The CIA and The Militant Who Eluded It in Norway

Mullah Krekar, founder of a Kurdish insurgent group in Iraq, has withstood U.S. attempts to dislodge him from Oslo.
Mullah Krekar, founder of a Kurdish insurgent group in Iraq, has withstood U.S. attempts to dislodge him from Oslo. (By Craig Whitlock -- The Washington Post)
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, December 4, 2006

OSLO -- Two months after he helped kidnap a Muslim cleric in Italy, records show, an undercover CIA officer boarded a flight to Norway on another secret mission. Two other U.S. spies followed a few weeks later and checked into the same hotel.

Shortly after the agents arrived in the spring of 2003, an Islamic militant living in Oslo known as Mullah Krekar received a warning from an anonymous Norwegian official, according to Krekar's lawyer. The message: Krekar, then head of a Kurdish insurgent group, was a CIA target and should watch his back.

The spies left Norway by the end of the summer, according to records of their travels compiled by European investigators. If the CIA was planning to abduct Krekar, like other Islamic radicals it had secretly apprehended in Europe after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, those plans were quietly abandoned.

But it would not be the first or last time that the U.S. government had sought to push Krekar out of Norway. For more than a decade, the Kurdish cleric had enjoyed protection in the Nordic country as a political refugee, even as he frequently slipped back into his homeland in northern Iraq to lead an armed separatist movement called Ansar al-Islam, which has carried out attacks on civilians and U.S. troops.

The case shows how the United States has struggled to deal with Islamic militants who are allowed to live freely in Europe despite being labeled serious security risks. Others have included radical clerics in London and supporters of the Hamburg cell responsible for the Sept. 11 hijackings.

But the pursuit of Krekar also demonstrates how U.S. tactics in confronting those militants have sometimes backfired, giving ammunition to critics who accuse the Bush administration of skirting the law or relying on questionable evidence.

Before the invasion of Iraq, the U.S. government publicly portrayed Krekar and his network as an organizational link between al-Qaeda and the government of Saddam Hussein. Under pressure to prove that connection, the United States tried a variety of tactics to forcibly remove Krekar from Norway and hand him over to friendly security services in the Middle East.

Each attempt failed. Today, although the Norwegian government has declared Krekar a security threat and ordered him deported, the mullah is still in Oslo.

Most evidence against him remains classified. But other charges have been refuted in court or publicly discredited, including allegations by U.S. and Iraqi officials that Krekar ordered followers to carry out suicide bombings and that Ansar controlled a chemical weapons factory.

"At first, I didn't think I had done anything that was a threat to the Americans," Krekar said in an interview. "Later, some people told me I had become a target, but I didn't think the Americans would come for me themselves. They wanted to use me, to show that there was a link between Saddam and al-Qaeda."

The intense U.S. interest in Krekar came at a time when the CIA was targeting other Islamic radicals in Europe for "extraordinary rendition," the clandestine practice of seizing terrorism suspects and transferring them to allied nations that sometimes practice torture. Among suspects grabbed by the CIA: a Muslim cleric in Milan, two Arabs living in Stockholm and two others from Germany.

The CIA and the U.S. Embassy in Norway declined to comment on whether Krekar was a rendition target. In a prepared statement for this article, State Department deputy spokesman Tom Casey said, "The United States continues to consider Krekar to be a threat to national security, and we think the same with respect to Ansar al-Islam."

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