TARMIYA - When Daesh operative Jamal al Mashhadani returned to Iraq from Turkey, he expected his secretive journey to be uneventful.
Instead of going to his hometown of Tarmiya, long considered an insurgent hideout, he opted to head for Baghdad, but was instead arrested immediately on arrival. The former Daesh ‘wali’, or governor, of Kirkuk has since confessed to parading 18 Peshmerga captives through the streets of Hawija when it was under Daesh control, among other crimes. He was known as Abu Hamza al Kurdi.
His arrest was widely attributed to a tip-off from Turkey, where he had been living after fleeing Daesh-held territory in Iraq and Syria. It is one of several signs over the past year of a stepped-up collaboration between Turkey and Iraq in counterterrorism efforts.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced on January 3, during a visit to Ankara by his Iraqi counterpart Barham Salih, that the two countries would be working together even more closely in this area in the future.
Several arrests over the past year had already hinted as much, including the sweep-up operation resulting from the arrest of Ismail Alwan al Ethawi in Turkey, in February 2018.
A Daesh ‘minister’, reportedly in charge of religious edicts and at the head of a committee tasked with deciding on senior appointments, Ethawi was said to have been living in Turkey with his Syrian wife under his brother’s name.
Iraqi counterterrorism expert Hisham al-Hashimi told TRT World: “There have been many joint operations between the Turkish and Iraqi intelligence services, including the one in which Ismail Alwan al Ethawi, Abu Zeid al Iraqi, was arrested by Turkey and handed over to Iraq.”
Ethawi’s arrest led to the capture of four other key Daesh commanders some months later in the Iraqi-Syrian border area. Ethawi himself was sentenced to death by hanging in September.
In the town of Tarmiya, the birthplace of Jamal al Mashhadani and other Al Qaeda and Daesh members, local sources and sections of the tribe loyal to the government are also proving key to increasing security.
The strategic location of the town in a V-shaped wedge between the main roads running north, one to Kirkuk and the other to Tikrit, and the rural nature of much of the surrounding area have long made it an ideal place to hide near the Iraqi capital.
Hashimi has called Tarmiya “the center of Salafi recruiting in the Baghdad area.’’
The dominant tribe is the Mashhadani, which counts among its members such top-level Daesh and Al Qaeda commanders as Khalid al Mashhadani, the highest-ranking member of Al Qaeda in Iraq when he was arrested in 2007.
The emir of the tribe, Salem Shams Hamad al Thayr al Mashhadani, had told this correspondent in an interview some months before that the tribe had frequently acted as an intermediary in tribal disputes and between the Ottoman rulers and locals in the past, and that they are still sometimes called upon to mediate between tribes.
In August, this correspondent was refused access to Tarmiya due to “security concerns’’. The emir said that he had to so to in disguise and could not stay the night in the town when he did go.
In December, this correspondent was instead allowed to walk around the markets and visit various areas of the town with an armed guard provided by Sheikh Saeed Jassim al Mashhadani.
A source also from Tarmiya, who no longer lives there but maintains constant contact with sources inside, told TRT World that information provided to Iraqi security services had resulted in the replacement of a brigade under the command of a corrupt officer from the south who had held the position for years.
He claimed that the commander had been put under investigation for having been in indirect contact with Daesh through local members of the Mashhadani tribe and for profiting from this contact. TRT World was unable to independently verify the claim, but locals the correspondent spoke to in the town said that the situation had improved greatly in recent months after the brigade was replaced.
Sheikh Saeed Jassim, the head of the tribal council for northern Baghdad and former Arab Awakening leader from the area, said that three of his sons had been killed by Daesh in the years during the fight against Al Qaeda.
Many Iraqis do not distinguish between the two extremist groups in discussing them. But this is not the case in Syria, where the local Al Qaeda-linked outfit, Jabhat al Nusra, and its successors have at times fought against Daesh. The ideology of the two groups is largely the same, however.
The sheikh told TRT World that during the years of the Arab Awakening forces: “We defeated Al Qaeda in the area and the security situation was very good until 2011.’’ That is the year US troops pulled out.
The US had for a period trained and paid the salaries of the Arab Awakening groups, better known as the ‘Sahwa’. The groups consisted of Sunni armed fighters, often tribal coalitions or former Saddam military officers, brought together to maintain stability in their home areas and fight Al Qaeda from 2005 onwards.
The sheikh said that they had existed in Tarmiya between 2007 and 2011.
During TRT World’s visit to the town in December, a local taxi driver concurred that the situation had improved in recent months but noted that he did not trust going to the mosques in the area, as “people watch you”. He added: “You have to be careful here.’’
The taxi driver said that he instead prayed the obligatory five times a day at home and did not go out at night.
Prior to returning to Iraq, Daesh operative Jamal al Mashhadani had reportedly spent about a year in the Turkish city of Sanliurfa, a southeastern city near the Syrian border. It has become a veritable haven for Syrians from Deir al Zor and Raqqa, many of whom fled Daesh and can recognise Daesh commanders and fighters.
They will potentially be in danger, however, if they openly inform the security forces without being confident of protection in exchange. Many of these Syrians are meanwhile hesitant to go back to eastern Syria now, even if their home areas have been freed of Daesh.
Some say they do not trust the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), currently in control of the region. The YPG, the largest component in the SDF, is considered by Turkey to be a part of the PKK, a group recognised as a terrorist organisation by the US and the EU, and one which regularly carries out attacks in Turkey.
One member of the Syrian branch of the Mashhadani tribe from Deir Ezzor, the commander of a Free Syrian Army group, told TRT World that he had cut off all contact with former fellow Arab opposition fighters and defected officers who had decided to work with the SDF, even if it was the only way they could go home.
The commander, Tlass al Salama, told TRT World that he hopes many of the Arab fighters currently spread out between Turkey, the opposition-held and US-backed base in Tanf, in the Syrian desert, and those in northern Syria will be asked to take over security in their native Deir Ezzor, when and if US troops leave.
His group, Usud al Sharqiya, had in early 2017 taken back large swathes of the Syrian desert from Daesh, before being subjected to intense Syrian regime attacks backed by Russian airstrikes. It has now largely been relegated to guarding the Tanf base alongside other Syrian armed opposition groups.
Cooperation by locals with the security services will presumably depend on how much they trust the government to listen to them and come to their aid if needed.
Collaboration between Turkey and Iraq will instead likely depend on geopolitical considerations and the need to dismantle terrorist groups posing a threat to their citizens and national interests.
Iraq has recently been given permission by the Syrian government to conduct airstrikes against Daesh in Syrian territory without prior authorisation from Damascus, a sign of increased cooperation between these two neighbouring countries as well. The YPG and the Syrian regime have meanwhile long been in contact and at times aided each other.
Small pockets of Daesh-held territory remain on the Syrian side of the border, while concerns about sleeper cells remain in Iraq as attacks and kidnappings continue.
More intelligence sharing between Iraq and Turkey is likely to increase arrests and the extradition of Daesh operatives. Trust of locals on the ground will however be key to tracking them down and consolidating gains against the terrorist group.