- North East Counter Terrorism Unit said four men had been arrested in UK
- Seventeen people were targeted in raids across Europe including Italy
- Investigators said the network was trying to free Najmuddin Ahmad Faraj
- It is alleged they were plotting to kidnap British diplomats on the web
Four men have been arrested in raids across England over fears an ISIS-supporting terror cell were plotting on the dark web to kidnap British diplomats in an attempt to get their leader freed from a Norwegian jail.
The North East Counter Terrorism Unit (CTU) detained the men after Italian officers swooped on a European jihadist network.
Investigators said the network was trying to free Norway-based fundamentalist preacher Najmuddin Ahmad Faraj - also known as Mullah Krekar - who is listed as a terrorist by the United States and United Nations.
Italian anti-terrorism chief Giuseppe Governale told a news conference in Rome: 'This is the most important international police operation in Europe in 20 years.'
Four men have been arrested in England in connection with a counter-terrorism operation led by Italian authorities. Investigators said the network was trying to free Norway-based fundamentalist preacher Najmuddin Ahmad Faraj (pictured) who is listed as a terrorist by the United States and United Nations
The 59-year-old, a Kurdish Iraqi, has been living in Norway since 1991. He has been at risk of deportation since 2003 after Norwegian authorities ordered him to be expelled as a threat to national security
Krekar was sentenced last month to 18 months in jail for praising the slaying of cartoonists at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo, which had lampooned Islam and other religions.
He was also found guilty of urging others to kill a Kurdish immigrant in Norway.
He had been a founder of the now-defunct Ansar al-Islam insurgent group of Sunni Kurds, which aimed to install an Islamic caliphate in Iraqi Kurdistan and merged with the Islamic State group last year.
After moving to live in exile in Norway in 1991, Krekar formed another group, Rawti Shax, to inspire a new generation of Iraqi Kurds in Europe to eventually return to violently overthrow the government in the Iraqi Kurdish region and replace it with a radical caliphate, Italian police said in a statement.
TERRORIST MULLAH KREKAR
He allegedly controlled the group, even from prison, using the mafia method of passing pizzini, small folded up pieces of paper containing high level communication or orders, Sky TG in Italy reported.
The operation, named Jweb, led by Italian anti-terrorism police had been going for five years investigating the structure and operations of this terrorist organisation, Eurojust said.
According to the Italian investigation, unlike Ansar Al Islam, Rawti Shax arose and is based in Europe, with cells communicating and operating via the dark web, or the hidden part of the internet.
It was especially active in Germany, Switzerland, the UK, Finland, Italy, Greece, Sweden, Norway, Iraq, Iran and Syria.
He developed a network of followers across Europe who communicated by Internet chats, which Italian police monitored, leading to today's arrests.
Conversations intercepted on Sykpe revealed the plan was to attack an embassy in Baghdad or in the south.
One recording said: 'The plan is to attack an embassy in Baghdad or in the south and in Iran also in the Arab countries.
But not in Europe. And have two or three guests. They will never return to Norway as long as they live.
‘Me and another brother in an another country, he has asked that we should be alert and form a secret team with two networks. He wanted to know if I am ready. I said I am at his disposition and will obey.’
According to NBC, he also allegedly set up an online 'secret committee', which planned violent assaults including terrorist attacks in Norway and the kidnapping of foreign diplomats.
The planned kidnap of foreign diplomats was designed to leverage his release from custody in Norway, according to the officials.
Arrest warrants were issued for 17 people across Europe and 13 were arrested. Six were held in Italy, four in Britain, three in Norway but four could not be found and are presumed to be in the Middle East.
The suspects are accused of international terrorism association.
Italian public prosecutor against the mafia Giancarlo Capaldo said: ‘The group radicalised people so as to send fighters to jihad in Iraq and Syria with the aim of creating an Islamic Caliphate in Iraqi Kurdistan.’
‘The investigation began when the group Ansar al Islam affiliated to Al Qaeda was destroyed in Iraq. Its components dispersed in Europe and formed a new organisation which coordinated online and during the years of the investigation transferred its affiliation to ISIS.’
They are also accused of recruiting at least five people in Europe who traveled to Iraq and Syria to join ISIS, authorities said.
A video on Rep TV shows Italian officers leaving a police station before the raids took place.
Giovanni Governale of the Italian police's Special Operations Group told journalists the operation had 'dismantled an integrated cell that included - in addition to Italy - Britain, Norway, Finland, Switzerland and Germany'.
Mr Governale said that the swoop had allowed police to scupper 'a process of recruitment, of sending (fighters) into combat abroad'.
He said the network 'was about to continue sending many other jihadists abroad, it was about to carry out attacks, including suicide bombings, to try to free their chief, Mullah Krekar'.
Krekar, 59, a Kurdish Iraqi, has been at risk of deportation since 2003 after Norwegian authorities ordered him to be expelled as a threat to national security.
Police in the northeast of England have arrested four men in connection with a with a counter-terrorism operation (file picture of police officer)
While courts have upheld the ruling, Norwegian law bars him from being deported to Iraq, where he risks the death penalty.
Yesterday's raid coordinated by the North East CTU unit were assisted by officers from Humberside, Derbyshire, South Yorkshire and the West Midlands.
Police said the four men will appear before Westminster Magistrates Court but did not specify a date.
The four are aged 38, 32, 33 and 52, and were held at addresses in Hull, Derby, Birmingham and Sheffield respectively.
A spokeswoman for the North East CTU 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.'
The arrests took place under European Arrest Warrants.
The Norwegian suspects face a court hearing Friday in Oslo, Norway, pending a possible deportation to Italy, said a spokeswoman for Norway's security service.
The North East CTU was set up in April in 2007 and is one of five Counter Terrorism Units designed to strengthen the UK's response to the threat of terrorism.
West Yorkshire Police has responsibility for the North East CTU.