Jihadism in Norway - the case of Mulla Krekar

6 years ago


By: Jan Bojer Vindheim

Islamist preacher Mulla Krekar has become the symbol of violent jihadism in Norway. His bearded figure is regularly seen in media, and his name is evoked by leading politicians in heated political debates. The far right Progress Party has used deporting Krekar as one of their main election promises, but as part of the Norwegian government today, they have been unable to fulfil this promise, just like previous governments of other parties have been unable to deport Krekar, while returning large numbers of other refugees to an uncertain future in the lands from which they had fled.

Najmuddin Faraj Ahmed and his family were brought to Norway in 1991 as refugees from the war in Iraq. While his wife and children and eventually several other family members were granted permanent residence, Ahmed himself was granted only temporary residence. The reason for this may have been that he was already under scrutiny by at least one branch of Norwegian security services. It had probably come to their attention that he had a notable record of supporting jihadis travelling to and from Afghanistan while working at a technical high school in Peshawar, Pakistan.

During the 1990s these security services also discovered that Krekar was travelling regularly to Iraq, where he was active in various armed islamist groups in the Kurdish region. Several reorganisations among the Kurdish islamists had by 2001 resulted in the establishment of the Ansar al-Islam, with headquarters in the village of Biyara in the Hawraman mountains and with Krekar as formal leader, or emir.

The next year, 2002, a TV-documentary prepared by state broadcaster NRK revealed to an unsuspecting Norwegian public, that an Iraqi enjoying refugee status was actively engaged in armed groups fighting the ruling parties in faraway Iraqi Kurdistan. This initiated heated public discussion in Norway. Anti-immigration and racist groups of all shapes and colours called for the immediate expulsion of the «terrorist leader». An investigation into the activities of Ansar al Islam and of Krekar himself was undertaken by several media groups.

As a result of this publicity, the Norwegian government revoked Krekar’s refugee status in February 2003, and declared its intention of extraditing him to Iraq. Radical organisations and human rights groups saw this as an attack on the rights of asylum-seekers in general and leapt to his defence. The Liberal Party invited him to enlighten them about the problems facing political refugees in Norway. This was also the theme of a public meeting in the city of Stavanger, which had to be cut short when it was disrupted by angry Kurds pelting the main speaker, that is Mulla Krekar, with shoes and tomatoes, and accusing him of murder and other misdeeds. Angry liberals accused the demonstrators of undermining democratic debate. Amnesty International and several leftwing organisations, as well as lawyers known for their spirited defence of refugees from oppressive states around the world, were among the groups springing to Krekars defence.

One reason for this was the general knee-jerk leftwing opposition to American foreign policy. At this time the USA was preparing for the invasion of Iraq, and accusations against Krekar were by many seen as no more than American propaganda. American officials who were seeking persuasive arguments for the attack against the Iraqi government sought to establish links between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda. With his background in Pakistan and connections to the Taliban and Al Qaeda, Krekar was suitable for the purpose. Sources in the PUK were happy to provide information on arms deliveries from the regime in Bagdad to the fighters in Biyara. While it was possible to establish links between Ansar al-Islam and al Qaeda on the one side, and between Ansar al-Islam and the Baath-regime in Bagdad on the other hand, direct links between Al Qaeda and Bagdad were lacking.

In spite of the vocal defence from various groups, of Krekar’s right to asylum, criminal proceedings were launched against him based on the known activities of Ansar al-Islam in Iraqi Kurdistan. The main basis of the prosecution’s case was evidence given by the PUK and other Iraqi Kurdish sources. Krekar’s defence lawyer, Brynjar Meling, was however able to undermine the prosecution, by claiming that the main witness, the failed suicide bomber Didar Mohammed, had been tortured in the Abu Ghraib prison outside Bagdad. The name Abu Ghraib at this time evoked strong feelings of revulsion. It had become infamous through the publication around the world of extremely disturbing photos, taken by American soldiers stationed there, showing their enjoyment at their own systematic abuse and humiliation of Arab prisoners. The prosecution withdrew it’s case, and Krekar was free to continue his life in Norway.

The story, however does absolutely not end there. In 2003 Krekar was again brought to trial, charged with financing terrorist attacks, using Norway as a base. These charges also had to be dropped, when it proved impossible to prove his connections with the terrorist attacks staged in Iraq by Ansar al-Islam during his leadership. Krekar claimed not to have had knowledge of the activities of the organisation that he headed.

The Kurdistan Regional Government by now had requested that Krekar be handed over to them, but this request came up against Norwegian law, which does not allow the extradition from Norway of anyone facing torture or execution. The KRG was unable to guarantee that a death sentence would not be sought in any trial against Krekar, and was also unable to provide credible guarantees that he would not be subject to physical mistreatment while in custody in Iraq.

So Krekar remained in Norway, although the Norwegian Supreme Court in November 2007 ruled that his presence constituted a threat to national security, thus upholding the February 2003 decision by the government to deport him to Iraq.

In the meantime the United States Department of the Treasury, in December 2006, designated mullah Krekar as one of five individuals providing financial support to terrorist organisations. He was accused of providing funds for Ansar al-Sunnah, a reincarnation of Ansar al-Islam. His name was also added to the United Nations Security Council’s list of individuals belonging to or associated with the Al-Qaeda organisation. All member states of the United Nations are obliged to freeze assets and prevent entry or transit through their territories with regard to the individuals included on this list.

While these legal manoeuvres were going on, Krekars bearded figure became a symbol to many Norwegians of violent islamism, and his case was constantly referred to as an example of the government’s supposed inability to handle “the Islamic threat”. The public anger mobilised against Krekar can be seen from the fact that a Facebook group was set up in 2007 to collect money for his assassination. The first words in the group statement were "For the murder of Norway's enemy #1".

As if to add to his unpopularity, Krekar published a steady stream of threats against Kurds who opposed him, as well as against Norwegian government figures and others he perceived as enemies. In September 2008 he issued a fatwa against Mariwan Halabjaee, an Iraqi Kurd resident in Norway who had authored a book entitled «Sex, Sharia and Women in the History of Islam».

''I swear that we will not live if you live. Either you go before us, or we go before you," said Krekar, comparing Halabjaee to Salman Rushdie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

In 2010 he issued another fatwa, this time targeting three other kurds living in Norway, for burning pages from the Koran. According to the fatwa, killing these men was a duty for all righteous moslems. Kurdish organisations provoked by this demanded that Krekar be put behind bars, and were hard put to understand the protection he was given by the Norwegian legal system.

In November 2009 controversy had erupted when Krekar in an interview with the Arab television channel al-Hiwar said he wanted to establish a new Islamic Caliphate in Iraq, claiming that for Jihadists there is no legitimate state, with the exception of the Taliban-led Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. As prospective leaders of this Islamic "super-state" he named Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar as well as other radical Islamists.

The Progress Party and other rightwing groups in the Norwegian population continued to call for his expulsion or at the very least his imprisonment. Hard pressed by this seeming upwelling of public sentiment, Norway's largest party, the Labour Party, balancing between the humanitarian wish  to protect refugees and the need to show hard action against islamist radicalism, decided to  form a special task force to examine whether people officially labelled as a  "danger to national security" could be imprisoned.

In January 2010, 3 shots were fired through one of the windows of Krekar's apartment in Oslo. Krekar's son-in-law was mildly injured by one of the bullets. The attack was investigated as an assassination attempt, and Krekar and his lawyer, Brynjar Meling accused the PUK of having ordered the attack.

Krekar also continued to pronounce his opinions on the politics of Iraqi Kurdistan, saying he would support Kurdish independence "wholeheartedly" even though he had lost faith in Kurdish parties. He  continued to claim that he had no quarrel with any political party in Kurdistan,and  that many of his relatives and friends were members of Kurdish parties including the KDP and the PUK. 

Krekar repeatedly stated that he wanted to return to Iraq to fight openly against the Iraqi government and the ruling parties in Arbil, if the Norwegian government would only provide him with the necessary travel documents. In early January 2012, Krekar announced in the online edition of Rudaw that he would be leaving Norway and returning to the Kurdistan region soon, saying "My return to the Kurdistan region has become a major political issue». Prominent  Progress Party  politician Per Sandberg stated he would be glad to personally pay the tickets for  Krekar to leave Norway for good.

What created the most stir, however, was an additional statement in this interview; a statement which was regarded as a death threat against the Norwegian Prime Minister Krekars was quotes as saying: «My death will cost Norwegian society. If, for example, Erna Solberg (Norwegian Prime Minister) throws me out of the country and I die as a result, she will suffer the same fate.»

In February 2012, Krekar confirmed in the Oslo District Court that he had issued a twenty-page fatwa against the author Halabjaee. The fatwa was sent to several hundred Islamic scholars around the world. While Krekar said he thought he might be able to guarantee the safety of Halabjaee, he confirmed that his fatwa implies that it is permissible to kill Halabjaee in Oslo  - or anywhere else. Krekar this time compared Halabjaee to Theo van Gogh, the film director who was killed by an Islamist in the Netherlands in 2004.

In March 2012 Krekar was sentenced to 5 years in prison for his repeated death threats against Norwegian politicians He was arrested by the Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) and Norwegian Police, and jailed. At this time certain additional statements of a threatening nature came to light, suggesting that followers of Krekar might take retaliatory actions against Norwegians if his civil prison sentence were implemented.

In December 2012 a Court of Appeal acquitted him of charges of incitement to terrorism, but found him guilty on four counts of intimidation under aggravating circumstances. He was ordered to pay 130,000 kroner - a substantial amount - in compensation to each of the three Kurds that he had threatened, and to serve a reduced sentence of two years and ten months in prison. This sentence he duly served. Upon his release from prison in January 2015 Krekar complained about prison conditions and claimed Norwegian prisons were worse than those in North Korea. (Those imprisoned by Krekar’s followers in  Iraq would  - of course - not have been amused.)

Further complications followed in due course. In February 2015 Krekar praised the attackers of the French magazine Charlie Hebdo, saying that when a cartoonist "tramples on our dignity, our principles and our faith, he must die." This and other similar statements caused Krekar to be sentenced once again, this time to 18 months in prison Krekar and his lawyer protested vigorously but to no avail. At the present moment however he has been released after serving this second sentence.

In spite of - or because of - his public notoriety and his many appearances in court, Krekar has been able to build a following among Kurds, Somalis and other moslems in Norway for his particular brand of violent salafism. But there are no indications that he has acquired - or even sought - followers with an ethnic Norwegian background. 

A group of young moslem men calling themselves «The prophet’s Umma» and attracting a certain notoriety, have claimed to support him, though no organisational link has been indicated. This group has been linked to a handful of Norwegian jihadis travelling to join Daesh in Syria. It is known that a small number of these have been killed in Syria and Iraq, and Norwegian government  lawyers have been discussing the  legal complications linked to their status if and when they return to Norway, after taking part in illegal armed groups in the Middle East.

A fresh round of international investigations against Krekar started in the spring of 2016 connected to a web-based radical group accused of radicalising and recruiting fighters for Daesh, planning attacks against Norwegian and British diplomats in the Middle East, and making preparations to establish a caliphate in Iraqi Kurdistan. The group was also suspected of operating military training camps.The Italian anti-terrorism chief Giuseppe Governale said that the operation involving police and security officials in several European countries was "the most important international police operation in Europe in 20 years".

A total of seventeen people in five different countries, all except one of whom were Iraqi Kurds, were arrested or indicted in the raids. 26 properties were searched  and officials seized electronic devices and documents. In March 2016 all suspects in the United Kingdom were released without charges, after winning a court case that being extradited to Italy "breached human rights». According to the investigation, however, it was established that  Krekar pledged allegiance to Daesh in 2014, as the now re-established Ansar al Islam had done  in Iraq.

In another chapter in this never-ending saga, the Norwegian Police Security Services in November 2016 arrested Krekar in order to secure his extradition to Italy. It was, however, shortly reported that Italy had withdrawn their extradition claim, and Krekar was released from prison. In 2017, therefore, Krekar remains  at large in Norway, even while his enemies in the Progress Party are in government holding  - among others - the  post of refugee minister. Krekar has been able to utilise the Norwegian legal system to the full, with the able assistance of his lawyer Brynjar Meling, all the time at the expense of the Norwegian government.

The story of Krekar in Norway also has its humorous aspects: in January 2004 the female comedian Shabana Rehman approached the mulla at a public meeting, folded her arms around his legs and lifted him off the ground. He exploded in anger at this insult to his dignity and  threatened to sue her in court, but this apparently never happened,

Another strange incidence was the Norwegian government's attempt to force Krekar to live in a rundown asylum center in the small village of Kyrksæterøra, 500 kilometers north of Oslo. Both local inhabitants and Krekar’s lawyer protested vigorously and the attempt at exiling him had to be abandoned.

The story of Mulla Krekar illustrates the problems connected with combating extreme and antidemocratic ideologies like jihadi salafism in an open democratic society. Even though his attitudes are well known, and he has been jailed on many occasions it has not been possible for Norwegian authorities to stop Krekar. Indeed, he has been able to utilise the Norwegian legal system, which provides him with first class legal assistance at government expense, to its fullest extent, while working to destroy the selfsame institutions and replace them with his own authoritarian version of sharia laws. Krekar  utilises our democratic institutions while fighting to destroy them.

All the more, it is vitally important that an open and civil society like Norway does not abandon its humanist values in such a confrontation. If democracy were to stoop to the level of jihadism, then the open society would have lost and Mulla Krekar would have won. Precisely by generously offering  people like Krekar the protection of universal law, we prove the supremacy of the open and liberal society.


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