A Norway-based Iraqi Kurdish terror recruitment ring that sent people to fight in Iraq and Syria alongside Islamic State has been broken up, with 13 arrests made in Italy, Britain and Norway. Italian Carabinieri General Giuseppe Governale called it “the most important police operation in Europe in 20 years”.Italian authorities said the ideological leader of the ring was Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad, known as Mullah Krekar, who is already in prison in Norway.
He had been a founder of the now-defunct Ansar al-Islam insurgent group of Sunni Kurds, which aimed to install an Islamic caliphate in Iraqi Kurdistan and merged with IS last year.
Once living in exile in Norway, Krekar formed another group, Rawti Shax, to educate a new generation of Iraqi Kurds in Europe to violently overthrow the government in the Iraqi Kurdish region and replace it with a radical caliphate, Italian police said.
He developed a network of followers across Europe who communicated by internet chats, which Italian police monitored, leading to Thursday’s arrests.
Eurojust, the European Union judicial co-operation agency, said 13 people were arrested.
Italian authorities said arrest warrants were issued against 17 people, but at least one of them was killed in Iraq in 2014. The discrepancy could not be immediately explained.
The suspects are accused of international terrorism association.
The emergence of Islamic State provided Rawti Shax with a training ground, and at least six people were recruited to fight in Iraq and Syria, Italian officials told a press conference. At least two died in the region.
Police said Rawti Shax created a virtual university online to radicalise potential recruits, and a secret committee discussed attacks against Norwegian diplomats and MPs to negotiate Ahmad’s freedom.
Mr Governale, however, said the group’s primary activity was recruitment.
Ahmad was sentenced last month to 18 months in jail in Norway for praising the killing of cartoonists at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had made fun of Islam and other religions.
He was also found guilty of urging others to kill a Kurdish immigrant in Norway.
The Norwegian suspects face a court hearing Friday in Oslo, Norway, pending a possible deportation to Italy, said a spokeswoman for Norway’s security service PST.
Earlier this year, Ahmad was freed after nearly three years’ imprisonment for making death threats.
The 59-year-old Kurd, who came to Norway as a refugee in 1991, was convicted in 2005 for a similar offence. Norway and the United States have accused Ahmad of financing Ansar al-Islam.
Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg said: “If this means that Krekar leaves Norway, that’s fine.”