At least one Norwegian man was killed this week fighting in the Syrian civil war, and there are reports of several more recent deaths. The news broke the day after Norwegian authorities arrested three men over alleged terror plans on Tuesday, a tactic one extremism researcher warned could backfire.
The Norwegian citizen was killed in the past few days, reported newspaper Dagbladet on Wednesday. He was originally from Somalia, and lived in Norway for several years. The newspaper claimed there have been several more unconfirmed reports of recent deaths in Syria among Norwegian members of the listed terrorist organization Den islamske staten i Irak og i Levanten (The Islamic State in Iraq and Levanten, ISIL).
Norway’s police intelligence unit PST (Politiets Sikkerhetstjeneste) was tight-lipped on the reports. “We have no comment on Dagbladet’s information,” information manager Martin Bernsen told the paper. “What I can say is that we have recently been informed that many of those who have traveled to Syria from Norway have been killed,” he told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
“We have not received any reports about this,” said Eskil Sivertsen from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Utenriksdepartementet) press office. “We are working to check if the information is true.”
At least seven Norwegian Islamists had previously been confirmed killed in Syria, all with ISIL connections, reported Dagbladet. A month ago 25-year-old Norwegian-Albanian Islamist Egzon Avdyli was confirmed dead. At the time the Norwegian death toll was estimated at between five to 10, but authorities said it was difficult to know exactly how many Norwegians had gone to fight in Syria, and how many had been killed. NRK reported about 50 citizens are believed to have traveled to the conflict zone.
Two more questioned
Dagbladet said a further two men were brought in as witnesses by PST on Tuesday afternoon, after three men were arrested in the morning and charged with supporting or participating in a terrorist organization. The two were both picked up in Bærum, near Oslo. One of the men was a 28-year-old of Algerian origin, while the other man had a Kosovar Albanian background. PST said one of the men was released on Tuesday evening, while the other was charged with obstructing police work, reported NRK.
The three accused were due to appear in the Oslo court house on Wednesday, where police planned to request they be remanded for four weeks in custody.
Charges may increase radicalization
Associate Professor Lars Gule is an Islam and extremism expert at the University of Oslo and Akershus. He told NRK the custody period would have to be extended until the case came before the court, otherwise the men would simply travel. Gule questioned how closely the men had been monitored since at least two of them returned to Norway from earlier Syrian trips, and argued it was extremely difficult to prove someone had been involved in terrorist acts in a conflict-ravaged country.
“These groups are in a civil war, and they want to join to fight in it,” Gule said. “Is it sufficient to say that these are terrorist groups? It is exciting, because this is advanced and important law. Are we talking about terrorism, or is it fighting in a civil war with terrorist-like actions as instruments?”
He said it would be easier to prove the men had supported ISIL, and believed PST was using the matter as a test case. Gule warned however that instead of acting as a deterrent, PST’s action could cause more harm because injustice and abuse are the biggest triggers of radicalization.
“In one way it is good that PST is using the signal power,” he said. “But it is a strong tool to use custody before someone has done anything wrong. It could easily backfire if you use this mistakenly, and then you get the opposite effect. Supporters and sympathizers will perhaps peel away because of this, but the core will become further radicalized because they then see that the West threatens them, and they get this them-and-us mindset confirmed.”
Islam researcher Knut Vikør at the University of Bergen agreed in part that the move could increase the perception of the police as the enemy, but argued the people the PST were targeting were already radicalized. He said the point of the action was not just related to influencing ideological standpoints, but more importantly was about protecting Norway.
“PST also fears that these people, through training and participation in the war in Syria, can get the intention and capacity to carry out terrorist actions in Norway reinforced as well,” Vikør said.