Norwegian journalist and author Åsne Seirstad visited Brussels last month to launch the Dutch translation of her new book about two sisters who in 2013 left Oslo, Norway, to join the Islamic State in Syria. Her book describes the radicalisation process from a Norwegian angle but reflects similar situations across Europe. After studies in Russian, Spanish and the history of philosophy, she started her journalistic career in 1994 as a correspondent in Moscow, when she covered the war in Chechnya. After that followed assignments in other war-stricken countries such as Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria.
“I could see first-hand what motivates radicalisation,” she said at a discussion on youth radicalisation arranged jointly by the Norweigan embassy and the Egmont research institute in Brussels. “ I wanted to be a witness to history. Terror affects us all.”
Her first book on the topic of terrorism was about home-grown far-right extremist and convicted mass killer Anders Breivik, who happened to live on the same street as she did. She became also known for her book “The Book Seller of Kabul”. That book entangled her in a judicial dispute with the person she described and made her careful when starting a new project.
But the book on the two sisters, 16 and 19 years old, literally landed in her hands when she was contacted in 2014 by their father and asked to write a book about them. They signed a contract and it became her book to write as she wanted.
The book describes a Muslim family from Somalia that had settled in Oslo after the father, a former child soldier, had got a residence permit and brought his family, wife and three minor children, in a family reunification scheme. The father is liberal-minded and has a job. His wife is illiterate and unemployed, and afraid of losing the girls to Norway.
The girls were successful in school and had dreams of professional careers. But the mother, who was responsible for the upbringing of the children, thought otherwise and contacted an imam at a local mosque to teach them Islam. But he turned out to be an extreme salafist. That was the start of a nighmare for the family which almost led to its breakdown.
The imam painted a negative picture of Norway and influenced the girls to move from the country to support the Muslims fighting against the West. The first signs of radicalisation were shown in school but the teachers were helpless. The girls ended up in Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed Islamic Caliphate.
In the beginning both parents were proud that the girls had started to go to the mosque and learn more about Islam. When the girls then disappeared to Syria, the father was the only one to react. He was also the only one among Somalian parents in a similar situation who contacted the police and asked for help.
He went via Turkey on the same route as the girls, crossed the border to Syria, where he met fighters from the Al Nusra front, another radical organisation, which tried to help him. He found the girls and was imprisoned by the Islamic State but it was too late since they were already married and anyway did not want to be saved.
Sadiq Juma, father of the two girls.
“We get everything for free in Raqqa”, the girls wrote in the beginning. After the fall of Raqqa, they fled to the Iraqi border and have not been heard of since.
“The main reason for radicalisation in this case was existential, a search for meaning in life,”explains Åsne. “About 60 % of the foreign fighters from Norway are young criminals. 10 % of them are women.”
In Norway, Muslim immigrants are considered as well integrated. There are no migration ghettos and schools are mixed.
“I was afraid about writing a book against Islam or a Muslim community. But I have received many positive comments. Only the mosque concerned rejected me, although at the end its board agreed to meet me formally toghether with a lawyer,” says Åsne.
Åsne told the Brussels Times that foreign fighters would be prosecuted and risk 2 – 7 years in prison if they return to Norway. No woman has returned yet. The traces of the two sisters have disappeared. They might have fled to territory still held by the Islamic State or been detained in a camp in northeastern Syria together with reportedly 2,000 foreign women and children.
Åsne´s story was not familiar to Hadelin Federon, head of the unit for the prevention of radicalisation (PreRad) in Brussels. The unit works via professional local task forces on detecting the most troubling cases of radicalisation in time and increasing the resilience of families who might be affected. Belgium has adopted an action plan on combatting radicalisation, Plan R.
“The story in Norway happened so quickly as the result of a cultural shock and not because of lack of integration,” he explains. “Shedding your normal clothes makes you vulnerable since you basically are alone in a new country. A family with conflicting emotions can be both a risk factor or provide protection.”
“Families need to be educated about radicalisation. If they have questions, they should reach out and share their concerns with us,” he continues. “In Belgium, each case is different and has to be analysed in detail when preventing radicalisation or launching a reintegration process.”
Åsne says that there is much more awareness now in Norway among police, social workers and parents about radicalisation than when the two sisters left the country. In school, teachers need to confront pupils at the very first signs of radical views.
The Brussels Times