Lahur Talabani’s journey to the forefront of the global war on terror began in the spring of 2002. It was a year after the 9/11 attacks had Americans questioning their intelligence failures in Afghanistan and the greater Middle East region. Talabani, then 26, was stationed in Ankara, representing one of the two main Iraqi Kurdish factions, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK).
Among his tasks was to help Americans cross the Turkish border into Iraq’s northern Kurdistan region—discreetly. They were preparing for war. There was reconnaissance work to be done.
“After 9/11, we had seen signs of extremism in Halabja and Hawraman [in northern Iraq], extremists with links to Afghanistan at the time. So the Americans were interested,” he says.
It all had to be done quietly. Few could know about it, but the Americans had to bring people on board with the language skills and a nuanced understanding of the region’s complexities.
Talabani had those, and more. He was fluent in English, Kurdish, Arabic, Persian and Turkish. He knew the Kurdish mountains intimately, owing to his many years there as a child with the Kurdish rebels in the 1980s.
In 1982, at the age of seven, he fled with his family to the mountains for shelter. They spent eight years on the move, as his father and uncles led the Kurdish rebellion against Saddam Hussein’s regime.
Clearly, Talabani was the right man for the mission.
“So I got stuck with them,” he says, with a laugh.
Today, he’s head of the Iraqi Kurdish region’s intelligence and counter-terror agency, Zanyari—the Iraqi Kurdish equivalent of the CIA.
And, as a decisive showdown takes place in Mosul between an Iraqi-led coalition and the militant group Daesh, Talabani must ensure that the U.S. airstrikes don’t miss their targets. At the same time, he must maintain round the clock vigilance to prevent spillover from the fighting in Mosul as well as Kirkuk into the Kurdish region.
The Making of a Strike Force
Fifteen years ago, Talabani and 15 others received U.S. training on intelligence gathering and tactical military operations that was necessary for rooting out the Jund Al Islam—and later Ansar Al Islam—fighters in the areas of northern Iraq bordering Iran.
The first operation Talabani was involved in was Operation Viking Hammer in March 2003. It was his first experience dealing with a group of indoctrinated religious extremists with tactical prowess.
“The Americans felt it was important that before starting the Iraq war, they take pressure off the Peshmerga, so they helped us get rid of these guys, basically push them out. We captured some, some were killed and others fled across the border into Iran,” says Talabani.
But what began as a strike force—Talabani co-founded the Counter Terrorism Group (CTG) in late 2002 with his cousin, Bafel Talabani—has now evolved into a sophisticated anti-terror agency.
He believes that—despite the criticism today—the Americans did foresee all that unfolded after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime, including the rise of Daesh.
“They had more experience with Afghanistan and places like that before,” says Talabani. “When [Ansar Al Islam fighters] went across the border to Iran – they didn’t all die or get captured—the Americans knew these guys would prepare themselves and come back and start an asymmetric war.”
Still, nothing could have prepared the Americans or their Kurdish allies in Iraq for the far more menacing dimension the conflict has taken on today.
Since 2014, when Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi declared a caliphate in Mosul just 100 kilometres south of the semi-autonomous Kurdish region, the Americans and their allies have come to realize that they are no longer fighting an armed group; they are fighting an ideology.
“And [an ideology] is much harder to control,” says Talabani. “We can defeat them in Mosul, and we can defeat them in Raqqa, but we won’t win this war with military means alone.”
Military Means Not Enough
Talabani concedes that the ongoing fighting in Mosul could be “backbreaking” for Daesh, and that the battle for Raqqa, the group’s other stronghold in Syria, will likely finish them off. Without a doubt, Daesh will put up a formidable defense that may drag the operation on for months.
Baghdadi’s call on November 3—in a recorded message that no media outlet could verify—was likely meant to boost the morale of Daesh fighters, and indicates how significant these battles are for the self-styled caliphate at this juncture.
“Both cities are very important to Daesh. Mosul is the second largest city of Iraq, and Daesh’s last stronghold in Iraq. Don’t forget their caliphate was announced from Mosul. And they collect a lot of finance from Mosul—the city has a population of over 2.5 million—so if they lose the city, they would lose all of that,” he explains.
Although Talabani surmises that Daesh will eventually be dislodged from both cities, he warns that its ideology will endure.
Talabani looks back on the past 15 years reflecting on vital lessons gleaned: “We can lose Daesh, in terms of the structure, shape and form they are in right now. But 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.”
For Talabani, it is important to bear in mind that the rise of Daesh was down to a number of factors, none of which have been addressed properly as yet.
“First there was political system failure in Iraq. A lot of the Sunnis didn’t feel they were part of the political process any longer,” he says. “Second, the Syrian war—the Syrian government was in trouble after the Arab Spring, and they were trying to find a way out. The international community was putting a lot of pressure on the Syrian regime so they started importing extremists from other parts of the world to make it look like they were fighting extremists. Suddenly [senior Al Qaeda operative] Muhsin Al Fadhli popped up in Syria and it was big news… and everyone started to believe Bashar Al Assad’s claims that he was fighting extremism. So the international community backed off a little bit.”
He adds: “Some regional countries, determined to get rid of the Assad regime, saw this and took advantage of these extremist groups, not knowing it could turn into a monster. And this animal called Daesh evolved out of this and now nobody can control it.”
Still, Talabani has had to grapple with his fair share of critics. An alliance with the Americans at a time when the Middle East region is so polarized has generated condemnation from certain quarters. Daesh, after all, is not universally denounced and reportedly enjoys support among some Iraqis for “pragmatic reasons.” Zanyari has been called everything from “sellouts” to “American spies.”
Tallha Abdulrazaq, an Iraqi security affairs analyst at the University of Exeter’s Strategy and Security Institute, describes Zanyari as “just another cog in the post-2003 Iraqi order of certain interest groups receiving preferential treatment.”
Zanyari is headed by Talabani, whose uncle is Jalal Talabani, leader of the PUK and former Iraqi president (2005-2014), while the Kurdistan Regional Government’s (KRG) Security Council is headed by Masrour Barzani, son of KRG President Massoud Barzani.
“The reason why some view them as sellouts is because they are seen as elites who squabble over a large share of the pie whilst normal citizens have to struggle to get by,” says Abdulrazaq. “Perhaps none feel this as acutely as public sector workers, who are significant in number, who have been paid in drips and drabs due to budgetary conflicts with the Baghdad authorities.”
Talabani, who travels to Baghdad every couple of months to meet with his counterparts there, says his agency works in close cooperation with the Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS). This close cooperation continues, he says, “Even when there are tensions between the Kurdistan Regional Government [KRG] and Baghdad.”
“At times, we have had a better working relationship with Baghdad than we have with our counterparts in Erbil,” he says. This was evident in 2014 when Daesh besieged the northern Syrian town of Kobane. There was disagreement within the KRG over whether Peshmerga forces ought to be deployed to support the Syrian Kurdish militias, or YPG. Eventually, Talabani brokered U.S. air support for the besieged town, and coordinated the intelligence for the airstrikes.
Aside from expressing solidarity with fellow Kurds in Syria, Talabani is of the firm belief that Syria and Iraq must have each other’s backs because they will likely face similar threats even after Daesh as an organised group has been eliminated.
“After the fighting is over in Mosul and Raqqa, we will face a year or two of asymmetric threats in the region. As we saw in Kirkuk, when they sent 100 suicide bombers into the city,” he says, referring to the coordinated Daesh 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. They are already thinking about such attacks—you are hurting them so they will try to get back at you any way they can.”
For Talabani, the real danger now is the lack of a strategy to counter the Daesh ideology.
“History will repeat if decision-makers, whether in the coalition, Iraq or regional countries, do not devise a viable post-Daesh plan. This plan must be implemented side by side with the military engagement. The group must be defeated politically as well. Right now, there is no effective effort in place to fight the ideology,” he says.
“Look at most of the towns where major battles have taken place,” he says. “Most of these towns are ruined—Ramadi, Salahuddin, etc. 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. The government has to have a plan to put money back into these areas to provide them with job opportunities.”
Talabani says his pleas to their partners in the coalition have fallen on deaf ears.
“We keep telling everyone, we are telling the coalition and other partners that 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?” he asks.
“Throughout our experience over the past 13-14 years… When you fight extremists, they change form and come back more aggressive. People understand this better now.”
Where Daesh has arguably overtaken the U.S.-led coalition is in the propaganda war. With a slick online magazine Dabiq, videos reminiscent of Hollywood action films, and prolific use of Twitter, some analysts have argued that Daesh’s communication strategists made the group appear more powerful and more numerous than it may be.
One columnist for the U.K.’s The Guardian wrote in June 2014: “In wars gone by, advancing armies smoothed their path with missiles. [Daesh] did it with tweets and a movie.”
“Daesh’s propaganda has helped them evolve into the major role they have today. In this way, they were much more capable than the people they were fighting; we tried to counter their campaign but didn’t succeed,” Talabani says. “I believe this is the work of countries, not a small group. They have been very adept at using new media to their advantage. We are now attempting to counter that.”
There is now more serious discussion on waging aggressive de-radicalization campaigns. Intelligence agencies in the West and in the region are proactively exploring methods to reach out to vulnerable youth who are susceptible to Daesh’s luring tactics. It is an “experimental science,” but Talabani has made it a priority for Iraq’s Kurdish region, and he hopes others will give it equal importance.
“The conditions that make young people in Europe vulnerable to Daesh’s appeal are different from those that exist in the Middle East, so the strategies have to be different,” he says.
Talabani argues that, right after the regime fell, spending time in coalition-run prisons, like Bucca and Abu Ghraib “was like graduating from Terrorism College.”
He cites Baghdadi as an example: “He was captured and released numerous times during Saddam’s time, and after the U.S.-led war. He had the background; he was an Iraqi first of all, he had a PhD in Shariah Law, and he preached at a mosque in Samarra. During Saddam’s time, he had issues with the regime. He was captured a few times. After the Iraq war, he was again in prison twice. And in those days, most of those coalition-run prisons were a breeding ground for terrorists, so [Baghdadi] made his networks there.”
According to Ibrahim Al Marashi, associate professor of Iraqi history at California State University San Marcos, it was in Camp Bucca that Baghdadi came into contact with Haji Bakr, the nom de-guerre of Samir Al Khlifawi, a former officer under the Baath. And it was Haji Bakr that brought Baghdadi into Daesh upon their release.
The Lure of Daesh
In mainstream media, much hype has surrounded the 150,000 Peshmerga who are fighting the ground battle for the U.S.-led forces, but there have also been reports of 400-500 young Kurds joining Daesh, 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 Talabani. “I expected thousands of Kurds joining the ranks of Daesh, but I was wrong. A few hundred Kurds is nothing compared to the number of European men who have come here to join Daesh. I believe Daesh’s brutality affected Kurds’ perception of the group. We thought Al Qaeda was bad, but Al Qaeda disowned Daesh because it was so brutal.”
Talabani’s advice to European countries is to conduct a thorough study of the environment that drives young men and women to find appeal in joining Daesh.
“Here in the Kurdistan region, we have had to close down some mosques and we have arrested 10-15 preachers who were preaching extremist ideas. We still do. We control it through the Ministry of Religious Affairs,” he says.
It’s a delicate subject, but one Talabani has had no problem tackling owing to his tribal pedigree—he also holds the honorific title of “sheikh,” which denotes an elevated social status linked to the Qadiri order of Islam.
By most accounts, he has also inherited his uncle’s charisma and common touch—former Iraqi President Jalal Talabani is still widely called “Mam Jalal” (Uncle Jalal).
Yet, having spent a decade in the U.K.—first as a refugee and later, as restaurateur—Talabani, with his impeccable British accent and bespoke suits, is equally at ease among Western policymakers.
The ability to fit in anywhere and everywhere, some would call this the “perfect spy.” And yet, for the Kurds who have spent the last century fighting for their rights—and few are the leaders who did not serve as Peshmerga—Talabani is seen as having earned his stripes. It remains to be seen whether he will be able to rise above internal party politics and controversies surrounding the Kurdish role in the U.S.-led coalition.