Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Taming the Islamists in the North

Ansar al-Islam and Komal may have been cast to the winds, but some members remain committed to the Islamic cause.
By Twana Osman

Mas'ud spends his days as a humble, small-time businessman, trading goods among the Kurdish cities of northern Iraq. But he still has nurtures memories of his days as an armed guerrilla with the once-feared Islamic Group, Komal.

Months after United States forces scattered and forcibly disarmed Komal and the more radical Ansar al-Islam militia, many former fighters like Mas'ud have resumed life as civilians. Just how well they manage that transition could have a major impact on the stability of northern Iraq.

Many still cling to their dreams of establishing an Islamic state.

“We want to have our rights to political activity like any other Islamic group in Kurdistan," said Mas’ud. “An external factor obliged us to leave our weapons, not an internal factor such as – God forbid – a weakening of our beliefs.”

For years, Ansar al-Islam and Komal controlled the mountainous regions of eastern Kurdistan along the Iranian border. Both groups originally emerged from the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan - the oldest Kurdish Islamic group.

Ansar al-Islam existed in a stalemate frequently punctuated by violent conflict with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, PUK, the ruling party in the area. Ansar – a coalition of Kurdish Islamists and foreign Arab fighters – retained tenuous ties and sympathies with the al-Qaeda network of Osama bin Laden. It earned a reputation for fanaticism and brutality, while Komal pursued a more moderate path.

Komal was built around loyalty to its leader or emir, Ali Bapeer. Since it was a licensed party and participated in the PUK-led cabinet in Sulaymaniyah, the group’s fighters actually received financial support from the PUK.

Due to the inaccessibility of the region and their ability to quietly slip across the Iranian border, both groups retained an unshakable foothold around the Iranian border in the town of Khurmal.

But their demise came swiftly once the United States-led coalition began its campaign in Iraq.

On March 21, one American cruise missile after another pounded both the Ansar and Komal base camps, resulting in dozens of fatalities. Attacks on Ansar-held areas continued throughout the war, and most of the surviving fighters fled east into Iran.

On July 10, coalition forces arrested Ali Bapeer on the road between the two main Kurdish cities of Arbil and Sulaimaniyah.

Since then, the two groups have been almost totally scattered.

Many people suspect that the remnants of Ansar al-Islam remain across the border in Iran waiting for a chance to return or to participate in guerrilla attacks on coalition forces.

According to eyewitnesses, some Ansar members are in Baghdad. A businessman from Sulaymaniyah, who travels frequently to the capital, told IWPR on condition of anonymity that he had seen a neighbour of his – who was a member of Ansar al-Islam – there.

But Komal has had to opt for a quieter path as part of the new, more mundane reality forced upon it by the arrest of its leadership as well as the ending of subsidies from the PUK.

“When the party lost its financial source of income, we did not want to be a burden on the party any more,” said former Komal fighter Sirusht Mohammad Ali, who now works as a house decorator. "We stopped carrying weapons, and now we are struggling in a different way for the success of Islam.”

Kamil Mahmood, former editor-in-chief of the Islamic Movement's newspaper, resigned from the party a few weeks ago and quit political life.

“We did what we had to do,” he said. “I cannot continue with party life anymore. So I am going to devote my time to my personal and intellectual life,” he said.

For former members of the militia, the price of returning to Kurdish society was to disarm and give up their militant behaviour.

“Komal ended right at the moment when they decided to lay down their weapons and give in to the Americans," said Saman Muhammed, who describes himself as a supporter of these Islamic groups.

Now the debate centres on whether the former guerrilla fighters will actually remain committed to living peaceful lives.

Rebeen Rasul, a young resident of Arbil, said the key was to ensure meaningful and productive lives for the former militants. “If the lifestyle of those people does not change, the possibility [that they will take up arms again] will remain," he said. "As long as they do not feel they are living prosperous live, they will be ready to die.”

But for fighter-turned-businessman, Mas’ud, disarming merely marked the start of a different stage in Komal's struggle.

“It is not necessary for justice to be achieved only through weapons,” he said. “The Prophet Muhammad considered dialogue a means of achieving justice.”

Twana Osman is a Kurdish journalist who works for the Kurdish independent newspaper Hawlati.