AMSTERDAM Dutch police acting on a tip from Iran’s government arrested an Iraqi Kurd religious teacher when he stepped off an airliner in Amsterdam this fall, though at the time he wasn’t wanted for any crime.
Mullah Krekar had been denied entry to Iran and apparently was planning to visit relatives in the Netherlands before returning to Norway, where his wife, children and brother were living as refugees.
With questions raised about whether he is linked to al Qaeda and even Saddam Hussein, Mullah Krekar’s arrest Sept. 12 is an example of the growing cooperation among nations in the anti-terrorism campaign. It also could shed light on his shadowy group as the United States prepares for a war with Iraq.
Mullah Krekar is the leader of Ansar al-Islam, a group of 500 or so Islamic militants in the mountains of northern Iraq that is on Washington’s list of terrorist organizations.
His rivals among Iraqi Kurds charge that Ansar al-Islam has links with Osama bin Laden’s al Qaeda terrorist network, and they say they have evidence that Ansar has ties to Saddam, although they haven’t made any public.
Mullah Krekar’s brother says he is simply the religious leader of a Kurdish independence movement in Iraq and contends that his brother is being slandered by enemies seeking to undermine Ansar.
After his detention, Norway revoked Mullah Krekar’s refugee status, and he was put in a high-security Dutch prison for interrogation by the FBI.
Days later, the government of Jordan asked for Mullah Krekar’s extradition to that Middle Eastern nation on drug-smuggling charges. His attorney said the charges were cooked up to give U.S. intelligence agents a chance to question Mullah Krekar in a country with loose restrictions on interrogations. Mullah Krekar will remain in jail while fighting extradition, a process that can take up to a year.
Mullah Krekar was born Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad in 1956 in the Iraqi province of al-Sulaymaniyah, the region where Saddam used chemical weapons against his own people in 1988.
His brother Khalid, who spoke to the Associated Press from his home in Norway, said Mullah Krekar was self-taught and became a religious teacher by studying the Koran and other Islamic books. “Krekar” means “one who works hard.”
The brothers traveled together to Pakistan in the 1980s, where Mullah Krekar taught Afghan refugees and supported the “holy war” by Islamic groups to expel Soviet troops from Afghanistan, Khalid said. He said his brother did not see combat.
In 1991, Norway granted Mullah Krekar refugee status, and he later moved his wife, children and brother there to live with him under a family reunification program.
Within a few years, Mullah Krekar returned to northern Iraq, which is outside Saddam’s control, to agitate for an independent Kurdish state governed by Islamic religious law.
In December 2001, he became the leader of Ansar al-Islam, or Supporters of Islam, which was formed from the merger of several splinter groups from the main Islamic movement in Kurdish Iraq.
U.S. government officials told AP in Washington that at least a dozen Ansar members were trained in Afghanistan in the 1990s. More recently, the officials said, the group’s ranks swelled with non-Kurdish al Qaeda fighters who fled Afghanistan.
In an interview taped last spring in the northern Iraqi mountains and broadcast on Norwegian state television, Mullah Krekar denied having any direct contact with bin Laden.
“We see the [non-Kurdish] Muslims in Kurdistan as a part of the Kurdish liberation movement,” he said. “I did not see it as right or just to be connected to other places, or to be active outside Kurdistan.”
Mullah Krekar said he didn’t know bin Laden personally, or support all his views, but considered him a “good Muslim.”
Rohan Gunaratne, a professor at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland who has written a book on al Qaeda, believes Ansar has links to the terrorist organization.
“They are Salafists, people who want to live like Muslims in the first generation after Mohammed,” he said. “No doubt some of its members have trained with al Qaeda.”
But Mr. Gunaratne doesn’t consider the accusations of a strong link with Saddam to be credible, because Ansar despises Saddam as a secular ruler.
“They may have had some contact, because they are in the same region, and you talk even to your enemies,” he said. “To summarize: There is no evidence Saddam has given sustained assistance to any Islamic terrorist group, including Ansar.”
Most of the accusations linking Ansar to Saddam originate in a Kurdish group that controls Ansar’s region of Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, or PUK, which is a foe of Ansar as well as Saddam.
PUK officials say Ansar has instituted a Taliban-like regime in the mountain towns the group controls, experimented with chemical weapons and received explosives and trucks from Saddam. They say they have intercepted radio transmissions between Ansar and Saddam’s intelligence service.
Sarko Mahmoud, a member of the PUK and a spokesman for the anti-Saddam Iraqi National Congress in London, contends that Ansar is responsible for the murders of around 50 PUK members.
“We have pictures, video films we have Krekar’s speeches what he says is very dangerous. We have everything,” Mr. Mahmoud said.
Khalid, Mullah Krekar’s brother, says both PUK and Ansar members have been killed in fighting between the groups, and he dismisses the other accusations as “nonsense” and “propaganda.”
“People do not even have electricity to cook their food, so how could they make chemical weapons?” he asked.
Diplomatic sources in Turkey, which borders northern Iraq, say Saddam may have agents inside Ansar, but they add that the level of cooperation is unclear.
There are other theories about where Ansar got money for trucks and weapons.
Saddam’s son Uday said on Iraqi television that Ansar is financed from Iran and that the group has no links to either Iraq or al Qaeda. “This is a purely Iranian game,” he said.
Yet it was the Iranian government that turned in Mullah Krekar.