The Norwegian government released its 30-point action plan on Tuesday for fighting radicalization and violent extremism. It included proposals to punish citizens who go to fight in the Syrian conflict, stricter measures to deny visas to war criminals, and a unified approach including schools, police and sports clubs to stamp out extremism from a young age.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg was joined by ministers and leaders from each of the government’s nine ministries at the Police Academy (Politihøgskolen), to show how important and wide-ranging the action plan was. It contained 30 measures to detect and curb radicalization in young people, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
“These are 30 specific measures to get prevention efforts on track, but I want the plan to be more than that,” Solberg said. “I want it to be the start of a new initiative in our community to prevent radicalization. To that end, all citizens must take responsibility so that all residents feel included, that young people do not fall outside and become easy victims for extreme environments.”
Measures to address the growing number of young Norwegians heading to Syria to fight in the civil war were a key inclusion. Both the police and military intelligence units, E-tjenesten and PST, have warned the greatest threat to Norway’s security is posed by people who go to fight in such conflicts and return even more radicalized, with weapons training. The intelligence units estimated up to 50 Norwegians have traveled to Syria in recent years, and others have taken part in terrorist acts in Somalia.
Late last month PST arrested three men suspected of planning to join terrorist organization ISIL in Syria, on the grounds that they posed a threat to Norway and its allies. The law banning participation in an armed conflict with a terrorist organization currently applies only to listed terrorist groups. Now the government said it is working on a bill to “criminally regulate private persons’ participation in armed conflict.”
“We must come back to the alignment of this,” said Justice and Public Security Minister Anders Anundsen, noting it would create some fundamental challenges. “What is important for us is to ensure that PST and the police get a better tool to deal with these challenges.” He said the government is yet to decide whether they’ll make it illegal to fight in the war in Syria, but the goal was for broad-reaching regulation covering anyone with terrorist aims involved in armed conflict.
PST chief Benedicte Bjørnland said the preventative effect was key, because people may be more reluctant to travel to war zones if they could face prosecution back home in Norway. “Punishment is one of 30 measures in this plan,” she told NRK. “We welcome such a study because the way things are now, it is difficult for PST to put its foot down over people we have reason to believe are on their way to Syria.”
Anundsen did not rule out the possibility of making any participation in an armed conflict illegal. “That may be, but there are also a number of other challenges created by such an in-principle approach,” he said. “Our goal is to prevent more from traveling in reality, while ensuring a simpler legal recognition of those who actually travel out. It will become more difficult to commit serious crimes abroad.”
Another key measure was preventing extremism before it took hold in young people. Under the plan, local police districts would be given responsibility for prevention efforts. A key contact in each department would be trained in effective intervention methods and given an oversight of available resources, and communicate with PST and local cooperating partners. The goal was to give PST more insight at an earlier stage.
“We are not talking about the police infiltrating or being hidden, but taking part in the debates, and showing the police’s face in the forums,” Anundsen explained.
Schools, police, child welfare, health services, sports clubs and social services would all play a role in meeting radicalization early, said Solberg. “Young people who begin to express very radical beliefs would not be met with passivity, neither at school nor by parents,” she said. “It means that all of us must take a greater responsibility, parents must take a greater responsibility, local police must take a greater responsibility, the school authorities must take a greater responsibility. We must build a tighter network to detect young people who begin to fall out.”
Measures against war criminals
The plan also seeks to strengthen Norway’s capacity to deal with people who have committed war crimes or are suspected of terrorist acts. The government is considering schemes similar to those in countries like the UK, where suspects or criminals with dual nationality could lose their passports.
Currently war crime perpetrators cannot seek asylum in Norway, but may be granted residency through student or family reunification visas. “That is a situation we do not want, so we will sharpen the ability to expel people who are excluded from asylum and refugee status,” Anundsen said.
Islam ‘witch hunt’
Professor Per Fugelli at the University of Oslo warned the government’s plan had the potential to rival the witch hunts against socialists and communists seen decades ago in the US and Norway. He said governments should not be naive in the face of radical Islam, but should not be hysterical.
“In a democratic country radical Muslims and a love of Muhammed should be allowed,” Fugelli told NRK. “It should be legal to work against Norwegian values for Islamic values, just like Christian missionaries do in other parts of the globe.”
He said he was especially concerned about measures to get schools, nurses and sports clubs to monitor and report on vulnerable children. “I’m getting scared. If the criteria it takes to enter is sudden beard growth or withdrawal from society, then there are many who find themselves in the danger zone. We may get a society marked by too much suspicion.”
Solberg said the measures were not to create an “informer society,” but one that cared more about troubled young people. “It is important to start with conversation,” she said. “Who will have that conversation is chosen locally, based on who is nearest to the child.”
The 30-point plan included more research, developing guidance materials, better training, conferences, support for NGOs, internet monitoring, measures to counteract hate speech, and closer monitoring of people who have fought in conflicts abroad.