UK’s north-east counter-terrorism unit confirms four men have been arrested in Britain, while six people are held in Italy and three in Norway
European law enforcement authorities say they have broken up a Kurdish-Sunni terror group whose members were willing to become suicide bombers and who planned to kidnap Norwegian diplomats either in Europe or the Middle East and hold them hostage.
Thirteen people have been arrested in simultaneous swoops in Italy, the UK and Norway after arrest warrants were issued. Other operations, which authorities said yielded important electronic devices and documents, also took place in Germany, Finland and Switzerland. Authorities said suspected leaders and members of a Norway-based group known as Rawti Shax were arrested.
Italian authorities who led the probe said they had documented evidence that the alleged terror group espoused a radical and violent ideology and was looking to secure weapons, particularly in the Netherlands. They said the group was prepared to commit violent acts in Norway – including targeting Norwegian diplomats abroad – and sought to establish “terrorist sleeper cells” in Italy and the Netherlands.
While authorities did not provide detail about how the group secured funding, investigators said it had enough support to recruit and transport aspiring foreign fighters to Syria and that it collected money for the families of “soldiers” who died in conflict areas.
The UK’s north-east counter-terrorism unit (Nectu) said four men had been arrested in Britain in connection with the operation. The four were aged 32, 33, 38 and 52, and were held at addresses in Hull, Derby, Birmingham and Sheffield.
A spokeswoman for Nectu said: “The arrests have taken place this morning in connection with this operation under European arrest warrants. The four men will appear before Westminster magistrates court as part of the process.
“We understand that people may be concerned following today’s arrests, however, we would like to reassure communities that today’s activity is as a result of an ongoing investigation which is intelligence-led. There is no evidence to suggest that communities are at risk.”
Elsewhere in Europe, six suspects were detained in Italy and three in Norway.
At the center of the alleged extremist ring targeted is Najmuddin Faraj Ahmad, a radical Iraqi preacher who lives in Norway and is known as Mullah Krekar. Authorities said Ahmad was the driving ideological force behind the organization, even while serving a separate prison sentence in Norway, where he has lived since 1991.
According to previous press reports, Ahmad is the founder of a group known as Ansar al-Islam. He had been released from prison in January after serving close to a three-year sentence for making threats against Erna Solberg, the Norwegian prime minister. Before the raid occurred, Ahmad was facing an 18-month prison term for praising the murder of the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists at the start of the year.
He will appear in court on Friday alongside the other two people arrested in Norway, and could be deported to Italy.
Italian police said the arrests were the result of complex and protracted investigations that began in 2010 following the discovery of a “jihadi” website ideologically affiliated with al-Qaida. Through the website, the Italian authorities said they could identify so-called “navigators” who were showing signs of being radicalized.
Working with other investigators in Europe, the Italian police said they had documented the existence of an Italian terror cell dedicated to recruiting and radicalizing militants online. The Italians also said they had worked closely with US authorities and police but did not specify how the Americans aided in the investigation.
“The use of the internet allowed the suspects to erase the distance between members, who were residents in several European countries, and enabled them to maintain strong cohesion as a group, reinforced by periodic and frequent online chats,” the special operations group (ROS) of the carabinieri said in a statement.
Italian authorities say Rawti Shax is a terror organization rooted in Europe. They claim it is especially active in Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Finland, Greece, Italy, Norway, Iraq, Iran and Syria. The people arrested on Thursday have been charged with being associated with international terrorism.
Eurojust, the EU agency that coordinated the dawn raids, said the alleged terrorist group had become active in providing “logistical and financial support” to recruiting foreign fighters to be sent to Syria and Iraq “with the intent of training them for the future conflict in Kurdistan”.
Eurojust said other unnamed suspects could not be located and were believed to have traveled to Syria and the Middle East to join extremist groups including Isis and al-Nusra Front. Planning for the operation, led by the carabinieri and directed by public prosecutors in Rome, began in September, it added.
“The investigations and continuous cooperation have been going on for years in Italy as well as other European countries, particularly Switzerland and Germany, progressively revealing the structure and operations of the terrorist organization,” Eurojust said in a statement.
Italy’s interior minister, Angelino Alfano, said: “We are a country exposed to the international risk of terrorism because we are part of that great international coalition that is opposed to the caliphate.” Italy’s preventive measures had worked, he added.