as a minority," he said. "If you go back to the 1990s there have been extremist Kurdish groups even before al Qaeda was known. In the early 2000s they beheaded many PUK peshmergas and they blew up a Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) Eid celebration in Erbil, killing senior KDP members, so they have been active within the Kurdish community."

That bombing, in 2004, killed 105 people and Ansar al-Islam, a Salafist militant group, claimed responsibility for the blasts. Al-Kurdi, who is wanted in Iraq, was a member of Ansar al-Islam before joining the Islamic State. Mullah Krekar, a Kurdish Sunni and founder of the group, is currently in jail in Norway, where he had sought asylum, on terror charges.

"Our latest information is that [al-Kurdi] is in Syria fighting in the Kobane area. He is an expert in mountainous areas," an Iraqi official told the AP. "He is commanding the Kurdish group within Daesh because he is a Kurd," he added, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

Before the Islamic State's fast rise to prominence in the region, many Kurdish Islamists joined the ranks of Ansar al-Islam, which during the Iraq war fought against US troops and the Iraqi military. But as the group was weakened and the conflict in neighboring Syria deepened, many fighters joined Islamist groups there, including ISIS, which declared itself the Islamic State in June.


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Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, who has extensively researched Syrian and Iraqi militant groups, explained to VICE News how the various militant groups split and reinvented themselves, before many of their members joined the Islamic State.

"Ansar al-Islam was an al Qaeda affiliate in Iraqi Kurdistan, composed mainly of Iraqi Kurds, which was destroyed in the US invasion," al-Tamimi said. "It then mutated into Ansar al-Sunna and became more a part of the Sunni Arab insurgency, and then finally became Jamaat Ansar al-Islam, with a split-off in Jamaat Ansar al-Sunna."

Al-Tamimi added: "The transition from Ansar al-Islam and its subsequent forms to the Islamic State is hardly surprising given the ideological overlap, and particularly so now with the Islamic State's grounds to substantiate its claim to be an actual caliphate. After all, it's not as though jihadist thought is unknown to Kurds."

In November 2013, ISIS released a video featuring several of its Kurdish fighters giving a message to fellow Kurds. A month later gunmen and suicide bombers from the group carried out an attack on a mall in Kirkuk, that killed at least 11 people and injured 70.

For their part, Kurds fighting against the Islamic State have denounced fellow ethnic Kurds as "collaborators with an invading enemy" and "traitors to the cause and their people," Kurdish supporters told VICE News.


Most Kurds tend to be more moderate if not secular Muslims, but the area around Halabja became one of Kurdistan's most conservative regions. Kurds were reportedly shocked that a popular soccer player from the town, Kiwan Mohammed, went missing only to resurface in Syria last month, killed while fighting for the Islamic State.

"For centuries, Kurds' identity has been suppressed, and obviously when you suppress something it becomes quite strong," Zulal said. "The sense of identity as a Kurd most of the time overrides the religious aspect of things. So if you asked, 'Would you choose your religion or your ethnicity?' most Kurds would say their ethnicity."

Those who have joined the Islamic State remain an exception, he added — although their local knowledge is doubtlessly of great use to the militants.

Mustafa Bali, a Kurdish activist in Kobane, told the AP that the Islamic State may be using Kurdish fighters "to tell the people of Kobane that it does not consider them enemies."

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But there's no sign that's gaining them any friends yet.

"I don't know how they are going to win hearts and minds by using Kurds to kill other Kurds," Tom Sanderson, co-director of the Transnational Threats Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told VICE News.

"ISIS clearly makes use of people like Europeans, Americans, and Russians who join their group to say, 'Look at us, we have so much appeal that people from all around the world are joining us, it's not just a bunch of Iraqi Sunnis,'" he added. "They might be using the Kurds as a demonstration of that, to show that they represent a broad, diverse, front of people. But locally they are simply bringing death and destruction."

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi