Kirkuk security forces have recorded 21 incidents of extremist violence and around 30 deaths in the past five months. But this time it is not the general public at risk. Two Sunni extremist groups, Ansar al-Sunna and the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, are fighting one another for power and money.
Antipathy between two Sunni Muslim extremist groups operating in the Kirkuk area has escalated to the point where it can no longer be hidden. In the recent past, the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (Syria), often referred to as ISIS or Daash, and the organization Ansar al-Sunna have been allies. Both are Sunni Muslim extremist organisations, both use terrorist tactics and are funded by Al Qaeda and both have a lot of influence in communities south of Kirkuk. But recently the two groups appear to have been targeting one another and the pretence of an alliance has been dropped.
Both organizations have been around for a while. But when ISIS united with its partners in Syria and added “Levant” to its name, it was seen as an attempt to become the most powerful extremist organization in the Sunni Muslim areas of Iraq. And when ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi announced the change, he also managed to attract a number of other extremist organizations on side. Not Ansar al-Sunna however – over the past few years, the organization has been under the leadership of former Iraqi army officers loyal to Saddam Hussein and it has evolved somewhat differently.
According to information from senior security staff in Kirkuk, the Al Qaeda-connected ISIS has been trying to dominate Ansar al-Sunna for months. In armed conflicts centred in the Hawija district, about 50 kilometres south of Kirkuk, the two groups have been assassinating one another, launching attacks and even leaking information on the other’s activities so local security forces can apprehend them.
Kirkuk police records show 21 confrontations between the two groups over the past five months, which have claimed the lives of 30 people, most of them apparently ISIS fighters.
“Most of the Ansar al-Sunna members are former Baathist officers and they have deep differences with Al Qaeda,” Sarhad Qader, the commander of police forces in Kirkuk province, told NIQASH. “The main reasons for the differences are money and the struggle for power in this region.”
Surveillance of the groups showed that, just as with street gangs elsewhere, it wasn’t possible for members of one group to join another organization. “If one of their members walks out and joins another organization, he may very well be killed,” Qader says. “If he’s not killed then his former group might try and kill someone from his new group in retaliation. This kind of thing leads to a deterioration in any relationship between the two groups.”
Another reason for the fighting has to do with money. Some sources say that part of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s millions were hidden away somewhere between Hawija and his hometown, Awja, and it’s been being used to fund violence and bombing. Other sources say it’s all a spat about ransom money.
The antagonism between the two has gone so far that recently when Ansar al-Sunna was trying to organize some bombs around the Kirkuk province, ISIS provided information to local intelligence agencies about their activities. This led to the arrest of a large number of Ansar al-Sunna members.
Qader was obviously pleased with that outcome. “The differences of opinion between these terrorist groups can only lead to an improvement in the security situation in Kirkuk,” he said.
However Ahmed al-Askari, a Kurdish member of the provincial council and head of the local security committee, says the fight between the two groups was no reason to become complacent. “The conflicts between them are associated with conflicts of their sponsors,” al-Askari told NIQASH. “All of these groups still share one doctrine and there’s no real difference between them. Any conflict is most likely to be short lived so we shouldn’t believe the threat of terrorism has left Kirkuk and its environs.”