A woman and her children were retrieved from a detention camp in Syria, spurring debate at home after she was charged with being part of a terrorist organization.
Before the woman left for Syria in 2013, she had grown up on the eastern side of Oslo in a Norwegian-Pakistani family, playing soccer and attending university, according to a recent profile. In Syria, she ended up living in Islamic State territory, marrying twice in the Caliphate and having two children, officials say.
When she and her children were plucked from a Kurdish-controlled detention camp in Syria and arrived back on Norwegian soil on Saturday, she was taken into custody for fear that she was a security risk.
The family was being kept under surveillance and medical observation in an Oslo hospital, and Norwegian news outlets reported on Monday that the woman would remain in custody for at least four more weeks.
The Norwegian government suggested that the decision to bring back the unidentified woman, now 29, had been a humanitarian one: One of her two children — a boy, 5, and a girl, 3 — was believed to be seriously ill. But the move has prompted a national debate over what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said was “a difficult consular case,” and had threatened to bring down the government.
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The decision was met with staunch opposition from the government’s coalition partner, the anti-immigrant and law-and-order Progress Party, and there were suggestions that if the matter was not settled to its liking, it could blow up the coalition that holds up the government.
The party stopped short of doing that on Monday, while still registering its discontent. After an emergency meeting on Monday, the Progress Party said that it would withdraw from the four-party governing coalition, but that it would still continue to support the government.
A spokesman for the party, Jon Engen-Helgheim, said last week that he strongly disagreed with the decision to bring the woman home. She has been charged by the Norwegian Security Police with “participation in a terrorist organization” for joining the Nusra Front and the Islamic State. The charge is punishable by up to six years in prison on conviction.
“This woman has turned her back on us,” Mr. Engen-Helgheim said. “She hates all that we stand for. She joined a gruesome terror army and contributed to prosecution, decapitation, burnings and the murder of innocent women, children and adults.”
“We do not want her kind in Norway, and we certainly don’t want Norwegian authorities spending enormous resources getting them to Norway,” he added.
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With the defeat of the Islamic State and the militants’ loss of territory in the Middle East, countries across Europe have had to grapple with the return of those associated with the group. Turkey’s decision to release ISIS detainees has also forced Western European nations to confront a problem they had long sought to avoid: what to do about the potential return of radicalized, often battle-hardened Europeans to countries that do not want them back.
By November 2019, there were 12,300 foreigners detained in camps in Syria, including over 8,700 children from more than 40 nations, according to estimates by the charity Save the Children. A report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed similar figures.
Preparation to repatriate the woman to Norway began in October, according to officials. Since March 2019, she had been held in the Al-Hol camp in northeastern Syria, along with thousands of other women and children. (Four other ISIS-affiliated women from Norway remain in Syrian camps.)
Officials said that she was married to an ISIS fighter named Bastian Vasquez, a Norwegian with a Chilean background. He went missing under unclear circumstances in 2015. Later, the woman married another ISIS fighter. Both of their stories were told by the author Asne Seierstad in her biography of foreign fighters in Syria, “Two Sisters.” In the book, the woman is identified by the name “Emira.”
Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that she and her children had been repatriated because of fears that her son was seriously ill.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg of Norway told the state broadcaster NRK on Thursday, “What is important is that the presumably ill child now can get medical treatment in Norway.”
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“Our dilemma was hence to bring home a child with his mother, or risk that a sick 5-year-old child might die,” she said. “To me it was important that the boy came home to Norway.”
Norway is led by a center-right coalition of four parties — Ms. Solberg’s Conservatives, along with the Progress Party, and the smaller Liberal and Christian parties — that has governed Norway since 2013.
Its most recent incarnation took shape last year, when it included all four parties for the first time, but the decision by the Progress Party to pull out means that Ms. Solberg will continue to lead but as the head of a minority government.
Under Norway’s penal code, raising children within Islamic State territory qualifies as participation in a terrorist organization, prosecutors argued in the first case against a Norwegian woman who had left for Syria. The woman, who was caught on her way to the country, was convicted.
Many Norwegians say they feared that the 29-year-old woman’s return posed a security threat to the country, but the police did not raise the terrorism threat level.
“Norway is well equipped with legal framework to deal with returnees from the Islamic State,” said Magnus Ranstorp, an associate professor and head of terrorism research at the Swedish Defense University in Stockholm. Mr. Ranstorp has served as an expert witness in some of the trials against fighters returning to Norway from Syria.
Mr. Ranstorp said that about 140 people had left Norway for Syria, and that the Scandinavian country had given about 10 returnees “severe convictions” since 2012. In neighboring Sweden, in contrast, about 300 had left for Syria, 150 returned, and only two have been prosecuted.
“The woman remains a security concern,” he acknowledged. “But at least she will be under control and surveillance in Norway. Apart from France, no European-born returnees from the war in Syria had carried out new terror attacks in Europe.”
“France has 500 terrorist convicts and 1,200 people in jail who are involved in Islamic State ideology,” Mr. Ranstorp noted. “Within the next two years, many of them will be released from prison. The security services will be very busy handling this situation.”
The woman in Norway will plead not guilty to all charges, her lawyer, Nils Christian Nordhus, said on Sunday. He said that she was willing to cooperate with the police and had been questioned.
“This is a woman who wants to face her past,” Mr. Nordhus said, but added: “It is up to the prosecutors to prove their charge. She is not charged with combat or having a military role. The core of the case is the fact that she was in Syria and had relations to people connected to terrorist organizations.”
He declined to answer questions about whether she had become radicalized. “She has had a gruesome time, especially the time in camp,” he said, “but she says that her entire time in Syria was a nightmare.”