How ISIS Infiltrated Iranian Kurdistan

June 13, 2017
Aida Ghajar and Shahed Alavi
15 min read
According to Mokhtar Houshmand, jihadi Salafist ideology began to infiltrate into Iranian Kurdistan around 20 years ago
According to Mokhtar Houshmand, jihadi Salafist ideology began to infiltrate into Iranian Kurdistan around 20 years ago

Ever since the terrorist group ISIS claimed responsibility for attacks on Iran’s parliament and the mausoleum of Ayatollah Khomeini on June 7th, Iranian officials have pointed the finger at members of Iran’s Kurdish minority.

A video released by Amaq, the new agency affiliated with ISIS, also refers to Kurdish militants active in Iran.

While Iran’s Kurds have long identified more with their own national identity struggle than with international ideologies, many Kurds are also members of Islam’s Sunni sect, and observers fear that some Kurds may be susceptible to the violent strain of Salafism, an ultra-conservative branch of Islam that has emerged from the Arabian Peninsula. Iranians are now asking what roots this ideology may have in Kurdistan, and what Iran’s Shia Islamist government has done to challenge it.

IranWire put these questions to Mokhtar Houshmand, a former Kurdish political prisoner who now lives in Germany and researches the spread of jihadist ideologies among Kurds.


When did Salafism begin to take root in Iranian Kurdistan?

Jihadi Salafism first entered Iranian Kurdistan 20 years ago, around the mid-1990s, when the ideology found supporters in the Sunni areas. Three important developments were crucial to the spread of this ideology: The establishment of Taliban’s Islamic Emirate in Afghanistan, the formation of Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan, and eventually, the emergence of Ansar al-Islam in the Iraqi Kurdish region of Oraman, next to Iranian Kurdistan.

We also have ershadi (“guidance”) Salafism that believes is peaceful proselytizing, unlike the jihadi Salafism that believes jihad is the only way to carry out Islamic law. What is the influence of this version in Kurdistan? Does ershadi Salafism have historical roots in Iranian Kurdistan like Sufism? Or does it have its origins in movements inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood founded in Egypt?

“Guidance” Salafism entered Kurdistan through a group called Tablighi Jamaat, or "the Proselytizing Group," which entered Iran from Pakistan and initially found some support among Iran’s Baluchi minority since the group carried out extensive activities in Iran’s eastern Sistan and Baluchistan province. But it was only after the introduction of jihadi Salafism among Sunnis in Iranian Kurdistan that guidance Salafism found supporters. Of course, the guidance Salafists, too, might decide for jihad under certain conditions.

Historically, Salafism goes back to Muhammad ibn al-Wahhab [1703-1792], the founder of the Wahhabi school of Islam in Arabia. His ideas evolved into guidance Salafism. Major figures of this branch of Salafism include the Albanian Islamic scholar Muhammad Nasir Uddin al-Albani [1914-1999] and the Saudi scholar Abdul Aziz bin Baz [1910-1999].

How much have guidance Salafists been influenced by the Egyptian Islamist Sayyed Qutb [1906-1966] or Seyed Abul Ala Maududi [1903-1979], the founder Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan?

By and large, guidance Salafists have not been influenced by Sayyed Qutb. The Muslim Brotherhood was founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna and their emphasis was on proselytizing. Their strategy and their theoretical principles show that they were closer to guidance Salafism.

But after Sayyed Qutb gained influence, the Muslim Brotherhood paid more attention to the concepts of jihad and “takfir,” or apostasy. Therefore, as far as the Muslim Brotherhood is concerned, jihadi Salafists are under the influence of Sayyed Qutb.

Is it true, as has been claimed, that the spread of Salafism in Iranian Kurdistan is mainly a result of the Iranian regime’s actions aimed at weakening nationalist and leftist sentiments among the Kurds?

This could have been an important factor in the advent of political Islam in Iranian Kurdistan, especially if we are talking about the formation of parties and groups such as Maktab-e Quran, or “School of the Koran,” and the Call and Reform Organization, which is the Iranian affiliate of Muslim Brotherhood. They were formed after the victory of the 1979 Islamic Revolution when the Kurdish nationalist and leftist parties started their open activities in Kurdistan.

In the early months after the revolution, Maktab-e Quran was close to the Islamic Republic. There was even an agreement between Ahmad Moftizadeh and Ayatollah Khomeini, stipulating that if the Islamists succeeded in expelling leftists and Kurdish nationalists from Kurdistan, then the Islamic Republic would agree to some sort of Kurdish autonomy under Moftizadeh and Maktab-e Quran.

The establishment of a de facto quasi-independence in Iraqi Kurdistan and the simultaneous emergence of the PKK (Kurdistan Workers' Party) in Turkey in the early 1990s strengthened nationalist tendencies among Iranian Kurds. This was when Moftizadeh was released from prison and Maktab-e Quran was allowed to become active. It seems that this was an attempt to counter nationalistic sentiments among the Kurds.

But only two years after Moftizadeh’s death in February 1993, Maktab-e Quran’s freedom of action was ended and a wave of arresting or removing religious leaders and teachers associated with Maktab started. What made the Iranian regime change its approach towards Maktab-e Quran? Did this change play a role in the emergence of Salafism in Iranian Kurdistan?

The first wave of the crackdown on Maktab-e Quran goes back to the early 1980s. It started when Maktab-e Quran moved to the city of Kermanshah and formed the Shams Council, or “Sunni Central Council.” Moftizadeh was influential in organizing this council and selecting its members. But the second wave of repression that you mentioned is still going on, even though Maktab-e Quran is very liberal in its Islamic beliefs. After Moftizadeh was released from prison, he gave a speech in which he clearly announced that Maktab-e Quran was not targeting apostasy and apostates anywhere in the world. His position was an ideological revolution, but the crackdowns on Maktab triggered a new wave of nationalism in Iranian Kurdistan.

Why did the second crackdown on Maktab-e Quran take place when the leftist and nationalist threats were still present? Did Iran give room to Salafists in Iranian Kurdistan in order to marginalize Maktab-e Quran and Kurdish nationalism?

Yes. The emergence of Salafism in Kurdistan and giving room to Salafists cannot be analyzed without the question of marginalizing Kurdish nationalism. But we must talk about the forces of Ansar al-Islam in Iranian Kurdistan if we want to specifically talk about Salafists in Kurdistan.

In 2001, in Iraqi Kurdistan, near the town of Halabja, an extremist group calling itself Ansar al-Islam, set up the Islamic Emirate of Byara in the area under its control. Najmaddin Faraj Ahmad, who was also known as Mullah Krekar, led this group.

Ansar al-Islam was responsible for terrorist operations and beheadings in the cities of Sulaymaniyah and Erbil. They controlled the area until the American invasion of Iraq in 2003. That year, the Islamic Republic gave those members of Ansar al-Islam who had survived the American occupation and the cleansing of the Islamic Emirate of Byara the green light to enter Iranian Kurdistan. A few of the leaders were briefly interrogated and a large group of them settled in various cities in Iranian Kurdistan. It is from this point on that we witness a serious presence of jihadi Salafism in Iranian Kurdistan.

As I mentioned, regional developments such as the rule of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan and the emergence of Ansar al-Islam and the establishment of Islamic Emirate of Byara in Iraq influenced the spread of Salafi ideology in Iranian Kurdistan. The presence of Ansar al-Islam’s jihadists helped small Salafist groups in Iranian Kurdistan to join up and make common cause with Ansar al-Islam. These groups set up public propaganda affiliates in various towns.

Of course, we must not forget that in 2001, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, who later became the commander of Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, entered Iran from Afghanistan by crossing the border into Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province.

Jihadi Salafist Kurds took al-Zarqawi to Kurdistan. He was their guest there for eight months. On one occasion, the Islamic Republic arrested and interrogated Zarqawi. For a few weeks, he had to go to the northwestern towns of Saghez and Bukan each morning for interrogation.

Then they got him over the border in Marivan to some place in Byara that was under the control of Ansar al-Islam. With the help of this group, Zarqawi went to Baghdad and started the first jihadi Salafist group in the Arab regions of Iraq.

At this time, Saddam Hussein was still in power. Was Saddam aware of these activities?

The whole organization and its activities were secret. After the downfall of Saddam, Zarqawi created a bigger group called Jamaat al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, or “Organization of Monotheism and Jihad” which was later renamed Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Then, early in the spring of 2003, the remnants of Ansar al-Islam in Iran broke into three groups. A group led by Hemin Bani Shari and Umar Bazynai separated from the main body of Ansar al-Islam. Along with a number of Iranian Salafists, they created a Kurdish jihadi Salafist group called the Kurdistan Brigades. The Brigades later pledged loyalty to Zarqawi. A group of them, including Hemin Bani Shari and Umar Bazynai, moved to Iraq. The rest remained in Iran to expand their organization through proselytizing.

What were the activities of these groups in Iranian Kurdistan? Did they act in the open?

They engaged in a range of activities. For example, in 2005 and 2006, a person who went by the name of Marvan, a native of the Darbandikhan region of Iraqi Kurdistan who was a military expert with Ansar-al-Islam, became the administrator of a training camp for Iranian Salafists inside Iran. This was near the city of Sarpol-e Zahab. The instructors were experts in bomb making and other military matters. When the Salafi trainees were ideologically and militarily ready, they were sent across the Iranian border into Iraqi Kurdistan, and to the town of Halabja in particular, to carry out missions.

Their operations mostly consisted of lying in ambush for the Iraqi Kurdish Peshmerga and border patrols. They carried out several terrorist operations in Erbil and Sulaymaniyah — for example, the failed assassination attempt against Mala Bakhtiar, a leader of Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

It is interesting that all these propaganda and training activities and border crossings into Iranian Kurdistan were done in the open. If they took security precautions, it was not because they were afraid of the Islamic Republic. The intelligence agencies of the Islamic Republic had all these activities under surveillance. When the Kurdistan Brigades were founded in Iranian Kurdistan, a branch of Ansar al-Islam was still active in that region. But most Iranian Salafists joined the Kurdistan Brigades and, as a result, Ansar al-Islam was not able to attract many Salafists in Iranian Kurdistan.

Was this branch of Ansar al-Islam active only in Iran or were they also sending their forces into Iraq?

The remnants of Ansar al-Islam in Iran broke into separate groups. Apart from the Kurdistan Brigades, members of another group, which mostly consisted of Ansar leaders such as Abu Abdullah Shafei, were interrogated over several months by the Islamic Republic’s Intelligence Ministry. Iran’s security forces and the Revolutionary Guards then took them to the border and returned them to Iraq. After the downfall of Saddam Hussein, they regrouped in the Arab regions of Iraq under the name of Ansar al-Sunna. But after a few years, they changed their name back to Ansar al-Islam. The branch in Iran was part of the original Ansar that regrouped in Iraqi Kurdistan.

When did the relations between the Kurdistan Brigades and the Islamic Republic go sour?

We have witnessed a split in the Kurdistan Brigades twice. The Brigades conducted their early military and terrorist activities in Iraqi Kurdistan, in border areas and in the cities of Erbil and Sulaymaniyah. This stage lasted until 2007. Salafists believe that, after an agreement between Iran and the government of Iraqi Kurdistan, in which the Revolutionary Guards acted as the main intermediary, the Iranian government pressured them to end their activities in Iraqi Kurdistan and instead move to Afghanistan.

But after the leadership of the Brigades yielded to pressure from the Revolutionary Guards, a number of its members objected to the agreement and a split occurred. As a result of this split, a number of Salafists in Iranian Kurdistan and Iraqi Kurdistan left the Brigades and formed a group named Army of Saladin. The goal of the Army of Saladin was to continue what the Battalions had been doing. They were able to carry out a number of operations in the border areas of Iraqi Kurdistan. For example, they attacked a police and Peshmerga station in the Garmak area, killing several people.

Didn’t the Islamic Republic stop the Army of Saladin from conducting operations in Iraq?

After a few operations, the Islamic Republic warned them against continuing their operations inside Iraqi Kurdistan. The Brigades reached an agreement with the Revolutionary Guards to put pressure on the Army of Saladin and succeeded. After a while, members of the Army of Saladin returned to Iran, were disarmed, and the group was disbanded.

A second split occurred in 2009. A group of Iranian Salafi Kurds came to the conclusion that the leaders of the Brigades, who were mostly Iraqi Kurds, were too close to the security establishment of the Islamic Republic and the Revolutionary Guards, and were even receiving money from them.

The Iranian Salafi Kurds wanted to take over the management of the Brigades, but when the Iraqi Kurds stood up to them they decided to split and secretly formed the group Tawhid and Jihad (“Tawhid” means monotheism). This group started its activities in 2009 and mainly targeted the Islamic Republic.

Close to 95 percent of Tawhid and Jihad members came from the Iranian Kurdish cities of Sanandaj, Qorveh, Dehgolan and their surrounding villages. They carried out operations in this area. But they also attacked a number of jewelry stores in Hamedan and Zanjan to procure funds and killed several people in the course of those armed robberies.

In Kurdistan, they assassinated Mullah Borhan Ali, imam of a mosque in Sanandaj, and Mullah Mohammad Sheikholeslam, a member of Iran’s Assembly of Experts.

This group was active in Sanandaj and the surrounding area until sometime in 2012. It took three years for the Iranian intelligence agencies, working with the Revolutionary Guards and the police, to put an end to their activities.

Is there an active jihadi Salafist group inside Iran now?

Most of the activities have now gone underground. The Islamic Republic has even succeeded in controlling their propaganda activities. The Islamic Republic now deals very harshly with all these groups, whether Ansar al-Islam, Al-Qaeda or ISIS. Of course, it treats the members of ISIS more harshly.

But there are reports that Salafist clerics like Mullah Mohammad Alavi are still active in mosques and promote Salafi views.

We have seen that Mullah Alavi has led around two or three thousand people in prayers in a village in Bukan but he has not once been summoned to court. Of course, some clerics like Mullah Mohammad of Baria, Mullah Osman of Saghez, and Mullah Hadi Salehi of Saghez, were summoned to court even though they were less influential than Mullah Mohammad Alavi and Mullah Abdolhadi of Urmia against whom no action has been taken. Mullah Alavi still has a mosque in Saghez but he does not proselytize as he did before and is now much more cautious.

In the statement Iran’s Intelligence Ministry released about the Tehran terror attacks, there are names like Sarias Sadeghi, people they apparently knew were members of ISIS. But it seems no serious action was taken against them.

What the Islamic Republic wants is for individuals associated with Islamist and jihadi Salafist groups to leave Iran. In recent years, many Salafists from Kurdistan and Sunni areas of Iran left for Afghanistan. To be exact, from 2007 until the start of the Syrian crisis, many Iranian Salafists left for a town called Barancheh in the region of Rigestan in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. The town was under the joint control of the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. Many Kurds from Sanandaj and other Kurdish regions also went there. Close to 60 of them were killed.

Of the terrorists responsible for attacks in Tehran, two were members of ISIS who had gone to Syria. They had been imprisoned when they returned to Iran but were released three months ago.

But the Intelligence Ministry’s claims to have killed an ISIS leader named Abu Aisha al-Kurdi are lies. Nobody by that name has been killed inside Iran by Iranian security and intelligence forces. The name Abu Aisha refers to a person named Fateh Kurdistani or Ismail Muhammad from Iraqi Kurdistan who was an ISIS senior Kurdish commander.

In the summer of 2016, he and a group of Kurdish ISIS members succeeded in infiltrating the Halabja region in Iraqi Kurdistan and entered Iranian Kurdistan a few times. But Abu Aisha was killed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan inside Iraqi territory.

What we witnessed in Tehran resembled operations that Abu Aisha planned. Those who carried out the attacks were following his example. On the ISIS website, the operations in Tehran were dedicated to Abu Aisha, who was praised as a pioneer of such operations.

Who are the Kurds who were arrested after the attacks in Tehran?

Four of them were Kurds from around the city of Paveh. Two of them, Fereydoon and Ghayum, had joined ISIS earlier but they gave themselves up to the Islamic Republic and repented. There are also those from other regions in Iran who have joined ISIS, for example, some Baluchis and individuals from Talesh in Gilan and Turkmen Sahra. For example, one of the important ISIS leaders in sharia affairs was a man by the name of Seyyed Mohammad Ghoreishi from the village of Shalghoon in Talesh who returned to Iran and gave a series of interviews against ISIS. I have also heard that a number of Shi’ites from Fars Province have converted to Sunnism and have joined ISIS.

Do you know how many Kurdish members ISIS has?

In total, I estimate that after ISIS came into being, close to 400 Iranian Kurds went to Syria and Iraq to join the group. There are fewer than they were a few years ago because many of them have been killed. Around 170 members of ISIS from Iranian Kurdistan have been killed or wounded. The fate of another 40 is unknown. It is possible that ISIS has executed them and perhaps some of them have left ISIS and have joined other groups. Fifty of them returned to Iran and most of them are free.




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