The man, who can be known only by his initials, FM, first came to the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk in March this year. He was arrested by local police on July 19 for allegedly being part of a sleeper cell set up by the extremist group known as the Islamic State.
After working in wheat farming in the sub-district of Rashad, near Kirkuk, for years, he and his business partner had been unsure what do when the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control of their area. “We decided to work for the Islamic State in the fields. And at the beginning, we made a lot of money,” FM told NIQASH. “We even bought more farmland in Hawija and Rashad.”
They enter Kirkuk with forged documents, posing as displaced people who escaped IS-held areas.
He and his fellow farmers used to take 40 percent of the profits and they were required to pass the other 60 percent back to the Islamic State, or IS, group. They did this for two and a half years. “But then warplanes started to shell our land and we lost all our crops, so we decided to stop working,” FM recounts. “The IS governor of the Hawija district then told us we should go to Kirkuk and pretend to be displaced people. We were to work secretly from there and continue to share any profits we made.”
Life was becoming more difficult in Hawija and the IS group had to come up with new ways of getting cash to pay for food and weapons, FM explained.
“This was another thing that the IS group wanted from us. We were to send money back and it was all about not allowing the IS group to look weak.”
After arriving in the Kirkuk district in March, the pair made a deal to work the land belonging to a farmer who had land near Mullah Abdullah village. “We worked there for several months until we were arrested by the police,” FM says.
FM is not the only supposed member of an IS sleeper cell to be found inside Kirkuk. The IS group has been in control of the Hawija district, southeast of Kirkuk city, as well as the sub-districts of Rashad, Riyad and Abasi for the past three years. As pressure increases on the extremists in Iraq, Kirkuk’s security forces believe that, as a last resort, they will activate sleeper cells inside their area to cause further havoc.
The Kirkuk police say that over the past six months they have arrested 52 individuals who they believe were involved in the sleeper cells. Some of them entered the district with forged documents, posing as displaced people who escaped IS-held areas and then settled in Arab-majority areas in Kirkuk.
Kirkuk is under the control of the Iraqi Kurdish military but has long been seen as something of a flashpoint because of the many ethnicities that live there. It is also considered a disputed area – that is, a district that the Iraqi Kurdish believe should be part of their nearby, semi-autonomous region, but which the Iraqi government believes belongs to Iraq proper.
Sleeper cells have been in Kirkuk since 2004, Sarhad Qader, the commander of police forces in Kirkuk province, told NIQASH. Before the IS group, there was al Qaeda and Ansar al-Sunna and they too set up sleeper cells in Kirkuk, he says.
“On August 4 this year we arrested one of the most dangerous groups and this included three people who work in the wheat trade and who used to send their profits to the IS group,” Qader explains. “On the same day we also arrested a female who used to be one of the IS group’s education officers, together with her husband who had been responsible for the military operations of the IS group in Shirqat [in Salahaddin province]. Both of them came to Kirkuk as displaced people.”
The armed groups have a long, dark history here - but we have always beaten them.
False identities are common and Qader says the police have managed to make many arrests, thanks mainly to the cooperation of locals who become suspicious. But his forces are well aware that there are bound to be more sleeper cells inside Kirkuk. The IS group thinks terrorist action in Kirkuk will have more impact because it is the best known disputed territory in the country, Qader believes.
“Our forces have intelligence and are well aware of plans made by the IS group,” says the commander of Iraqi Kurdish forces in this area, Mohammed Haji Qadir. “That’s why we are more cautious with people who escape from those areas and try to enter Kirkuk. And we believe that after the victory of Mosul was announced, the IS group became more afraid losing its authority and began sending more individuals to form sleeper cells inside Kirkuk, for this reason.”
A senior member of the Iraqi Kurdish intelligence, who could not be named, says that after the events of October last year, his men are doubly cautious. On October 21 in 2016, a large group of men entered Kirkuk city and managed to take control of a number of buildings, as well as position snipers around the city. The incident led to up to 85 deaths, of both security forces and civilians, and around 100 members of the IS group were also killed, with 13 blowing themselves up.
“We are trying to avoid that happening again by arresting all potential sleeper cells,” the intelligence officer told NIQASH.
Many senior military officials believe the only real solution to this problem is for the military to move on, to push the IS group out of Hawija. It has become a major point for the extremists to re-group, they say.
“The IS group is gradually losing all of its territory,” Kirkuk's Kurdish governor, Najmaddin Karim, told NIQASH. “This is why it is important to speed up the liberation of Hawija because if it remains under IS’ control, it will continue to pose an even greater danger to Kirkuk.”
In general though, Karim remains optimistic: “The Iraqi Kurdish military and security are stronger [then the IS group] and they have the ability to stop these cells. The armed groups have a long, dark history here - but we have always beaten them.”