Kurdistan sees rising threat of home-grown extremism

Security and intelligence forces are exposing sleeper cells of Kurdish youth radicalized by Islamic State ideology in alarming numbers.
A screenshot of a video taken by the Counter-Terrorism Group, a security force controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan political party, shows the arrest of a suspected member of the Islamic State militant group on Aug. 22, 2023. (Photo credit: CTG)

SULAIMANIYA/CHAMCHAMAL - Sleeper cells aligned with the Islamic State (IS) militant group are recruiting young people in Iraqi Kurdistan, raising the prospect of a new security threat that could increase along with stagnating economic opportunity and growing social unrest.

The groups do not yet seem to pose a major danger, with activities focused mainly on localized vandalism and social media propaganda. But security officials say they have also exposed plots to detonate explosives in urban centers like Erbil and Sulaimaniya, highlighting the risk of extremism to trigger fatal violence.

“The tough political climate has given proper ground to the radical members of the Islamist parties to express their radical views," said Mariwan Naqshbandi, public relations director for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) Ministry of Endowment and Religious Affairs, which is responsible for oversight of mosques and religious activity. "These radical groups have prepared fertile ground for Daesh to enter the Kurdistan Region.”

The sleeper cells within Iraqi Kurdistan present a new and different type of threat than the predominately Arab insurgent groups led by hardened IS veterans, which operate in a no-man’s-land beyond Kurdistan’s southern border. Kurdish security officials believe there is little formal coordination between the home-grown radicals and the insurgents, even if they share some ideological motivations.

The home-grown radicals also require a different security response than the military operations and patrols that have largely contained IS insurgents operating just beyond Kurdistan's southern border. Over the past year, Iraq Oil Report has tracked dozens of police and intelligence operations resulting in the arrest of at least 175 suspected IS members, sleeper agents, and sympathizers.

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