Italian court upholds 12-year sentence for Kurdish Islamist cleric

"Italian investigators have argued that 'Mullah Krekar' was the leader of extremist network Rawti Shax."

ERBIL (Kurdistan 24) – An Italian appeals court on Friday upheld all the convictions in the trial of suspected members of a so-called Jihadi cell, including its leader, Mullah Krekar, the Italian news agency Associated Press National Agency (ANSA) reported on Friday.

ANSA reported that the court upheld the Kurdish Islamist cleric's 12-year prison term and convicted him of being the "spiritual leader" of the Rawti Shax ("toward the mountain" in Kurdish) terror cell, which was dismantled by Italian police in the autumn of 2015. Sentences for five other cell members were also reportedly upheld.

Dr. Francesco Marone, a Research Fellow for the Center on Radicalization and International Terrorism at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), described the group's operations in an interview with Kurdistan 24 on Saturday.

"Italian investigators have argued that 'Mullah Krekar' was the leader of extremist network Rawti Shax, worthy of note because, among other things, it was a rather large transnational network and spread across different countries," Dr. Marone said.

The expert stated further that the group was "involved in the recruitment of radicals and foreign fighters who sought to travel to Syria and Iraq in order to fight."

"According to an original report on Italy's foreign fighters I co-authored based on exclusive government information, at least one foreign fighter (a Kosovar man, named Eldin Hodza) had close ties to the Rawti Shax. Hodza (born 1988) left for Syria from eastern Italy in January 2014 with the financial help of the Rawti Shax," Marone added.

Italian media reports suggest Italian investigators believe that the group had links to the so-called Islamic State.

According to a profile of the group by the Terrorism Research Analysis Consortium (TRAC), Rawti Shax claimed it aimed "to overthrow the Iraqi Kurdish regional government and replace it with a caliphate ruled by Shariah law."

In November 2015, the Italian police dismantled a cell of 17 individuals (16 Kurds and 1 Kosovar) linked to the group spread between Norway, the UK, Finland, and Italy, with seven members arrested in the latter.

"The Internet helped their transnational contacts. They also set up online and offline jihadist educational activities in Italy. According to Italian investigators, they were reportedly ready to plot attacks, but not in Italy," Dr. Marone said.

Krekar is the former leader of the extremist Islamist Ansar al-Islam group that the US targeted during its liberation of Iraq in 2003. Both the United Nations and the US consider him a terrorist.

Krekar, 63, has lived in Norway since 1991. The Scandinavian nation has been unable to legally deport him to Iraq due to fears he might face the death penalty.

He was jailed several times for death threats in 2012 and for praising the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris, France, in 2015.

However, in March 2020, Mullah Krekar was extradited from Norway to Italy to face trial. A Bolzano court sentenced Mullah Krekar and his followers to prison in July 2019.

Now he is reportedly held in the high-security prison of Sassari, Sardinia.

"This week the Court of Appeals in Bolzano upheld all the sentences. Generally speaking, this case confirms the tough position of Italian authorities on jihadism," Dr. Marone concluded.

Editing by Khrush Najari