Islamic Movement of Kurdistan

Formed1987
DisbandedGroup is active.
First Attack1988: In response to the Hussein regime’s use of chemical weapons on the civilian population of Halabjah in 1988, the IMK declared Jihad on the Iraqi government. The group is believed to have participated in attacks targeting government troops from 1988-1992, but there is no documentation of specific IMK attacks. (Casualties unknown) [1] [2] [3]
Last Attack1998: The IMK assassinated Hassan Sofi, a former IMK member who split from the group and subsequently founded a rival Kurdish Islamist organization, Kurdish Hamas. [4] [5]
UpdatedAugust 2, 2015

Narrative Summary

The Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK), also sometimes called the Islamic Movement in Iraqi Kurdistan (IMIK), is a Kurdish Islamist political organization that was founded in 1987 by Sheik Uthman Abdul Aziz.  Prior to founding the IMK, Abdul Aziz had been a prominent member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood from 1960-1980, at which point he returned to his native Iraqi Kurdistan. [6] [7] [8] [9] In 1984 Aziz fled persecution from the Hussein regime and sought sanctuary in Iran, which at the time was embroiled in the Iran-Iraq War. Around the same time, Iran began to fund a variety of Iraqi Kurdish groups in the hope of inciting domestic unrest in Iraq and thus forcing Hussein into fighting a two-front war. To this end, in 1987 Iran sent Uthman Abdul Aziz back to Iraqi Kurdistan to head a new organization, the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan (IMK). Iran had already begun funding this new organization and had sent IRGC instructors to train new Kurdish Islamist recruits in anticipation of Uthman abdul Aziz’s arrival. [10] The group was headquartered in Halabjah in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate, which was the site of the Hussein government’s infamous use of chemical weapons on a largely civilian Kurdish population in 1988.  In response to the Hussein government’s attacks, the IMK declared Jihad against the Iraqi government with the support of the Iranian government. [11] [12] [13] 

Following the end of the Iran-Iraq war and the Iraqi government’s Anfal Campaign against the Iraqi Kurds, the IMK, like many other Kurdish groups at the time, largely halted its operations until the 1991 Gulf War.  Then, in the wake of the Kurdish Uprising during the Gulf War and under the protection of a no-fly zone enforced by the French, American, and British Air Forces, the Iraqi Kurds began to prepare for their first free election and the establishment of the Kurdish Parliament. In anticipation of these events, many Kurdish political organizations began to reemerge and resume their political, and in some cases military, activities. [14] However, in the 1992 elections, the IMK garnered only 5.1% of the vote, failing to pass the 7% threshold needed to obtain a seat in the parliament.  [15] [16]  

Following the 1992 elections, the IMK received additional support from Syria and Iran, who sought out Islamist Kurdish groups to support in the hope of countering and destabilizing the Kurdish nationalist parties. [17] [18]. The Iranian government began providing financial aid and military trainers to the IMK, while the Syrian government recruited Arab Jihadists with experience fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan to train IMK members on how to plan minor attacks, assassinations, and road-bombings.  In return, the IMK began carrying out terrorist attacks, hoping to destabilize the new Kurdish nationalist government that was led by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) and the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP). Although there are multiple accounts of an increase in the militant activities of the IMK during this period, there is little documentation of its specific attacks. [19]  In response to the IMK’s attacks, the PUK peshmerga forces attacked and captured the IMK stronghold of Halabjah in December 1993, arresting Abdul Aziz and forcing the majority of IMK members into exile in Iran. Aziz was later released and also fled to Iran. [20]

In 1994, violence broke out between the PUK and the KDP, distracting both from their fight against the IMK. In the following four years of conflict between the PUK and the KDP, the IMK largely sided with the KDP against the PUK. While the PUK was weakened by its ongoing fight with the KDP, the Iranian government heavily pressured it to from the Iranian cede control of the Halabja-Howraman region to the IMK, which it did in 1996. [21] [22] [23] In the power vacuum left from the PUK and the KDP fighting, the IMK consolidated its power in these regions. Most reports seem to indicate that the IMK did not impose strict Shariah law in the areas it controlled, although it did establish its own consultative Shura (council) and provide law enforcement, health, and religious education services to the civilians under its control. [24] [25] [26] [27] [28] 

In 1997, the IMK and the secular PUK agreed to a truce and following the cease of the PUK-KDP fighting in 1998 the IMK joined the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), alienating many of the IMK’s more radical Islamist members. Many of the IMK members that had fought in the Afghanistan War split from the IMK to form Kurdish Hamas (unrelated to the Palestinian Hamas or to Hamas Iraq) in 1997. The splinter faction was led by Hassan Sofi, who was assassinated by the IMK in 1998, at which point another former member of the IMK, Omar Barziani, took over leadership of Kurdish Hamas. Also in 1998, under the leadership of Aso Hawleri, the IMK’s largest military brigade, the Second Soran Unit, broke away from the IMK to become an independent group, and wrested control of the town of Biyara from the IMK. [29] [30] [31]  However, the IMK’s entrance into Kurdish politics did win it the support of the United States, which began providing financial aid to the IMK. [32]

The death of Sheik Uthman Abdul Aziz in 1999 and the transfer of the group’s leadership to his brother Ali Abdul Aziz led to further changes in the IMK’s organizational structure and membership. [33] [34]   A third Aziz brother, Sadiq Abdul Aziz, was the leader of yet another Kurdish Islamist group, al-Nahda, which merged with the IMK and Omar Barziani’s Kurdish Hamas to form a new organization, the Islamic Unity Movement of Kurdistan (IUMK) (also known as the Islamic Federation of Kurdistan) in 1999. When the three groups merged, each ceased to exist as an individual organization. However, the union only lasted until mid-2001, purportedly splitting up because of ideological differences among its leaders.  Not only did Kurdish Hamas leave the IUMK, but two other leaders in the IMK also led groups of IMK members in splitting from the group: Ali Bapir who established the Kurdistan Islamic Group and Mallah Krekar who formed the Reformist Group.  At this point, the remnants of the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan, led by Ali Abdul Aziz, readopted its original name. [35]  In December 2001, many of the splinter groups of the IMK, including Kurdish Hamas, the Second Soran Unit, and the Reformist Group, merged with other Arab and Kurdish militant Islamist organizations to form Ansar al-Islam, led by former IMK member, Mullah Krekar. [36] [37] 

Around the same time as the IUMK disintegrated in 2001, the IMK participated in the local Kurdish elections.  It netted around 20% of the vote in both the KDP and the PUK controlled areas and over 50% of the vote in Halabja. [38] [39]  Following the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, the KDP-PUK’s unified Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) formally disarmed the IMK at the U.S.’s behest.  Although there is no documentation of IMK militant activities since 1998, the group’s disarmament seems to have led the group to officially rebrand itself as solely a political party. [40] This reorientation of the IMK angered other Islamist groups in the region, particularly Ansar al-Islam, which were vehemently opposed to cooperating with the largely secular KRG. [41] 

Although the IMK has continued to function as a political party and remained active in the KRG since 2003, its popularity has waned. In the 2005 Iraqi national elections, the IMK experienced only moderate success, winning .7% of the vote and earning two seats in the Interim National Assembly. [42]  Then in the 2009 Kurdish parliamentary elections, the IMK secured 1.5% of the vote, and was thus allotted only 2 seats in the Kurdish parliament. [43] It subsequently lost one of these two seats in the 2013 Kurdish parliamentary elections when it received only 1.1% of the vote.   Meanwhile, the group has also become known for building Mosques throughout Iraqi Kurdistan.  It is believed that much of the financing for these mosques comes from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states. [44]  

The rise of the Islamic State (IS) in 2014 has placed additional pressure on the IMK.  Many Iraqi Kurds have grown mistrustful of the IMK because of its Sunni Islamist roots which are similar, although far less radical, than IS’s beliefs. [45]  The leader of the IMK, Ali Abdul Aziz, however, maintains that the group has refused to send any of its members to fight alongside IS in the conflicts in Syria or Iraq.  However, this refusal has made the IMK no allies among IS’s leaders, who have threatened to decapitate any Kurdish Islamists it captures. [46] [47] [48]

Leadership

  1. Abd al-Rahman Abd al-Rahim (Unknown to Present): (Unknown-Present): Abd al-Rahim is a member of the IMK’s consultative council and has often acted as a spokesperson for the group. [49]
  2. Hassan Sofi (Unknown to 1997): (Unknown-1997): Sofi was a leading member of the IMK until 1997 when he founded Kurdish Hamas, a splinter group of the IMK that was largely composed of Afghan War veterans who had joined the IMK in the early 1990s. The IMK assassinated Sofi in 1998. [50]
  3. Hassan Sofi (Unknown to 1997): (Unknown-1997): Sofi was a leading member of the IMK until 1997 when he founded Kurdish Hamas, a splinter group of the IMK that was largely composed of Afghan War veterans who had joined the IMK in the early 1990s. The IMK assassinated Sofi in 1998. [51]
  4. Omar Barziani (Unknown to 1997): A former leader in the IMK, Barziani left the group in 1997 with Hassan Sofi and joined Sofi’s new organization, Kurdish Hamas. Following Sofi’s assassination in 1998, Barziani became the leader of Kurdish Hamas. [52]
  5. Mullah Krekar (Unknown to 2001): Mullah Krekar was appointed as the head of the IMK’s military wing in 1992 and as the head of its Office of Planning and Implementation in 1995. In 2001, Krekar broke away from the IMK because he felt its policies had become too cooperative with the largely secular KRG. He took with him a large group of followers and founded the Reformation Group. Later in 2001, the Reformation Group merged with several other Arab and Kurdish Islamist groups to form Ansar al-Islam; Krekar was chosen as the leader of this new unified group. [53]
  6. Ali Bapir (Unknown to 2001): Bapir was one of the leaders of the IMK’s militant Islamist fundamentalist wing until he split from the group in 2001, taking with him a majority of the former al-Nahda members to form the Kurdistan Islamic Group. [54]
  7. Ali Bapir (Unknown to 2001): Bapir was one of the leaders of the IMK’s militant Islamist fundamentalist wing until he split from the group in 2001, taking with him a majority of the former al-Nahda members to form the Kurdistan Islamic Group. [55]
  8. Sheikh Uthman Abd al-Aziz (1987 to 1999): Uthman Abdul Aziz (sometimes spelled ‘Othman’ or ‘Osman’) was a prominent Iraqi Kurdish Sunni clergyman who founded the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan in 1987 with significant help from the Iranian government. Prior to founding the IMK, Uthman Abdul Aziz was a member of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and the Union of Muslim Scholars of Kurdistan. [56]
  9. Ali Abd al-Aziz (1999 to Present): Following Uthman Abdul Aziz’s death in 1999, Ali Abdul-Aziz succeeded his brother as the head of the IMK. Prior to becoming the group’s leader, Ali Abdul Aziz led a military brigade within the IMK.[57]

Ideology & Goals

Historically, the IMK’s members have come from diverse backgrounds and have held a wealth of different ideological opinions.  Thus, although the group’s members share the same general Sunni Islamist ideology, beyond that its member’s beliefs and goals are very fragmented.  For instance, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the group had a large cohort of veterans of the Afghanistan War, who tended to be more radical in their Jihadist beliefs than the average Kurdish Islamist. [58] The influence of these veterans can be seen in the group’s Jihad against the Iraqi government from 1988 to 1992 and its rhetoric that emphasized the Kurd’s place within the larger Islamic community rather than a Kurdish nation. This was also, of course, partially a result of the influence exerted over the IMK by Iran, which had an interest in destabilizing the Iraqi government and preventing the rise of Kurdish nationalism. [59] [60] [61] In addition to being the product of the group’s Afghanistan War veteran’s, this more radical Jihadist ideology was heavily influenced by the writings of Egyptian Islamist Sayid Qutb’s, which were first translated into Kurdish in the late 1980s. [62]

These more radical Islamist elements of the IMK were often frustrated with the goals of the organization’s leadership.  For instance, although the IMK was an Islamist organization, it did not impose Shariah Law on those territories it controlled in the late 1990s and currently advocates a conservative agenda in the KRG but does not run on a platform of imposing Shariah Law. Instead, the group today claims to advocate freedom of opinion, as long as those opinions are not incompatible with Islamic principles. [63] [64] [65] [66] 

The differing ideological opinions of the IMK’s members are a large reason the group splintered in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  Many of the more radical Jihadist elements of the organization left to form their own groups, many of which merged in 2001 to form Ansar al-Islam. [67] [68]  [69] Since 2003, the IMK has adhered to a policy of non-violence, which has brought condemnation from Ansar al-Islam and other more radical Kurdish Islamist groups. [70]

Name Changes


Size Estimates

1992: 500 armed fighters (The Jamestown Foundation[78] 

1998: 350-400 fighters in the Second Soran Unit, the IMK’s largest military brigade. (The Jamestown Foundation[79]

2003: “Several hundred fighters.” (BBC News[80]

Designated/Listed

The IMK is not listed as a terrorist organization by the U.S., EU, or UN. 

Resources

The majority of the IMK’s funding comes from foreign governments, although the PUK also contributed funds to the group after the IMK joined the KRG in 1998. Iran in particular has played an important role in the IMK’s history. [81] It was responsible for funding and training the initial members of the group in 1987 and has provided financial and military aid to the group throughout its existence. [82] [83] [84] [85] Following the 1992 elections, the Syrian government also aided the IMK, sending Arab Jihadists with experience in the Afghanistan War to train IMK fighters. [86] Additionally, the United States began funding the IMK following the group’s entrance into the Kurdish political process in 1998. Finally, following the disarmament of the IMK in 2003, Saudi Arabia and many of the Gulf States began provided funds to the group for the purpose of building Sunni mosques in Iraqi Kurdistan in a thinly veiled attempt to counter Iranian influence in the region. [87]

External Influences

The Iranian government has heavily influenced the IMK since its formation in 1987. In fact, Iran played a pivotal role in the group’s creation, providing Uthman Abdul Aziz with the operational support, funding, and training needed to found the IMK.  It has continued funding the organization, in return for which the IMK has not pushed a Kurdish nationalist agenda that could galvanize unrest among Iran’s Kurdish minority. [88] [89] [90] [91]

The United States and Saudi Arabian governments have aslo provided aid to the IMK.  The Saudis have financed Sunni mosques built by the group while the U.S. has provided general financial aid to the group since it joined the KRG in 1998. [92]


Geographical Locations

The IMK is headquartered in Halabjah in the Sulaymaniyah Governorate.  In the late 1990s, it administrated most of the Halabja-Howraman region in northern Iraq, providing services such as policing, trash collection and religious education. [93] [94] Since joining the KRG in 1998, the IMK has officially been considered a Kurdish regional party, but in reality, the majority of its support continues to stem from the region around Halabjah. [95] [96]

Targets & Tactics

Very little is known about the IMK’s tactics.  From 1988 to 1992, the group waged Jihad against the Iraqi government but there are no verifiable reports of attacks on Iraqi soldiers carried out by the organization. [97] [98] [99] However, there is evidence that the Syrian government funded Afghanistan War veterans to train the IMK militant wings in coordinating small military confrontations, assassinations, and road-bombings in 1992-1993.  The intent in doing so was that the IMK would use these tactics to against Kurdish nationalist groups like the PUK and the KDP, which the Syrian government feared would try to stir up Kurdish nationalist sentiments within the Syrian Kurdish population. [100]  Indeed, from 1993-1994, the IMK engaged in a series of confrontations with the PUK in northern Iraq but was eventually driven out of the region and into exile in Iran. [101] [102] [103] After the PUK ceded back the Halabja-Howraman region to the IMK in 1996, the IMK largely reduced its militant activities.  However there is some evidence that some of the IMK’s elements may have fought alongside the KDP in the Kurdish Civil War and that it was responsible for assassinating the leader of Kurdish Hamas, Hassan Sofi, in 1997. The IMK was officially disarmed by the KRG in 2001 and has not carried out any attacks since that time. [104] [105]

Political Activities

Although it has also participated in militant activities, the IMK is primarily a political party. Throughout the 1990s, the IMK was the third most popular and powerful Iraqi Kurdish political party following the PUK and KDP.  [106] [107] It participated in the first Kurdish parliamentary election in 1992, but won only 5.1% of the vote, thus failing to pass the 7% threshold needed to obtain a seat.  Then from 1992-1998, the IMK largely shunned the political process, instead carrying out attacks against the PUK-KDP regional government. However, in 1998, the group re-entered Kurdish politics after agreeing to a truce with the PUK the previous year.  [108] [109] Subsequently in the 2001 election the IMK received around 20% of the vote in both the KDP and PUK controlled areas of Iraqi Kurdistan and over 50% of the vote in Halabja. [110] [111]  Although following its truce with the PUK the IMK largely ceased its militant activities, it was not until 2003 that the group formally disarmed and committed itself entirely to political pursuits. However, since that time the IMK’s popularity has largely waned.  In the 2005 national elections, the IMK won 0.7% of the vote, thus earning itself two seats in the Interim National Assembly. [112] In the 2009 Kurdish parliamentary elections, it won only 1.5%, earning two seats in the Kurdish parliament. [113]  It subsequently lost one of those seats in the 2013 Kurdish parliamentary elections when it received only 1.1% of the vote. [114]

Major Attacks

 Although the IMK is known to have participated in militant activities throughout the late 1980s and 1990s, there is very little documentation about the specific incidences of violence perpetrated by the group. 

  1. 1988: 1988: In response to the Hussein regime’s use of chemical weapons on the civilian population of Halabjah in 1988, the IMK declared Jihad on the Iraqi government. The group is believed to have carried out attacks against government troops from 1988-1992, but specific instances of such attacks have not been documented. (Casualties unknown).[115]
  2. 1988: 1988: In response to the Hussein regime’s use of chemical weapons on the civilian population of Halabjah in 1988, the IMK declared Jihad on the Iraqi government. The group is believed to have carried out attacks against government troops from 1988-1992, but specific instances of such attacks have not been documented. (Casualties unknown).[116]
  3. December 1993: Violent clashes between the PUK and IMK erupted in December 1993 in the Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya provinces, resulting in the withdrawal of the IMK from the region. (Casualties unknown).[117]
  4. 1998: The IMK assassinated Hassan Sofi, a former IMK member who split from the group and subsequently founded Kurdish Hamas. (1 killed).[118]

Relationships with Other Groups

Throughout the 1990s, the IMK’s relationships with the two largest political groups in Iraqi Kurdistan, the PUK and the KDP, were often strained.  After failing to win any seats in the Kurdish parliament in the 1992 elections, Iran and Syria funded the IMK to attack the KDP-PUK coalition government in the hopes of subverting its Kurdish nationalist goals. [119] [120] As a result, the PUK and IMK violently clashed in the Kirkuk and Sulaimaniya provinces in 1993, eventually resulting in the IMK’s retreat from the region. [121] [122] [123] Then in 1994, the Kurdish Civil War erupted between the PUK and the KDP, distracting the PUK from fighting the IMK.  While both sides hired Kurdish Islamists to fight in the war, the IMK was aligned with the KDP.  However, in 1997 the IMK agreed to cooperate with the PUK, and subsequently joined the PUK dominated government the following year. Since 1998, the PUK, the KDP, and IMK have participated together in the KRG.  Although they still have political and ideological disputes, violence between the groups no longer occurs. [124] [125] [126]  

The IMK is the parent group of most of the Iraqi Kurdish Islamist organizations in existence today, most notably Kurdish Hamas (1991), the Second Soran Unit (1998), the Kurdistan Islamic Group (2001), and the Reformist Group (2001). [127] [128] [129] In 1999, Kurdish Hamas rejoined the IMK along with another Kurdish Islamist group called al-Nahda to form the Islamic Unity Movement of Kurdistan (IUMK).  However the IFK disintegrated in 2001 due to the ideological differences of its component groups. [130] Then, later in in 2001, Kurdish Hamas, the Second Soran Unit, and the Reformist Group merged with several other Kurdish and Arab Islamist organizations to form Ansar al-Islam.  Although there are no documented incidents of violence between Ansar al-Islam and the IMK, Ansar al-Islam has often denounced the IMK on account of its cooperation with the largely secular KRG and the non-violent stance assumed by the IMK in 2003. [131] [132]

The IMK also has a contentious relationship with the Islamic State (IS). Although it shares IS’s Islamist beliefs (however, the IMK is far less radical in these beliefs than IS), the IMK has refused to send any of its members to Syria or Iraq to fight alongside IS. This refusal has made the IMK no allies among IS’s leaders, who have threatened to decapitate any Kurdish Islamists they capture. [133] [134] [135]

Community Relationships

The IMK has been known to provide social services, such as health care and religious education, to the areas under its jurisdiction. [136] Furthermore, despite its conservative Islamist ideology, the IMK has not imposed Shariah law on any of the communities that it has controlled. [137] However the group’s popularity has fluctuated over the past two decades as witnessed by its electoral performances. The IMK continues to draq most of its support from the area around Halabjah, which is its center of operations. [138] [139]

The IMK also publishes a twice-weekly Kurdish newspaper, Buzutnaqay Islami. [140] 

Other Key Characteristics & Events


References

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