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Iraq: Alleged Terrorist Leader To Be Deported From Norway

Media reports emanating from Norway in recent weeks indicate that the Norwegian government intends to deport purported Ansar Al-Islam leader Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, aka Mullah Krekar, to Iraq. Krekar sought asylum in Norway in 1991, but reportedly continues to serves as the titular head of Ansar Al-Islam, making frequent trips to Iraq since 1991. The group is deemed a foreign terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department. Iraqi authorities may attempt to charge Krekar with human rights abuses against Iraqi Kurds in northern Iraq.

There appears to be sufficient evidence linking Ansar to numerous crimes against the Iraqi people. It is unclear whether Iraqi authorities have sufficient evidence, however, to link Krekar to the purported atrocities committed by the group. Iraqi Justice Minister Malik Duhan al-Hasan told "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" on 11 March that the Iraqi authorities do not have any criminal case or other charges against Krekar even though it is well-known that he founded and led the group. Krekar's brother has claimed that Krekar left the group in 2002. "The Iraqi judiciary is independent and it will not punish someone because he is sympathetic to armed organizations or opposes the occupation," al-Hasan said. "The Iraqi government has nothing against Krekar but it cannot guarantee his safety from his enemies."

Al-Hasan later told the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) daily "Al-Ittihad" on 14 March: "We will cooperate with the Al-Sulaymaniyah court regarding any case filed against Mullah Krekar, and he will face all the charges and the cases filed against him during his trial, whether it is held in Al-Sulaymaniyah or Baghdad," implying that the Kurdish authorities may prosecute the Ansar leader. Should Krekar be tried in Al-Sulaymaniyah, it is unlikely that he would get a fair trial.

The ramifications of a trial on the Ansar movement are also unknown. A trial would surely spark increased terrorist attacks against Kurdish civilians in the PUK-controlled areas. Those attacks might be limited in scope, however, depending upon whether they were launched by insurgents from Iran or from within the scattered Ansar battalions in Iraq. From all accounts, Ansar fighters have for years easily penetrated the long Iranian border, which is reportedly difficult to secure.

Ansar Al-Islam is a relatively new organization in Iraq, but has roots in the Islamist movement in Kurdistan. It is an outgrowth of a group called Jund Al-Islam (Soldiers of Islam) that was formed in 2001 by splintered factions from the Islamic Movement of Kurdistan. Jund Al-Islam, later renamed Ansar Al-Islam (Supporters of Islam) initially based its activities in the villages of Biyara and Tawela, along the Iranian border northeast of Halabjah.

A long-standing enemy of the PUK, Ansar Al-Islam fought the PUK, and later embraced a short-lived cease-fire with the group. Ansar later carried out a series of attacks against the PUK in 2002, including the killing of 42 peshmerga fighters in a surprise attack on a PUK village, and attempted to assassinate PUK leader Barham Salih in an attack that left five of Salih's bodyguards dead.

The United States bombed some 18 villages controlled by Ansar in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 25 March 2003). That strike reportedly scattered Ansar militants, and many were believed to have fled over the border to Iran. Iran, however, denied reports of any relationship to the terrorist group (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 28 March and 2 April 2003). The group appears, however, to have an on-again-off-again relationship with the Iranian regime. PUK officials most recently charged Iran with aiding Ansar members and Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's group in November 2004 (see "RFE/RL Iran Report," 15 November 2004).

The Al-Qaeda Link

PUK and U.S. intelligence sources have linked Krekar to the Al-Qaeda terrorist organization (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 10 August 2004). Krekar has reportedly been linked to Afghanistan since the 1980s and is known to have studied Islamic law in Pakistan under Abdullah Azzam, a Palestinian who was said to be the mentor of Osama bin Laden, according to the Canadian Institute of Strategic Studies.

When Krekar assumed the leadership of Ansar Al-Islam in 2001, he replaced Abu Abdullah Shafae, who was trained by Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. The Washington Institute for Near East Policy said in a 2003 report that Ansar received start-up money from Al-Qaeda leaders in an August 2001 meeting in Afghanistan "with the goal of creating an alternate base for the organization in northern Iraq." Ansar was formally established in Iraq one month later.

Ansar fighters subsequently arrested by the PUK gave what Human Rights Watch described as "credible" details about Al-Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan. Documents obtained by "The New York Times" in Al-Qaeda guesthouse in Afghanistan also pointed to an Al-Qaeda link.

The PUK claims that dozens of Al-Qaeda fighters joined Ansar Al-Islam in Iraq after the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, with as many as 57 "Arab Afghan" fighters entering Kurdistan via Iran that month. Dozens of other Al-Qaeda fighters came later. The PUK has dozens of Ansar fighters in custody in Al-Sulaymaniyah, many of whom admitted the group's link to Al-Qaeda. Reports indicate, however, that the confessions may have been extracted through the PUK's torture of detainees.

Kurdish villagers that spoke to Human Rights Watch in September 2002 reported the presence of Arabs speaking various dialects and of other fighters from Ansar that spoke unrecognizable languages. Civilians interviewed by the human rights organization recounted attempts by Ansar to establish a Taliban-style rule over the Kurdish villages under their control. Reports suggested that Ansar was responsible for "arbitrary arrests of numerous Kurdish civilians, prolonged and illegal detention, the torture and ill-treatment of detainees, and the killing of combatants after surrender." Villagers also told the media that Ansar imposed a strict religious code, banning televisions and music, and prohibiting women from leaving their homes.

Relations with Al-Zarqawi

As early as 2002, the Jordanian government claimed that fugitive terrorist Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi had sought refuge with Ansar. Al-Zarqawi had apparently joined up with some Ansar elements, while some reports indicated that other elements of the group branched off to establish the Ansar Al-Sunnah Army. U.S. officials released a letter in February 2004 purportedly written by al-Zarqawi requesting support from Al-Qaeda to fund terrorist operations in Iraq. Al-Zarqawi openly pledged his allegiance to Osama bin Laden and declared his group in Iraq Jama'at Al-Tawhid wa Al-Jihad fi Bilad al-Rafidayn (Monotheism and Jihad in the Land of the Two Rivers). The relationship today between Ansar Al-Islam and Ansar Al-Sunnah is unclear. Ansar Al-Sunnah continues to claim responsibility for attacks in Iraq, and it appears that Ansar Al-Islam remnants operate under al-Zarqawi's movement.

Krekar has made several trips to Iraq from his home in Norway since 1991, and has also traveled extensively in Great Britain, Germany, Sweden and Italy. Italian investigators claim to have found a link between Ansar and Al-Qaeda and claim that Ansar provided a ready-made infrastructure for Al-Qaeda in Iraq. "We found that principally Ansar served [Al-Qaeda] in terms of logistical support and help for their activity, especially for training their people in the area where they had already organized some camps," Italian prosecutor Stefano Dambruoso told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation in 2004. An Ansar cell was reportedly uncovered in Germany in December 2004, and intelligence indicated that the cell was funneling money and fighters to Iraq.

The Norwegians have suspected that Krekar also made use of the Internet to command Ansar militants from Norway. Dutch authorities arrested Krekar in Amsterdam in 2002 (en route from Iran to Norway) and Jordan filed extradition papers on charges related to drug trafficking. He was later released for insufficient evidence and sent back to Norway.

Norwegian police have also detained Krekar on a number of occasions since he sought asylum there in 1991, but never accumulated enough evidence to prosecute Krekar. U.S. officials also sought Krekar's extradition, but Norwegian officials refused to oblige that request. Norway did revoke Krekar's refugee status in 2002, but pending court cases kept him in the country. With the cases resolved, the Norwegian government announced in March that it would deport Krekar to Iraq, after receiving assurances from the Iraqi government that Krekar would not face the death penalty there.

[For the latest news on Iraq, see RFE/RL's webpage on "The New Iraq".]