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Norway's Dilemma: How to Deal With Mullah Krekar By Nathanael Johnson

Mullah Krekar, the founder of the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam, lives freely in Oslo, where he received political asylum in 1991. He has been publicly linked to terrorism, but denies being a terrorist and has not been convicted in court for any terrorism-related offenses. His situation embodies the choice facing democratic countries in the age of terrorism: how to balance civil liberties with potential security threats.

Mullah Krekar's mosque in Sargat, Kurdistan. Photo courtesy David Romano.

(see caption)

On the eve of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the founder of a terrorist group appeared on Dutch television, warning that "suicide commandos" would attack coalition soldiers.

"We believe it's America's war against Islam," he said. "Let them come. Now they bring more than 300,000. We believe our God -- Allah -- will be with us."

But this was not a declaration made by a well-hidden fugitive and delivered by tape to Al-Jazeera. The speaker, Iraqi Kurd Faraj Ahmed Najmuddin, aka "Mullah Krekar," lives openly in Oslo, Norway, where he was granted political asylum in 1991.

Police promptly arrested Krekar, but the court saw no reason to keep him in jail. Krekar's right to speak his mind was protected by law, and his state-appointed attorney handled the media, blaming language barriers for his client's remarks being taken out of context.

Krekar embodies a crisis currently facing all democratic countries: As terrorists increasingly operate from within Europe and North America, nations like Norway face a choice: suspend their fundamental principals to root out suspects, or risk harboring terrorists. While the U.S. National Security Council confirmed to FRONTLINE in January 2005 that it considers Krekar a terrorist and would not allow him in the U.S., Norway has chosen to give Krekar, who denies being a terrorist, the benefit of the doubt. While it is impossible to know Krekar's true beliefs, his history provides some insight to his character and the risk Norway has assumed in choosing civil liberties over more certain security.

+ Krekar's roots

Krekar's rise to prominence may have something to do with his connections, according to Sunil Ram, a former Canadian military officer who spent time in the Middle East and now analyzes the region as a professor at the American Military University in West Virginia. Krekar studied law in Pakistan under Abdullah al-Azzam, Osama bin Laden's Palestinian mentor, and he eventually taught law at the Islamic Studies University in Karachi, Pakistan.

Prompted by Saddam Hussein's use of chemical weapons against the Kurdish city of Halabja, which killed 5,000 civilians, Krekar began to take an active interest in helping his homeland. He visited the rich in Peshawar and other border cities in Pakistan, asking for donations to help the survivors of the attack.

Krekar met bin Laden in a 1988 meeting with a group of rich Saudis. He gave the potential benefactors a photo album with pictures of victims of the Halabja attack, which they passed around until it reached one man who sat quietly and turned the pages. Only later, Krekar claimed, would he learn that that man was bin Laden.

According to his autobiography, published in Norway in 2004, Krekar left Iraq because Saddam Hussein had ordered his death for his work with the Kurds. In 1991, Krekar and his family received refugee status in Norway. But after he had settled his wife and children in Norway, Krekar returned to northern Iraq to join what was becoming an autonomous state in Kurdistan.

+ Krekar and Ansar al-Islam

When Krekar moved back to Kurdistan, he led a faction working to make Kurdistan an independent Islamic theocracy. Then, in 2001, several Kurdish Islamic factions united to form Ansar al-Islam.

Mullah Krekar's faction was seen as the more moderate of these groups, writes Brynjar Lia, a terrorism specialist at the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment (FFI), via e-mail. "At least according to Mullah Krekar's own words, he was called upon to lead Ansar al-Islam to exercise a moderating influence on the young hotheads."

Under Krekar, Ansar al-Islam was a governing force -- its actions were focused on creating its version of an Islamic utopia in Kurdistan, rather than attacking the West. "It appears that one of Krekar's primary roles was to raise money abroad," Lia says.

Although Krekar may have exerted moderating pressure on Ansar al-Islam during his rule, it was still a brutal and repressive regime. The group took control of an 80-square mile corner of northern Iraq and imposed puritanical laws that drew the attention of human rights groups. "Women told me: 'In the old days I couldn't have spoken to you,'" says David Romano, who led a team of researchers from McGill University through the region in 2004. Ansar al-Islam persecuted those who did not toe the fundamentalist line and set up a camp where boys learned guerrilla tactics, Romano says. The group was also implicated in the attempted assassination of rival Kurdish leaders.

According to the U.S. State Department, members of Ansar al-Islam trained in Al Qaeda camps in Afghanistan, and the group sheltered Al Qaeda operatives and associates, including Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's, a leader of the Iraqi insurgency.

Krekar says his rule ended in September 2002 when he was arrested in the Netherlands. As he explained in an interview given on Kurdish television, "The Islamic law and jurisprudence stipulates that any emir who is imprisoned automatically loses the leadership of his emirate."

After Krekar's arrest, Ansar al-Islam rekindled its guerrilla war with the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In February 2003, the United States designated Ansar al-Islam as a terrorist group and in March 2003, U.S. and Kurdish forces drove the militants from their mountain stronghold. But intelligence officials say that instead of disintegrating, the group dispersed throughout Europe and has begun recruiting suicide bombers. The State Department believes the faction aids Al Qaeda and "has been one of the leading groups engaged in anti-Coalition attacks" in Iraq.

+ The First in a Series of Arrests

For a decade, Krekar had travelled freely between Europe and Iraq with a Norwegian passport. However, in September 2002, while travelling home to Norway, he was arrested in Amsterdam. The state of Jordan filed an extradition request, charging him with "conspiring to commit crimes against individuals." The next day, Jordan changed the charges to "drug trafficking."

Norway had already revoked Krekar's refugee status a month before his arrest. Since he was spending time in Iraq voluntarily, the authorities reasoned, he no longer needed asylum. Nevertheless, Norwegian taxpayers paid his legal fees in Holland, and continued to pay welfare to his family, who, as Norwegian citizens were entitled to the benefits.

This largesse may seem unusual -- but Norwegian politicians were able to rationalize it at as a social issue the time: "We're talking about a person who has his family in Norway and who has lived here in recent years," said Knut Storberget of the country's Labour Party.

After four months, Dutch attorneys could not find proof Krekar had broken any laws and Jordanian authorities could not provide enough evidence to satisfy the court on the drug trafficking charge. On Jan. 13, 2003, Mullah Krekar returned to Norway, a free man. (He later won over $53,000 from the Dutch in an unlawful detention suit.)

+ Living with Mullah Krekar

When Krekar returned to Norway, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft reportedly requested his extradition to America and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell is said to have asked Norway to watch him closely. Even groups like Amnesty International have asked that Krekar be tried for human rights abuses in Kurdistan.

However, prosecutors could not prove Krekar's guilt, and Norwegian law does not allow police to deport Krekar to Iraq or hand him over to the U.S because doing either might constitute a death sentence. Norway continued to supply Krekar with welfare and legal council.

Nevertheless, Norwegian police found it impossible to sit idly by while Krekar's name appeared in new terror investigations and his words inflamed the public.

Police arrested him in March 2003, after Krekar threatened coalition soldiers in Iraq with "suicide commandos," but the court saw no reason to keep him in jail.

On Jan. 2, 2004, police arrested Krekar again, on suspicion of financing terrorism and planning assassinations of Kurdish leaders. But the case fell apart when the prosecution found that their key witnesses, Ansar al-Islam soldiers in Kurdish custody, might have been tortured or physically coerced to give their testimony.

Krekar's name has also appeared in conjunction with several other European terrorism investigations. Most significantly, he admits to having had contact with Jamal Zougam and Abu Dahdah, suspects in the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings. Krekar's attorney maintains the contact was an innocent exchange. "[Krekar and his brother] operated a Kurdish newspaper, and received many requests for help, among them how to get people to Norway," his lawyer told a Norwegian newspaper, VG. The brothers only directed Zougam and Dahdah to the correct Norwegian authorities, he said.

But Jean-Charles Brisard, an investigator working for the families of the Sept. 11 victims, told the Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten that Norwegian police records showed the communication was much more extensive, including several visits from Zougam and Dahdah to Krekar in Oslo.

Despite this evidence, McGill researcher Romano says he believes Krekar is contained. "I'm not sure he can do much now -- he's watched too closely," Romano says.

Canadian analyst Ram is not so sure. "Do you retire from the Mafia?" he asks. "I'm sure he's operating covertly. If they've got a foothold in the West, they've got a base of operations."

Lia, observing from within Norway, says he doubts Krekar currently fights for his cause except in his writing and speeches. "He is definitely no longer the leader of Ansar al-Islam," Lia says.

The mullah is engaged with the culture around him, Lia says. He participated in discussions about his autobiography held at a popular pub in Oslo, which would be out of the question for most fundamentalists, Lia explains.

Last May, Mullah Krekar even agreed to debate a Norwegian comedian. The exchange was going well until, as a demonstration of female power, Norwegian-Pakistani humorist Shabana Rehman physically lifted Krekar into the air. The mullah went wild with rage, but instead of issuing a fatwa, he tackled the problem the Western way: He threatened to sue.


Nathanael Johnson is a student at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California at Berkeley. His articles have appeared in The New York Times Magazine, Boise Weekly, Paddler Magazine, and The Idaho Statesman. His radio pieces have aired on National Public Radio, Alaska Public Radio Network and Independent Native News.

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posted jan. 25, 2005

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