Sunday, September 1, 2013

Kurdish Jihadists Fight Kurds in Syria
On Aug. 17, Abu Jihad picked up his cell phone near Aleppo in Syria and dialed a number in Halabja in Iraqi Kurdistan. Abu Jihad was a messenger of death for the family of his co-jihadist friend, Osman Abdulrahim, 24, who had been fighting against the Syrian government forces for less than three months with the al-Qaeda-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Osman was among a growing number of jihadi Sunni fighters, including Iraqi Kurds, who are traveling to Syria in the name of “holy war.” The number of foreign fighters is estimated between 6,000 to as many as 15,000, according to media reports citing Western and Arab intelligence sources. Ali, Osman's eldest brother who works for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), sat down with Al-Monitor at the Sheikh Abdul Aziz mosque in Halabja on Aug. 25 to explain what he knew about his brother’s death. “I was out, and it was around 8 a.m. when my sister called me and said someone had just called and wanted to talk to one of Osman's brothers.” Ali knew that Osman was with Jabhat al-Nusra in Syria. "I used to talk to him two or three times a week, and every time I told him to come back to Halabja, but he didn’t listen." Ali had dialed Abu Jihad’s number — obtained by Al-Monitor and starting with +90, the Turkey's international dialing code — and was told of his brother’s death. Halabja itself is not alien to jihadist ideology and Islamist foreign fighters. From the late 1990s until February 2003, Halabja’s border with Iran was controlled by an extremist Islamic Kurdish group called Ansar al-Islam, which consisted of foreign fighters who had fled Afghanistan during and after the 2001 war in the wake of 9/11. Halabja is still considered a stronghold of Islamic political parties in Kurdistan. According to his brother, Osman was a devout Muslim who recited the Quran on a regular basis and was a fervent believer in the Islamic duty of jihad. Osman’s education was limited, having only completed four years of primary school before dropping out due to the international sanctions on Iraq, and the severe financial strain it imposed on millions of Iraqis. He did not watch much TV except for the news. Ali claims that Osman told no one that he was going to Syria in early May, including him. However, Osman called Ali one week later to inform his brother that he was in Syria to perform jihad. Prior to that, he had been a laborer in a nearby mosque and managed to save up just over $1,000. "That morning, when Osman left, he was short of money and asked to borrow 300,000 Iraqi dinars (about $250) from my father," Ali recalled. Arsalan, Osman’s first cousin and close friend, noted some behavioral changes in Osman prior to his departure to Syria. "Sometimes, Osman would look at the contents of my cell phone and delete music and some photos, and he would say they are not Islamic," he told Al-Monitor, standing next to his cousin Ali at the Sheikh Abdul Aziz mosque. It was this sense of self-righteousness, the feeling that he was following the true teaching of Islam that pushed Osman and many others to go to Syria. Before he died, he told his brother Ali that there were around 70 Kurds from Iraqi Kurdistan in the ranks of Jabhat al-Nusra. Less than a week after Osman's death, Rabar Tariq Maroof, 17, from Halabja was also killed near Aleppo. One of his former teachers, who did not want to be identified, told Al-Monitor that Rabar had recently finished the fifth-grade exams at the private Halabja Shaheed secondary school. The school where Rabar studied is run by the Turkish Islamic Fezalar group which has close ties with the powerful Islamic Turkish scholar Fethullah Gulen. It is unclear whether the school, which attracts the brightest in the area, had any influence in the radicalization of young Rabar. What is certain is that during the last month of fighting in Ras al-Ain in northern Syria between the armed wing of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) and Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, Rabar’s passport was left behind and published by the PYD in the Kurdish media, to prove that Iraqi Kurdish jihadists were fighting against their brethren in Syria. Iraqi Kurds have largely supported Syrian Kurds in their efforts to clear their area of Assad forces, the Free Syrian Army and jihadists groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra. In recent days, the KRG and the public have provided shelter to thousands of fleeing Syrian Kurdish refugees. Almost everyone in Iraqi Kurdistan, including the main Islamic parties, disapproves of the actions of young Kurdish men who join groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, especially if they fight against Kurdish nationalist groups such as the PYD. While it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many Iraqi Kurds have gone to Syria for jihad, reports in Kurdish media suggest that the number is growing.

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