MESOP FOCUS : ISIS recruits Kurdish youths, creating a potential new risk in a peaceful part of Iraq

By Abigail Hauslohner June 24 – WASHINGTON POST – HALABJA, Iraq — This town near the Iranian border has long been a symbol of Kurdish resistance, and it is best known as the site of a gruesome chemical-weapons attack by Saddam Hussein in 1988. These days, residents say, it is increasingly known for something else — although few want to talk about it.

Kurdish authorities say a small contingent of Kurdish youths — around 150 in all, about a third of whom are from Halabja — has in recent months joined the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which has seized a vast swath of Iraqi territory.

The young men’s allegiance to the extremist militant group represents a potential danger for the Kurds, who share the jihadists’ resentment of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government but are wary of the extremists now massed on the edge of their territory. The Kurds have hoped to keep their largely autonomous region in northern Iraq from being entangled in the country’s increasingly bloody conflict.

Some Kurdish intelligence officials fear that with ISIS’s gains, more local youths will join the jihadists and that the radical ideology could creep beyond Arab Iraq and into Iraqi Kurdistan, which has so far remained an oasis of calm and order.

How ISIS is carving out a new country

The presence of Kurdish fighters in the extremist militant group highlights how effectively ISIS’s recruitment efforts are reaching disenfranchised youths across Iraq’s ethnic divide. Most Kurds are Sunni Muslims, like the insurgents, but have their own language and culture.

A top local intelligence official in Halabja, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the news media, said ISIS is already operating “cells” inside the town, appealing to bored and underemployed young people to join their fight.

Most of the 52 local men and boys who have left Halabja in the past year and a half to fight in Syria have been recruited by ISIS, he said.

One local man, Mariwan Hallabji, has become an ISIS commander and currently serves on a front line against Kurdish pesh merga security forces outside the city of Kirkuk, the official said. “How do we guarantee that when they’re done fighting the Shiites, they don’t start waging a war against the Kurds?” the intelligence official said.

A little over a decade ago, Islamist radicals allegedly tied to al-Qaeda had a base here and fought against the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of the two major Kurdish political movements, before U.S. forces bombed the Islamists’ bases during the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Halabja, although relatively far from the front line between Iraqi Kurdistan and ISIS-held territory, is particularly vulnerable to losing its sons to the radical group, local officials and residents said.The town lacks jobs and educational opportunities and has a history of militant resistance to the Arab government in Baghdad, residents said. Almost every family has a “martyr,” either from the Kurds’ struggle for independence or from the chemical weapons attack in 1988 that killed thousands. Hussein’s forces attacked the town because of its sympathy for Iran during the Iran-Iraq war. The situation has deteriorated since Maliki’s government, in a dispute with the Kurdistan Regional Government, slashed the Kurds’ budget six months ago, halting the payment of salaries to many workers.

“People here are graduating from high school, and they think they have no future,” the intelligence official said. In the Western world, depressed teenagers commit suicide, he added. “People here join ISIS — which is also basically suicide.”

The path to radicalism

“Z,” whose name is being withheld at the request of his family, would seem an unlikely recruit for ISIS, which has enforced a brutal interpretation of Islamic law, executing hundreds of Shiites and others in its bid to establish anIslamic caliphate that spans Iraq and Syria. “He had a motorbike. He had a girlfriend. He had lots of friends,” Z’s brother-in-law said with a bitter laugh one recent night, as the family sat on the hard, thinly carpeted floor of their modest living room.

But Z’s family think he was enticed by the extremists’ slick social media campaign and by local recruiters.

Photos on Z’s sister’s cellphone show a grinning 16-year-old boy with a fluffy black “faux-hawk,” the latest hairstyle craze. His family said Z was not especially religious and was never particularly interested in going to the mosque. But in mid-May, he suddenly left Halabja with his best friend to join ISIS in Syria, his relatives said. “In one week, he changed completely,” his brother-in-law said. After last week’s rapid ISIS advance into Iraq, Z is now with fellow militants in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul, the family said. In a few phone calls, he has told his family that he was “following the teachings of the Koran,” they said. Two intelligence officials, as well as residents of Halabja, said Kurdish authorities have allowed young people such as Z to leave the region, in part because they think it is safer without them. “They want them out of here. They don’t want the bomb to explode in their hands,” said a second intelligence official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity.

In one recent instance, the bomb nearly did go off.

In late May, a young Kurdish man from Halabja who had recently returned from fighting with ISIS in Syria was apprehended by local security forces as he tried to enter a Shiite shrine in the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniyah, carrying a backpack containing explosives, officials said.

A salvage mission

Friends and relatives of a few other young men who have returned say the authorities have sought to put them through a lengthy reverse-conditioning process to persuade them to abandon their radical beliefs. Then the men are heavily monitored.

“Those who come back are taken through a very intense process to ensure that they have left those thoughts behind,” said Fazil Basharati, a Halabja local and former member of parliament from the Kurdistan Democratic Party.Relatives of young men who are either fighting with ISIS or have left the group and returned said that Kurdish security forces have ordered them not to speak about their family members’ ties to the group because it draws attention to the issue.