Al-Qaeda in Kurdistan, also known as the Kurdistan Brigades, is a militant Islamist organisation which is primarily active on the Iran/Iraq border region, in the area known as Iraqi Kurdistan. Formed in response to “the Kurdish collaborators who sold themselves [...] who abandoned the Islamic faith and are carrying out their masters orders day and night", they have been active in targeting and attacking Kurdish forces and civilians (Khalil, 2007). The Kurdistan Brigades first emerged in 2007 and they have since primarily targeted the Kurdistan regional government - the AANES. Affiliated with Al-Qaeda, they are a Salafist, Kurdish Militia aimed at combating what they deem to be a secular Kurdish government which has ‘betrayed’ Islamic values (Khalil, 2007).
History & Foundations
There are several competing theories exploring the group's motivations for having formed into an organised insurgency. One of these theories esteems that the Kurdish Brigades formed in response to the surge of US forces in 2007 (Duffy, 2008) and the need for Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) to establish a new foothold in Iraqi Kurdistan. Another competing theory about the founding of the group is that it followed the Kirkuk status referendum in 2007, which was held in order to decide whether or not Kirkuk in Northern Iraq should become a part of the Kurdistan Region. However, varying groups -- including both Turkmen (UNPO, 2007) and Shi’ite Arabic groups -- were trying to gain support in the Northern Iraq region in order to thwart a vote which would have given the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) control over a resource-rich area (Cole, 2007) (UNPO, 2007).
From 2007 to 2010, the AQKB committed a series of attacks in Iraqi Kurdistan, and they targeted secular Kurdish groups and political parties within the KRG, with one of their largest attacks being a VBIED attack on the Kurdish ministers of the interior and security building which killed 19 people (Radio Free Europe, 2012). Post 2010, there has been very little available information about the group, although in 2014 Al Qaeda in Kurdistan released a statement in which they said they would “fight against ISIS if needed” (Roggio, 2014).
Objectives & Ideology
The Kurdistan Brigades share their parent organisation's ideology and goals. The group is a Sunni, Salafist, and Jihadist organisation which seeks to implement Sharia Law and to also establish an Islamic Caliphate in the Middle East. Nevertheless, its unique characteristic is that it seeks to recruit its members from the Kurdish community in Iraq, which has been historically targeted by varying Islamic groups -- including Al Qaeda itself. As a result of this violence against the Kurdish population, Kurdish forces have responded by inflicting “a high number of casualties” (BBC Middle East, 2013). This has further fuelled the turmoil between Al-Qaeda in Kurdistan and regional Kurdish militias.
Military & Political Abilities
The group has severely limited political and military abilities, mainly due to the group's low membership numbers. Nevertheless, the Kurdistan Brigades have claimed responsibility for a number of attacks, with one of their deadliest operations being the aforementioned VBIED attack on the Kurdish ministers of the Interior and Security building (in which 19 people were killed when a truck laden with explosives was detonated outside the building). They have also killed border guards and security force members; in September of 2010, two police officers were injured during a foiled AQKB suicide attack which was targeting security office members in Sulaymaniyah, Iraq (Office of the Spokesperson, 2012).
Approach to Resistance
Despite the group's violent nature, AQKB has only carried out a small number of attacks since 2007. Most of its actions have involved suicide bombings and car bombs. There is evidence, however, that the AQKB intended to use chemical weapons attacks and dispatched a number of its members to Afghanistan and Pakistan to undergo chemical weapons training (Khalil, 2007). The organisation allegedly wanted to carry out chemical assaults and explode the Qaragul Bridge in the Sulaymaniyah province using an unmanned aircraft. The AQKB also intended to wipe the handles of the vehicles used to transport Kurdish politicians with fatal chemicals. Nonetheless, there is no proof that AQKB has ever realised its plans to use chemical weapons (Khalil, 2007).
International Relations & Potential Alliances
Although it has no recorded political activities within Iraqi Kurdistan, the group has been listed as a foreign terrorist organisation by the U.S. State Department (US State Department, 2017) and also as a terrorist organisation by the Canadian government (Public Safety Canada, 2014). AQKB’s extreme Islamist ideology has made the group deeply unpopular with Iraq’s Kurdish population, who are both largely secular and nationalist in nature (Khalil, 2007).
As AQKB is an affiliate organisation of Al-Qaeda, it has sworn allegiance to Ayman Mohammad Rabie al-Zawahiri (the former leader of al-Qaeda) prior to his death in 2022. Following the split between al-Qaeda and ISIS within Syria in which the former leader of ISIS, Abu Bakr al Baghdadi, attempted to subsume Al-Nusrah (another AQ-aligned faction), they began to clash. This indicates that AQKB is also targeting and fighting against ISIS in Iraq (Roggio, 2014).
Works Cited (MLA-style)
BBC Middle East. “Kurdish-Jihadist Clashes Fracture Syria Opposition.” BBC News, 18 Aug. 2013, www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-23747711.
Cole, Juan. “Nearly 50 Dead Saturday Us Fires On.” Informed Comment, 10 June 2007, www.juancole.com/2007/06/nearly-50-dead-saturday-us-fires-on.html.
Duffy, Michael. “The Surge at Year One.” Time, 31 Jan. 2008, web.archive.org/web/20080204062818/www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1708843,00.html.
Khalil, Lydia. “The Kurdistan Brigades: Al-Qaeda’s Kurdish Henchmen.” Jamestown, 18 May 2007, jamestown.org/program/the-kurdistan-brigades-al-qaedas-kurdish-henchmen/
Office of the Spokesperson. “Terrorist Designation of the Al-Qaida Kurdish Battalions.” U.S. Department of State, 2017, 2009-2017.state.gov/r/pa/prs/ps/2012/01/180166.htm.
Public Safety Canada. “Currently Listed Entities.” Publicsafety.gc.ca, 2014, www.publicsafety.gc.ca/cnt/ntnl-scrt/cntr-trrrsm/lstd-ntts/crrnt-lstd-ntts-en.aspx
Radio Free Europe. “U.S. Labels Kurdish Group ‘Terrorists.’” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 5 Jan. 2012, www.rferl.org/a/us_terrorist_kurdish_group_al_qaeda_kurdish_battalions/24443444.html.
Roggio, Bill. “‘Al Qaeda in Kurdistan’ Breaks Ranks with ISIS over Syria | FDD’s Long War Journal.” Www.longwarjournal.org, 1 May 2014, www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2014/05/al_qaeda_in_kurdista.php
“US Adds al Qaeda Kurdish Battalions to List of Terror Groups | FDD’s Long War Journal.” Www.longwarjournal.org, 5 Jan. 2012, www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2012/01/us_adds_al_qaeda_kur.php.