ISIL-linked terror-recruiting cell in Europe busted

Thirteen people were arrested in Italy, Britain and Norway on Thursday as part of the operation, described by an Italian official as 'the most important police operation in Europe in 20 years'.

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ROME // European authorities said on Thursday they had broken up a Norway-based Iraqi Kurdish recruitment ring that radicalised prospective militants via the internet and sent them to fight in Iraq and Syria alongside ISIL.

Thirteen people were arrested in Italy, Britain and Norway on Thursday as part of the operation, which Italian Carabinieri General Giuseppe Governale described as “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 was 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 a caliphate in Iraqi Kurdistan and merged with ISIL last year.

Once living in exile in Norway, Mullah Krekar formed another group, named Rawti Shax, with the intention of radicalising a new generation of Iraqi Kurds in Europe. He wanted this generation to eventually return to the Iraqi Kurdish region to violently overthrow the government and replace it with a radical caliphate, Italian police said.

Mullah Krekar developed a network of followers across Europe who communicatedvia internet chats, which Italian police monitored, leading to Thursday’s arrests. Eurojust, the European Union judicial cooperation agency, said 13 people were arrested in Italy, Britain and Norway.

Italian authorities said arrest warrants were issued against 17 people, but at least one of them was killed in Iraq in 2014. The discrepancy couldn’t be immediately explained.

The suspects are accused of international terrorism association.

The emergence of ISIL provided Rawti Shax with a training ground, and at least six people were recruited to fight in Iraq and Syria, said Italian officials. At least two died in the region.

Police said Rawti Shax created a virtual university online to radicalise potential recruits. Meanwhile, a secret committee discussed attacks against Norwegian diplomats and lawmakers to negotiate Mullah Krekar’s freedom. Gen Governale, however, said the group’s primary activity was recruitment.

Mullah Krekar was sentenced last month to 18 months in jail in Norway for praising the slaying of cartoonists at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had lampooned 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 on Friday in the Norwegian capital, Oslo, pending possible deportation to Italy, said a spokeswoman for Norway’s security service PST, Siv Alsen.

Earlier this year, Mullah Krekar 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 him of financing Ansar Al Islam.

“If this means that Krekar leaves Norway, that’s fine,” said Norwegian prime minister Erna Solberg, speaking from Valetta, Malta, where she was taking part in an European Union summit on the refugee crisis.

* Associated Press