As the battle for Mosul rages, in Sulaimania, there is a growing sense of despondency and apathy.
Sulaimania – The US-led war against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) cannot be won on the battlefield alone, warns Iraqi Kurdish intelligence chief Lahur Talabany.
The real danger, he says, is the lack of a strategy to counter the group’s ideology.
“We can defeat them in Mosul, and we can defeat them in Raqqa, but we won’t win this war with military means alone – an ideology is much harder to control,” says Talabany, head of the Iraqi Kurdish region’s intelligence and counterterrorism agency, Zanyari, the Iraqi Kurdish equivalent to the CIA.
“As we saw with Jund al-Islam, which morphed into Ansar al-Islam, as with the case of al-Qaeda, we can try and fight these guys militarily, but they always come back stronger in another form,” Talabany, who has 15 years of experience in battling armed groups in Iraq, tells Al Jazeera.
He predicts that both Iraq and Syria will face a spate of asymmetric attacks even after ISIL, also known as ISIS, have been eliminated as an organised group – “as we saw in Kirkuk, when they sent 100 suicide bombers into the city,” he says, referring to the coordinated ISIL attacks in and around the oil-rich city of Kirkuk on October 21.
“We will see these kinds of attacks not only in Iraq and the Kurdistan region, but we should expect similar attacks in Europe. You are hurting them, so they will try to get back at you any way they can.”
Talabany, the nephew of former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, says there is currently “no effective effort in place” to fight ISIL’s ideology, citing significant setbacks in towns where the group has already been pushed out.
Is the international community willing to help to give back to these communities?
“Look at most of the towns where major battles have taken place. Most of these towns are ruined … and Mosul will be messed up by the time it’s retaken. That means no school, no medical care, and unemployment. All these are key factors and breeding grounds for extremist groups.”
Talabany, who is also head of the region’s Counter Terrorism Group, is an advocate for more aggressive anti-radicalisation programmes to counter ISIL’s sophisticated online recruitment strategy, which capitalises on discontent and harsh realities on the ground, whether in the Middle East or Europe.
“We keep telling everyone … this needs to be done; otherwise it is a mistake. What I’m worried about is that the Iraqi government is having internal issues. Do they have the money to put back into these communities? Is the international community willing to help to give back to these communities?”
Deradicalisation campaigns are still an “experimental science”, adds Talabany, but he believes it must be a priority for Iraq’s Kurdish region.
While an estimated 150,000 Peshmerga are fighting the ground battle in Iraq, there have also been reports of 400 to 500 young Kurds joining ISIL, egged on by rogue preachers or local Islamist parties.
“To be honest, we have had issues with extremism in the past, so my expectation was much higher,” says Talabany. “I expected thousands of Kurds joining the ranks of ISIL, but I was wrong. A few hundred Kurds is nothing compared with the number of European men who have come here to join ISIL. I believe ISIL’s brutality affected Kurds’ perception of the group.”
Follow Tanya Goudsouzian on Twitter: @tgoudsouzian