Countering Violent Extremism in the Kurdistan Region in Iraq

Wietse van den Berge 10 May 2016

Now that the Islamic State (IS) appears to be losing ground, and the most imminent threat for the Kurdistan Region in Iraq (KRI) seems to be over, the time has come for the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) to develop a plan to counter violent extremism (CVE). Although some measures have been taken, for example increasing the number of internal checkpoints and restricting extremist mosques, a comprehensive CVE approach is lacking within the KRI. An effective CVE approach can help to prevent new waves of radicalisation – the process leading towards violent extremism. However, the approach needs to be tailored to the circumstances that are relevant to KRI.

More of ISIS’s members or sympathizers can be expected to be incarcerated as IS is pushed back or after defecting from the organisation. These individuals might be foreign fighters or locals. So far, relatively few Kurds have joined the ranks of IS. Reports mention that the numbers range from 250 to 500 individuals on a total of 19,000 to 25,000 IS-fighters as of early 2016. Nonetheless, in IS-linked groups like Ansar al-Islam, Kurds have been rather prominent among the religiously motivated violent extremists. This is seen as an outcome of the Kurdish Civil War (1994-1998), when extremist religious groups filled the power vacuum. The response from the KRG to these violent extremists – Kurds and non-Kurds alike – can determine the extent to which radicalisation will surge, or its influence wane, within the KRI in the upcoming years. Towards that end, this article analyses the processes of de-radicalisation, disengagement and re-integration that the KRG should address within the overall CVE approach in the coming months and years. This approach draws upon United Nations Security Council Resolution 2178 (UNSCR 2178), which addresses CVE. It calls upon UN member states to prevent radicalisation, to contribute to the global prevention of terrorism, and provides an international legal framework for dealing with violent extremist crimes of their citizens. UNSCR 2178 “[e]mphasizes in this regard the importance […] to develop non-violent alternative avenues for conflict prevention and resolution by affected individuals and local communities to decrease the risk of radicalisation to terrorism, and of efforts to promote peaceful alternatives to violent narratives espoused by foreign terrorist fighters, and underscores the role education can play in countering terrorist narratives”. Although KRG is not a UN member state, it can adopt UNSCR 2178 as a framework from which a CVE approach can be developed.

The need for a comprehensive CVE approach

When predecessors of IS – Al-Qaeda in Iraq and Islamic State in Iraq – were pushed back militarily during the second half of the 2000s, Arab Sunni perceptions of political and socio-economic inequality vis-à-vis other ethnicities were not properly addressed. According to the Relative Deprivation Theory, these negative perceptions can lead to grievances, which in turn can foster radicalisation. The grievances among Arab Sunni populations in Iraq started after the so-called de-Baathification Law of 2003 was reinforced by political marginalisation, as they were functionally excluded from government“. These issues contributed to a large extent to the (re-)emergence of what eventually became IS. A predominantly military solution against IS’s predecessors was not sufficient in resolving the root grievances: it addressed the symptoms of violence and terrorism, but not the underlying causes. As recognised by UNSCR 2178, a truly successful CVE approach needs to be comprehensive in addressing not only military challenges, but political and socio-economic ones as well. That means the efforts should also focus on issues such as imprisonment, de-radicalisation/disengagement and re-integration. Now that IS is under pressure on multiple fronts, it is necessary for the KRG to implement a CVE programme specifically dealing with (former) IS-members. This is likely to concern Kurds from the ranks of IS, but also non-Kurdish IS-members, for example those who are captured by the Peshmerga.

Prosecuting Violent Extremists

The KRG must think about whether and how to prosecute violent extremist prisoners. If it is done through a transparent, legal framework, this might prove beneficial in providing legitimacy for the KRG.

If violent extremists are sentenced to disproportional punishments without trial, this could become counter-productive, as the United States has experienced in Guantanamo Bay. People who are not yet violent extremists themselves, but who identify or sympathize with the imprisoned violent extremists, might perceive such disproportional sentences as yet another form of repression. As such, and in line with the Relative Deprivation Theory mentioned earlier, it might further lead to radicalisation and fuel resentment among people who were not considered violent extremists before.

Imprisoning Violent Extremists

One issue in dealing with violent extremists is deciding what approach to take for their incarceration, both during the pre-trial period as well as after sentencing. Should they be held in special terrorism wings or should they be dispersed among other ‘regular’ convicts? Both solutions have their advantages and disadvantages.

Separating them from other prisoners means that violent extremists come into contact with other violent extremists quite easily. A study focusing on Dutch imprisonment policy indicates that concentrating violent extremists as such is not effective. Additionally, it is known that some terrorist organisations target prisons where their supporters are being held, in order to release them. Concentrating violent extremists in specific prisons would make these locations attractive targets. The so-called ‘Breaking the Walls’ campaign of IS’s predecessor is a case in point here.

On the other hand, by dispersion among other captives violent extremists can get in touch with, and potentially mobilise support among non-radical prisoners. Mobilisation of non-radical prisoners by imprisoned violent extremists has actually happened in the past, for example in the Camp Bucca prison in Iraq after the American invasion there in 2003. In Camp Bucca jihadists were held together with other inmates and they could easily get in touch with each other. It enabled the jihadists to recruit supporters among non-jihadists, in particular former members of Saddam Hussein’s secular Baath party.

Instead of treating separation and dispersion as mutually exclusive, these approaches can be applied both by using the advantages and being aware of the disadvantages of each. This should lead to a pre-trial separation policy for any suspect of violent extremism. This is to avoid any short-term risk, like violent extremists recruiting among other captives in the pre-trail process, or attacking or intimidating them. After conviction, however, the violent extremists who – during their time in prison awaiting trial – are assessed to be capable of de-radicalisation can be dispersed among ‘regular’ convicts and participate in de-radicalisation programmes to prepare for re-integration. Such programmes should contain educational elements – as mentioned in UNSCR 2178 – (religious) dialogue and individual attention. The violent extremists who are assessed to be more severe cases should be kept separated, mainly to avoid them from radicalising other prisoners. In every individual case, assessments on the possibility of de-radicalisation and keeping track of the de-radicalisation process – once started – have to be part of the prison policy. The eventual goal is to prepare a de-radicalised prisoner for re-integration into society.

Re-integrating violent extremists

The vast majority of IS members and sympathizers who can be prosecuted and convicted will eventually be released. Ideally, by implementing rehabilitation programmes in prison, violent extremist offenders are de-radicalised before returning to society. But the challenge is how to evaluate whether someone is actually de-radicalised. Instead of ‘de-radicalisation’ (a change in attitudes/beliefs), the goal should be more measurable: ‘disengagement’ (a change in behaviour). Simply put, disengagement means that people may still hold radical ideas, but they no longer want to use violence. People who are de-radicalised or disengaged are ready for re-integration: re-entry into society. This is a delicate process: will a person slip back into violent extremist behaviour if that person encounters similar political and/or socio-economic barriers?

Role for society

Society should play a role in de-radicalisation and re-integration. Unlike the predominantly military approach used against IS’s predecessors, the origin of their supporters’ grievances must be addressed to avoid (re-) radicalisation. Within the Parliament in the KRI, the Islamist political parties might play a role to put such grievances on the political agenda. These might include feelings among Sunni Muslims being marginalised or discriminated against by KRG. When these issues are addressed politically, there is less need for people to turn to violence. It is an approach that has been rather successful in Algeria since the end of the Civil War (1990-1998). In Algeria, besides in-prison de-radicalisation programmes, former violent extremists are supported in finding jobs and are offered a political voice to avoid potential re-radicalisation. The success of the Algerian CVE approach is due to it being truly comprehensive, as it stretches into ‘all sectors and all segments of the population,’ including education, family and religion.

More research needed

Whether the Algerian approach would work in the KRI remains uncertain; the outcome is always context-specific. Measured by the low number of citizens joining IS compared to its neighbouring countries, the Algerian approach can be considered rather successful. Whether newly developed CVE approaches are as successful remains to be seen when long-term effects become visible. Therefore, Algeria does provide a basis from which to start the development of an effective KRI-specific approach that is based on research regarding violent extremists’ motivations. So far, such research is lacking in the KRI. Although research has been conducted on what drives religiously motivated violent extremists, context-specific research provides more accurate data enabling a more accurate CVE approach.

Concluding remarks

Consequently, like any other modern-day political actor facing the threat of violent extremism, the KRG needs a specific CVE approach as well. Countering violent extremism amongst Kurds and non-Kurds alike should be a comprehensive effort and include prison-based strategies for de-radicalisation/disengagement and re-integration. Without claiming to be exhaustive, the issues addressed here serve as important elements that need to be considered within a CVE approach. Also, it cannot be emphasized enough that there is no standard CVE approach. Using UNSCR 2178 and the case of Algeria as references, with the participation of Islamic politicians in the Kurdistan Parliament, might help to place (potential) frustrations of violent extremists on the political agenda. However, more knowledge on backgrounds and motivations of violent extremists within the Region is needed to be able to design an effective CVE approach for the KRI.