It seems time is running out for the main protagonist in a quarter-century-long saga involving radical Islam and hyper-humanitarianism, extending from Iraqi Kurdistan to Norway. A U.S.-designated terrorist group, Ansar al-Islam (Volunteers of Islam) is prominent in the Syria and Iraq fighting, reportedly with Saudi backing, as an opponent of both the Bashar al-Assad regime and the so-called "Islamic State" (ISIS). Ansar al-Islam has been led by a figure notorious in Iraqi Kurdistan, Mullah Krekar, whose real name seems to be Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad, and whose current age is 59.
An exponent of extreme Wahhabism, Mullah Krekar appeared in Iraqi Kurdistan in the late 1980s, before the autonomous zone was under Western protection. Unable to reestablish control over the restive region, dictator Saddam Hussein supported Mullah Krekar and a band of Saudi-funded radicals in terrorizing Kurds, especially traditional Sunnis and spiritual Sufis, who dominate among them. Krekar himself cleared out of Iraq in 1991, applying for refuge in Norway.
While his accomplices continued a bloody series of atrocities in Iraq, Krekar was treated with extraordinary sensitivity for 25 years by the Oslo authorities. The Norwegians wanted to expel him after he was accused of terrorism in 2003 but were thwarted from extraditing him to Iraqi Kurdistan because the latter may apply the death penalty. Although most such sentences have been commuted in the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG), the Iraqi Kurds hanged 11 accused Ansar al-Islam members in 2006. Norway, in line with EU policy on capital punishment, would therefore not consent to any such handover. After his flight to Norway and grant of residence there, Krekar was said to have visited Iraq to lead terrorist attacks.
Krekar was arrested in 2012 for making death threats against Norwegian government officials.
In November 2015, in a raid coordinated by Italian police, 17 terror suspects were arrested across Europe. Italy detained six, the UK three, Norway three, including Krekar himself, and Finland one. BBC News noted that Krekar's activities while he was in Norway had resulted in several local jail terms. He was arrested in 2012 for death threats against Norwegian government officials. Krekar was locked up again for praising last year's murderous assault on the staff of Charlie Hebdo in Paris. Throughout his sojourn in (and out of) Norway he has played to the media, boasting of his power. One of the men held in Britain in November, Zana Rahim, 32, was identified by the Guardian as the son-in-law of Mullah Krekar and effective leader of his network while the jihadi leader sits in prison.
As described by the New York Times, Krekar had created a new offshoot of Ansar al-Islam, Rawti Shax ("New Course" or "Toward the Mountain"), aligned with ISIS. The recent police action by Italian officials and EU antiterrorism investigators allegedly broke up a conspiracy by Rawti Shax to get Krekar out of detention in Norway. Krekar's disciples are charged with planning attacks on political and media figures and kidnappings of Norwegian and British diplomats as hostages for his release.
According to Norwegian media, Mullah Krekar should have little time to remain in their country before he is shipped to Italy for trial. In December, Italy delivered a formal extradition order to Oslo for Krekar and Kamil Jalil Fatah, a 42-year old Iraqi suspect also living in Norway. On December 10 the respected Norwegian daily Aftenposten said Krekar and his accomplice would be handed over to Rome as soon as the Norwegians are assured that Italy will not send him on for trial in Iraq.
A Norwegian lawyer representing Krekar, Brynjar Meling, asserted his client's innocence and warned that appeals could take "between two and three years." But Norwegian minister of justice Anders Anundsen commented, "I have no second thoughts about extraditing a person who is not a citizen of Norway to Italy."
Norwegian Minister of Justice Anders Anundsen says he has "no second thoughts" about extraditing Krekar.
Mullah Krekar's activities are diverse, although all fit the pattern of violent jihadism. He claimed to have abandoned Ansar al-Islam in 2003, but the organization continues, gravitating between past associations with al-Qaida, and current involvements with ISIS and the Wahhabi group Jabhat al-Nusra, according to the recent European indictments. And there remain unclarified questions about his former and probably current relations with representatives of the former Saddam Hussein regime.
Iraqi Kurds, like their co-ethnics in Turkey and Syria, hate ISIS and are not necessarily eager to see Mullah Krekar return to their territory, even for trial. Last year, a Kurdish commentator, Osamah Golpy, wrote in the Kurdish newspaper Rudaw (Events) under the headline "Kurdistan is better off without Mullah Krekar," calling on the Norwegians to keep him under watch. Golpy wrote that "support for any Islamic group or political party is at its lowest level in the Kurdistan Region, especially since ISIS [shocks] the public with most barbaric acts against humanity."
Still, the Kurdish writer warned,
Lack of the death penalty in the [KRG]—except for very rare cases—and the credibility the Kurdish authorities have gained in the fight against ISIS, make the possibility of Krekar's return more likely. As far as the Norwegians are concerned, the farther he is the better. But for the Kurdistan Region, allowing him back would be a fatal mistake. There are only two scenarios for his return: either he will be deported to Kurdistan and will be tried for terrorism charges for his involvement in founding Ansar al-Islam, or the charges will be dropped and he will walk a free man. . . . Krekar does have some support. For that reason, should the KRG jail him upon his return, it will have to deal with a significant number of Krekar sympathizers, large enough to cause trouble.
Golpy concluded, "The Kurds say they are fighting the Islamic State on behalf of the free world. On that note, the Kurds should ask the Norwegian authorities to do their part in this particular case: please keep him in Norway. We have had enough of him."
Responsibility for bringing Mullah Krekar justice will likely, as indicated, end up in the hands of the Italians—who, like the Norwegians, do not have a death penalty.
Stephen Schwartz is executive director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism in Washington, DC, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum.