Italy has announced a Europe-wide operation targeting an Iraqi Kurdish terror network with ties to the "Islamic State." The terror group was allegedly led from a Norwegian prison by the notorious Mullah Krekar.
Seventeen suspects, including 16 Iraqi Kurds and one Kosovar, were arrested in a Europe-wide counterterrorism operation on Thursday, which targeted a group accused of financing and recruiting "Islamic State" fighters and plotting attacks.
Giovanni Governale of the Italian police's Special Operations Group said the operation had "dismantled an integrated cell that included - in addition to Italy - Britain, Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Germany."
He added the terror network formed "on the 'Dark Web,' little-known platforms that we have managed to penetrate."
The network, called Rawti Shax, sought to recruit and send fighters to join IS, as well as free its imprisoned leader from a Norwegian prison. At least six people were recruited in Europe to fight in Syria and Iraq.
The cell was allegedly run by the Iraqi Kurd Najmuddin Ahmad Faraj, better known as Mullah Krekar, from prison in Norway.
Krekar, the founder of the now defunct Ansar al-Islam terrorist group, was imprisoned last month after being sentenced to 18 months in jail for praising the Charlie Hebdo attack. He was also found guilty of calling for the death of a Kurdish immigrant in Norway. He was released earlier this year from three years in prison for making death threats.
The 59-year-old has been living in Norway since 1991, but a 2003 order for his deportation from Norway on national security grounds has been held up because he could face a death sentence if sent to Iraq. He is a recognized terrorist by the UN and United States.
Commenting on the possibility of deporting Krekar to Italy, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said "if this means that Krekar leaves Norway, that's fine."
Krekar has maintained he stopped leading the terrorist group Ansar al-Islam in 2002. The Sunni militant group was based in the mountainous Iran-Iraq border area above Halabja until the US invasion of Iraq, when the group was one of the first to be targeted by US airstrikes.
A joint Iraqi Kurdish peshmerga and US operation ultimately cleared Ansar al-Islam from its mountain hideout, but the group and offshoots reportedly maintained cells in the area and remained active through a network of mosques.
Since allying with the IS last year, the remnants of Ansar al-Islam have reportedly recruited Kurds from the conservative Halabja area to fight alongside the "Islamic State," even as the Kurdish government battles the terrorist group.
Thursday's raid comes as the EU tries to crack down terrorism financing and foreign fighters joining IS in Syria and Iraq.
According to UN estimates, at least 25,000 fighters have joined the "Islamic State" or al-Qaeda, while Europol estimates that between 3,000 and 5,000 EU citizens have joined the terrorist organizations.
cw/jil (AFP, AP, Reuters)