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A sinister nexus?

by Torkel Brekke - 10 June 2005

In his speech at the Security Council on 5 February 2003, Colin Powell presented evidence supporting the case for war against Iraq. He pointed to a sinister nexus between Iraq and the al-Qaida network: Ansar al-Islam with Mulla Krekar at its head.

Krekar had been living as a refugee in Oslo, Norway, for a number of years while continuing political and military activities in the Kurdish region of Iraq.

The spring of 2003 turned into something of a nightmare for the Norwegian authorities. They wished to make clear to the US administration that Norway's participation in the war was impossible.

At the same time, fingers were pointing in their direction; they were harbouring the leader of an organisation thought to be the link between Saddam Hussein and international terrorism.

Norwegians tend to think of their country as a place securely separated from the brutal affairs of the world by geographical isolation and relative geo-political insignificance in the new world order.

Now they found themselves between the devil and the deep blue sea; or, rather, between a bearded Kurdish fighter and neo-conservative war-mongers in Washington DC.

How did Norway react? The authorities wanted to send Krekar out of the country to get rid of the problem once and for all. But they also wanted to arrest him.

They did both. In other words, Norway panicked. While the Ministry of Local Government and Regional Development, through the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration, worked to build a case for expulsion of Krekar, the Ministry of Justice and the police worked to try Krekar for crimes committed in Iraq. Krekar went in and out of prison in the following years.

In the end, it turned out to be impossible to get Krekar convicted in Norway. On the other hand, the case for expulsion is firmly established, although expulsion in practice may be close to impossible because of the security situation in Iraq.

The Krekar case is now approaching its conclusion and it is possible to answer some of the questions raised by the case.

US pressure

The most interesting questions address the relations between the US and other states in the context of the war against terrorism and the war in Iraq.

Of course, Norwegian and US authorities have discussed Krekar on a number of occasions. Odd Einar Dorum, the Norwegian minister of justice, confirmed that he had talks about Krekar with his US counterpart, John Ashcroft, in the summer of 2003.

Norwegian newspapers asserted that Washington was getting annoyed with Norway for not keeping Krekar locked up. After all, he was part of their argument for the war, the sinister nexus.

Thus, it is reasonable to ask to what extent the US authorities put pressure on Norway to handle the case according to US wishes, and we might ask to what extent Norway gave in to possible pressure.

Needless to say, Norwegian officials and politicians have always denied any form of pressure. Perhaps they are telling the truth; so far, it has been impossible to look at any of the documents relating to the case in any of the departments concerned.

However, our idea of political pressure should probably cover a bit more than plain diplomatic and political coercion in a case that was so bristling with political significance.

In other words, pressure would also be channelled through media and through public debate reflecting the fear of terrorism perpetrated by radical Islamic groups.

It is plain that the situation itself entailed pressure; Norway's most important ally was marching on Baghdad to fight a pre-emptive war against terrorism and they claimed a refugee in Oslo was part of the reason. Of course there was pressure.

The question is how Norway reacted to the pressure building up from the day in January 2003 when Krekar returned to Oslo from a Dutch jail.

First, panic. But as time went by, the institutions of the state worked as they should. Krekar was arrested a number of times by the police.

Every time Krekar and his lawyers managed to demonstrate that the case against him was too weak.

The police faced what turned out to be insurmountable problems relating to evidence in the case. They spent plenty of resources interviewing witnesses in Iraqi Kurdistan.

However, the case against Krekar was always torpedoed by the fact that the police had to rely too heavily on witnesses in the prisons of the secular PUK, Krekar's greatest enemies in his struggle for an Islamic state.

Total picture

So, Krekar was never convicted. But in order to understand the total picture, we need to distinguish between three different processes against him.

Firstly, the police wanted him convicted on very serious charges of violent attacks against Iraqi civilians. They did not succeed.

Secondly, other states, Jordan in particular, wanted Krekar extradited. Jordan wanted to try him for drug offences. I have personally interviewed Krekar on a couple of occasions and he seems to find the drug charges far more outrageous than the other charges against him.

He has insisted that US authorities are behind the request for extradition to Jordan; he believes they want him in a jail in a country where constraints on interrogation procedures are somewhat less strict. Extradition never went through.

However, it would have been interesting to have a peek at documents relating to possible extradition, because it must have been tempting for Norwegian authorities to simply deport the whole problem to another state.

Thirdly, Krekar was a case for immigration authorities. In this respect, his case has two different aspects: asylum and expulsion.

Krekar has enjoyed asylum in Norway, but the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration has now withdrawn it because he has abused his status as a refugee by travelling widely to the country from where he claimed he was forced to escape.

Indeed, Krekar has exploited the hospitality of his host nation by using it as a base to continue his work in Iraq; most Norwegians do not share the view of one professor of law who compared Krekar to Norwegian freedom-fighters of the second world war, hiding from Nazis in Sweden.

Withdrawal of asylum does not necessarily mean expulsion, but in Krekar's case, deportation has been a political goal since 2003.

The Minister of Local Government and Regional Development Erna Solberg wanted to both withdraw Krekar's asylum and expel him. The case has been handled by the Norwegian Directorate of Immigration. They have recently concluded the case.


The final conclusion of the immigration authorities is that Krekar must be expelled, because he is a threat to state security.

In the criminal case against Krekar, it was impossible to assess the evidence, because it was secret.

However, the immigration authorities base much of their assessment on open sources and some of their documents are available on request. These documents testify to a general lowering of the threshold for being defined as a threat.

To some extent, Krekar is perceived as a threat to state security by membership in a radical Islamic organisation and by holding certain religious and political ideas.

He may have been a threat to his enemies in Kurdistan at some point, and most of us strongly dislike his political and social visions, but he has not threatened to attack the Norwegian state or society.

In a case full of paradoxes, where slightly desperate authorities wanted to deport and imprison at the same time, it should not come as a surprise that conclusions are less than clear-cut.

To a small state such as Norway, a big case such as Krekar was a real test of the working of the institutions of democracy in the face of international pressure and in a climate of fear.

The criminal case against Krekar was stranded in the Norwegian courts because of the quality of the evidence. The judicial system of Norway passed the test.

On the other hand, the Krekar case also suggests that it has become easier to be defined as a security threat in Norway, as in many other countries. Clearly, this is a consequence of the fear of terrorism (and the lamentable fear of Islam) that has enveloped much of the Western world after 9/11.

- Torkel Brekke

Torkel Brekke is a Norwegian writer.

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revised 18 November 2005