UPDATED: The US government announced on Tuesday that a 35-year-old Norwegian man who’s suspected of terrorist activities in Yemen had been added to its terrorist list. The man was legally declared a “Specifically Designated Global Terrorist,” meaning he was believed to pose a significant risk.
The man first caught the attention of Norwegian, US, British and European intelligence services in 2012, when he was suspected of being groomed by terrorist group Al-Qaida to carry out an aircraft attack in connection to the London Olympics. News bureau Associated Press (AP) reported that the US now viewed the man as fully terror-trained, awaiting to be assigned a terrorism target. In keeping with Norwegian press policy, the man was not identified pending conviction of any actual crime.
US authorities alleged the man, who has Norwegian parents and grew up in eastern Norway, had first traveled to Yemen after converting to Islam in 2008. He’s believed to have enlisted with local Al-Qaida fighters and learned to make bomb belts, explosives and car bombs. He reportedly has since made several trips between Norway and Yemen, the last in December 2011. At the time, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) interviewed some of the man’s acquaintances, who said he was supposed to have gone to learn Arabic and Sharia but they had not heard from him since.
The US also ramped up security measures on incoming flights last spring, fearing a terrorist attack from Yemen-based Al-Qaida operatives. The Norwegian is believed to be particularly dangerous because he has Nordic features and doesn’t resemble the stereotyped image of an Islamic terrorist. American authorities are particularly concerned about Westerners who have received training and explosives from the terrorist group.
Foreign Minister Børge Brende told NRK the situation was “very serious” and must be reviewed by the Norwegian authorities, including police intelligence agency PST.
Indicted in Norway
The man does not just face criminal prosecution under the US listing. It also means all of his assets under US jurisdiction have been frozen, all financial transfers to his accounts blocked, and he was forbidden from entering into “transactions with Americans or transactions to his advantage.”
While PST said it was aware of the man’s listing, the Norwegian authorities were not going to freeze his accounts. “No, we in Norway use the United Nations and European Union terrorist lists,” said communications adviser Siv Alsén. “That would therefore not be appropriate based on this.”
The tight-lipped PST would initially not give any other information, or comment on the man’s possible whereabouts. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Justice also declined further comment.
Later on Wednesday PST announced the man had been indicted and was wanted internationally. “I can confirm that we over time – independent of individual nation’s listings – have had an ongoing investigation,” PST’s acting assistant chief Thomas Blom told newspaper VG. “I can also confirm that he is suspected of violating section 147 a of the criminal code and charged under section 147 d.”
Section 147 a concerns the offense of committing a terrorist act with intent, punishable by up to 21 years in prison. That includes seriously disrupting a function of fundamental importance to society, such as legislative, executive or judicial powers, energy supplies, food or water, financial systems or health care; seriously intimidating a population; or improperly forcing public authorities or intergovernmental organizations to do, tolerate, or omit something of significance to their own country and organizations, or others.
PST confirmed to NRK on Thursday that the 35-year-old had not been charged under section 147 a. However, NRK reported the man was being investigated for having carried out terrorist acts.
Section 147 d concerns the formation, participation, recruiting or provision of financial or other material support to a terrorist organization, when the group has taken steps to realize its purpose through illegal means. It is punishable by up to six years imprisonment.
“We believe we have sufficient evidence that he has participated in a terrorist organization and that he has joined Al-Qaida, and that is the basis for the suspicion,” Blom said. “We have investigated the case over time, but I will not say anything about how long.”
Concerns increase over Syria
Meanwhile, the growing Islamist environment in Oslo and the number of young Muslims heading overseas to fight in conflicts remains a top concern for Norwegian authorities. An investigation by newspaper Aftenposten on Monday found that in the two years since the radical Islamist group The Prophet’s Ummah (Profetens Ummah) became active in Norway, around 50 Norwegians had traveled to the Syrian war, at least five of its members had been killed there, five were under investigation for terrorist acts, and several sat in prisons around the world.
At least five of the eight to 10 people killed in Syria who were from or had lived in Norway had connections to Profetens Ummah. The most high-profile was 25-year-old Egzon Avdyli, killed in April. Five are under PST investigation for having participated in, supported or recruited people to a terrorist organization, which has taken steps to achieve its goal with illegal means. Two of the five remained in custody. Two of the group’s most prominent members, Arfan Bhatti and Omar Cheblal, are in prison in Pakistan and Greece respectively. Cheblal’s asylum case was due to be heard by the Norwegian courts in autumn.
Aftenposten reported around half of those who had traveled to Syria had since returned to Norway, but many key members had remained in the war-torn country and connected with the extremist group ISIL. Among them was 24-year-old Bastian Vasquez, born in Norway to a Chilean family. He is believed to have been in Syria since the autumn of 2012, and recently featured in an ISIL video talking about killing Iraqi soldiers. PST announced an investigation into Vasquez.
The Prophet’s Ummah in hibernation
“One of the group’s central goals was to recruit young Muslims to holy war in Syria,” said journalist and author of a book on Norwegian jihad, Lars Akerhaug. “They have managed this. Even though Profetens Ummah as an organization does not play the same role any more, they have also succeeded in establishing a radical Islamist environment in the capital area.”
“The group is not emerging as a hierarchical and management-controlled organization,” said Brynjar Lia from Oslo University’s cultural studies and oriental languages department. “For the first time we have a militant Islamist environment which is both multi-ethnic and Norwegian-speaking. Profetens Ummah created a platform which has made the militant Islamist environment more visible and stronger. Profetens Ummah appeals first and foremost to youth.”
“The extremist environment is completely dependent on continual recruitment,” Akerhaug said. “The creation of a so-called caliphate in Syria and Iraq can also motivate more to make contact with such organizations and travel to take part in holy war.”
Kjetil Stormark from Hate Speech International said the group was currently “in hibernation” while central figures were overseas. “But if some of the leaders come back, Profetens Ummah can end up becoming more dangerous than ever,” he said. “If Bhatti comes back to Norway he alone, through his position and behaviour, will probably cause the PST to have to scale up its threat assessment of Profetens Ummah.”
The group’s spokesman Ubaydullah Hussain declined to answer Aftenposten’s questions, responding that the group was busy with other projects.