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We Can't Ignore the Kurds Fighting Alongside Violent Extremist Groups

11/03/2016 16:22 GMT | Updated 12/03/2017 09:12 GMT

The challenge of understanding "who's fighting who" in the conflict in Syria and Iraq has led to a simplified representation of the Kurds solely taking up arms against ISIS. Kurdish groups such as the People's Protection Units (YPG) have indeed proved worthy adversaries to this Islamist extremist group and as allies to the US. However, scores of Iraqi Kurds are also fighting alongside violent extremist groups.

This semi-autonomous Kurdish region has long been witness to the recruitment of its nationals to violent extremist groups. Groups such as Ansar al Sunna and its precursor Ansar al Islam, connected to al-Qaeda, and the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK) were successful in mobilising Iraqi Kurds against the Iraqi Kurdish government. Ignoring the radicalisation of Iraqi Kurds also ignores the grievances of youth and the root causes of radicalisation in the region.

The KRG's response to the latest threat of ISIS in the region has been to assert greater control over mosques and Salafist clerics. Last year, a deadly attack planned in Erbil was foiled, and the local roots of the plotters came to light. They professed their loyalty to ISIS.

To counter this threat from radicalisation the Kurdish secret service, Asayish, has conducted uncompromising security checks on Iraqi Kurdish citizens. Families are scared to come forward and flag the radicalisation of their children to the security services and safeguard their children. The primary targets of their secret service haven't just been Islamist militants: critics of the government and journalists continuously experience checks and even abuse.

The roots of violent extremist radicalisation in the KRG region are largely attributed to these curbed human rights, alongside tensions between the Iraqi Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). This has created pervasive and long-term socio-political and economic rifts. Radicalisation in the Kurdistan region is "a much politically and economically inspired as it is ideologically motivated." Exacerbating these tensions are disputes between the central Iraqi government and the Kurds in Erbil, which have resulted in delayed payments of workers' salaries; as well as the extra-strain placed on the region's economy by refugees and displaced Iraqis.

The democratically elected KRG government is currently run as a coalition between the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). However it operates as a powerful and nepotistic force against dissidence under the banner of a representative government, and it looks to be worsening. Disillusioned by the dominance of these two main parties, Iraqi Kurds have become an easy target for violent extremist recruiters. Bored of unfulfilled promises from the KRG government, youth have been taking up arms alongside a host of violent extremist groups and militants. Recently, an Iranian Kurdish opposition leader stated that a sports centre in Kirkuk, just south of Erbil, is considered to be a base for recruiting youth to join Tehran-affiliated militia groups, such as the Iranian Quds Force. The Force has been designated a supporter of terrorism by the US since 2007.

A number of youth have also joined the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK). Based in Turkey, the PKK is internationally designated a terrorist group by Turkey, the US and EU. Despite the PKK and KRG both being Kurdish it would be simplistic to assume they share amicable relations. Whilst the KRG's ruling party is a more traditional and clan-based political movement, the PKK is left-wing, ideological, and action-oriented. Intra-Kurdish fighting was commonplace in the 1990s civil war, and the Iraqi Kurds were happy to settle in the northwest after years of persecution. It wasn't until the rise of ISIS that the KRG and PKK worked tentatively alongside each other to ward off ISIS's territorial advances.

These instances of radicalisation in Iraqi Kurdistan have highlighted violent extremist groups' winning efforts to reach disaffected youth across ethnic divides. This is underscored all the more by ISIS's capability in recruiting Kurdish youth to fight, among others, Kurds. In one report, an individual even stated that the security services asked anyone with ties to ISIS not to talk about it because it draws attention to the issue. However, this is an issue that needs attention.

Focusing solely on the Kurds fighting ISIS not only undermines those in Iraq that are subject to sliding rights, but also ignores the corruption, instability and political grievances of Kurds that are the root causes of radicalisation of youth in this region.