HALABJA, Iraq: Twenty-five-year-old Ako Abdel-Qadir went to wage holy war in Syria vowing to return and conquer all of Iraqi Kurdistan in the name of Islam on the way back to his hometown of Halabja.
“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.”
Abdel-Qadir is one of around 200 young Iraqi Kurds who have joined the ranks of militant Islamists in the Syrian war – it’s an alarming trend for Iraqi Kurdistan, which has shielded itself from the violence afflicting the rest of Iraq and nearby Syria, and attracted 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 Irbil, 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 jihadist backlash, but the autonomous region’s proximity to Syria makes it especially vulnerable. And while Kurdistan is used to dealing with external threats, not least along its tightly controlled border with the rest of Iraq, this one is posed from within.
The region suffered its first major bombing in six years last September, claimed by the Islamic State in Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), a militant 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.
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 Abdel-Qadir, 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, Abdel-Qadir 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.
Abdel-Qadir 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 November.
The rest is played out on Facebook. On Dec. 8, he wrote that he had joined ISIS 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 his 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 Abdel-Qadir’s from school. “Maybe he still had contact with them, or perhaps there is a cell that persuades these youths to go.”
Kurdish security services 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.
Around 40 jihadists have returned and are now either behind bars because they are considered a threat to national security, or are under close surveillance.
Abdel-Qadir’s jihad lasted less than two months. ISIS 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 Sunnis, 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.
ISIS 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 Mediterranean.
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.”