One of three Norwegian defendants on trial in Oslo for allegedly fighting for terrorist organizations in the Middle East testified in court on Wednesday that he would never attack Norway. He also denied, as has one of his co-defendants photographed with armed members of the Islamic State (IS), that he fully objects to IS’ brutality.
“It’s not in the thoughts of any of those who travel (from Norway), to get weapon training so we can come back and attack Norway,” the 28-year-old Norwegian man from an Albanian family living in suburban Bærum testified in court on Wednesday. Asked whether he distances himself from IS and its tactics, Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that he said he did. “Who supports a terrorist attack?” he was quoted as asking rhetorically.
The 28-year-old is on trial along with his younger brother and a 30-year-old Somalian-Norwegian in Norway’s first trial involving Norwegians indicted for having allegedly supported or fought for terrorist organizations. The Somalian-Norwegian has also denied he fought for IS, claiming that the prosecution’s photographic evidence of him posing with armed comrades was simply “a testosteron picture,” like those that “all guys like to take of themselves.” He admitted he joined IS, but wasn’t aware that was illegal.
Newspaper Dagsavisen, however, reported how the prosecutors have photos showing him brandishing a Kalishnikov, and that he wrote on the back of them, apparently to his son: “Here are pictures of me. Show them to mama. Let (his infant daughter) see them when she grows up, if I’m not here any longer.”
“If I die in Syria,” he added in court, but dismissed the photos as him just showing off. He claimed that he only carried weapons to protect himself, not to use. “You have to take precautions when you’re in a war zone,” he said.
In at least one of the photos, however, is his childhood friend from Skien, Bastian Vasquez, a Chilean-Norwegian who later became an Islamic extremist and has bragged on IS-produced videos about IS battles and killings in Iraq. Vasquez is believed to have become a leader of IS.
The 28-year-old testifying on Wednesday claimed, as did his co-defendant, that they only traveled to the Middle East and North Africa to offer humanitarian aid. He testified that he converted to Islam in May 2011, while he studied and that he traveled back to Norway from Syria to continue his studies for a master’s degree. He earlier worked in nightclubs but said he cut off his old friends and his “old life” when he began to study Islam.
‘Wanted to help’
He claimed he initially traveled to Syria because he wanted to help the country’s civilian population and learn Arabic. He said it was “absolutely wrong” that Norway’s police intelligence unit PST has connected him to IS.
He testified that he first traveled to Egypt in 2012 to celebrate Ramadan and visit his brother (who was a member of the Islamic group Profetens Ummah in Norway and later killed) and then traveled on to Lebanon. From there he said he made contact with a man who drove him to a refugee camp near the border to Syria.
“I saw a lot of things you don’t see here in Norway,” he testified. “It was so brutal. Women and children without arms and legs, mutilated.” He said he then joined a group that hiked over the border Syria and then drove to Al Zabadani, northwest of Damascus. There he made contact with several insurgent groups and said he joined one of them, Ahrar ash-Sham. He said that he had a full-time job for a while, gathering and delivering food, medicine and ammunition. After a while, though, he wanted to get out of Syria because of the intense warfare. “I said I hadn’t gone there to fight, just to help with humanitarian aid,” he testified.
He was nonetheless sent to the front line but testified that he just stood guard there. “That was the closest I came (to battle), but it was just to protect the civilians,” he said. “They needed me. I held a weapon but I never had any weapon training. We were never attacked and I have never shot anyone.”
His younger brother, age 25, is also on trial and all three defendants face up to six years in prison. They have all denied criminal guilt. Their trial is due to run until March 27.