UPDATED: Prime Minister Erna Solberg broke off a long day of campaigning for the upcoming elections and cancelled a highly promoted TV debate Wednesday night, to quickly change into formal attire and deliver a serious message: “Norway won’t pay ransom … to cynical terrorists” who, she confirmed, have been holding a Norwegian citizen hostage since late January.
The 48-year-old Norwegian is believed to have been kidnapped shortly after he traveled to Syria via Turkey in January. His motivation for traveling to Syria is unclear and Norwegian authorities do not believe that he wanted to fight on any side of the devastating civil war in the country. Newspaper Aftenposten reported Thursday morning that he had no known ties to Syria before he left Norway to venture into the area, but he had engaged himself in the Syrian crisis via social media. He’d reported on January 24th, for example, that he was in Idlib, Syria and heading for Hama the next day. “I finally made it,” he wrote.
Media outlets operating within Norway were careful about identifying the man in an effort not to spread the publicity ISIL seeks and out of consideration for his own safety and that of his family members, whom Solberg said have been having a very hard time. He was later identified, though, as Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad, originally from Porsgrunn, but Norwegian media continued to distort ISIL’s own photos of him, to make him unrecognizable.
“It is difficult to even try to understand the fear and uncertainty (his family) have had to live with,” Solberg said at her hastily called press conference at 10pm, after the brutal terrorist group ISIL had published photos of the man online with a sign reading “Norwegian prisoner for sale.” Terror experts said Thursday that they don’t think he was kidnapped because he was Norwegian, but rather because he simply was “western” and, as such, a trading object that could be sold for profit.
Crisis team formed in January
Solberg said Norwegian authorities formed a crisis team shortly after being alerted to his kidnapping in January and have been assisting his family ever since. “They have been oriented about the development in the case tonight,” Solberg said, referring to ISIL’s publication of his photos and ransom demand. “I ask in the strongest of terms for the media to respect their privacy.”
She said the Norwegian government has taken the case “extremely seriously” since it first came up last winter. The foreign ministry formed a crisis team made up of the Norwegian police’s special hostage negotiations unit, the military intelligence agency E-tjenesten, the state police unit KRIPOS, the police intelligence unit PST and the Police Directorate.
“We mobilized all the relevant forces that Norway has,” Solberg said, adding that the work has been “very demanding.” It’s not clear which group actually kidnapped the Norwegian, and he since has been held by “various groups,” Solberg said. “The kidnappers have sent out a series of demands for considerable sums of ransom money,” she said.
He is now, according to ISIL’s own publication, being held by the Islamic extremist group that has forced millions of people in Syria and Iraq to flee for their lives. One of its leaders is still believed to be a young Norwegian of Chilean descent from Skien, Bastian Alexis Vasquez, who converted to Islam after growing up as a Catholic and who has bragged of ISIL’s killings in Iraq.
“ISIL’s brutality has no limits,” Solberg said Wednesday night. “Now it’s extended to one of our own.”
Still working for his release
She said Norwegian authorities were still working, also with colleagues in other countries and their intelligence services, to free the Norwegian hostage who’s being held along with a Chinese hostage. “We’re also in contact with various players in the region who have the potential to contribute to our work,” Solberg said.
“Our goal is to get our citizen home,” Solberg added. “But let me be clear: This is a very demanding case,” noting that “we neither can nor will cave in to pressure from terrorists and criminals. Norway won’t pay ransom. This is a principle from which we can’t deviate in a meeting with cyncial terrorists.”
Solberg said that paying ISIL’s ransom demands would only “increase the risk that other Norwegian citizens will be taken as terrorists. We are also obligated by the rule of law and UN resolutions to combat the financing of terrorism.”
She noted that the kidnapping would “unfortunately give the organization (ISIL) the attention they seek. This is a case that challenges us as a nation. We are facing forces who don’t understand any other language than violence and hatred.”