A young Norwegian Islamist convicted of recruiting others to the terrorist organization ISIL wants to destroy all the statues around Oslo’s City Hall and longs for the day when Muslim prayers will stream out of the landmark building’s tower instead of chimes. Ubaydullah Hussain said so himself, along with many other things, in a long-anticipated documentary that was aired Wednesday night on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
Production of the documentary, entitled Den norske islamisten (The Norwegian Islamist), played a key role in the state’s case against Hussain, who was sentenced on Tuesday to nine years in prison for being a member of ISIL himself and recruiting other Norwegians to join it. Hussain, a former spokesman for the Islamic organization Profetens Ummah, had allowed Norwegian journalist-turned filmmaker Adel Khan Farooq to follow his movements prior to his indictment on terrorism charges. Farooq, aided by established Norwegian filmmaker Ulrik Imtiaz Rolfsen, thus had a unique opportunity to document Hussain’s life and thoughts, and carry out his idea for a film that offers rare insight into how radical Islamists think and operate.
The documentary was intentionally withheld from airing nationwide on NRK until the Oslo City Court had issued its historic sentence against Hussain earlier in the week, so as not to influence the court’s decision. Hussain comes across as a friendly and even humourous young man who, like filmmaker Farooq, grew up in Oslo as the son of immigrant parents from Pakistan. He is shown as a boy wearing a Norwegian sweater and proudly reciting his knowledge of Norwegian geography. He marched in the annual Constitution Day parades on the 17th of May and was an avid football player, noting in the documentary, however, that football was allowed only after he had completed his schoolwork and regular studies of the Koran.
It wasn’t entirely clear when, how or why Hussain, now age 31, became sufficiently radicalized to take on the role of spokesman for Profetens Ummah, which he likened to a “brotherhood” that promoted Islam in Oslo. The organization demonstrated in front of both Parliament and the US Embassy in Oslo in 2012, waving the black flags used by ISIL before they became internationally known in conjunction with ISIL’s brutality in Syria and Iraq. Hussain was already landing in trouble with police at the time, for making threats, sending out provocative messages of support for terrorist attacks abroad, and spreading anti-Semitism. He was arrested several times and landed in court, with his defense attorney arguing, often successfully, that Hussain’s statements, however outlandish, were protected by Norwegian law guaranteeing freedom of expression.
The documentary touched on Hussain’s legal problems, which he claimed were the result of a “witch hunt” and have received wide coverage in Norwegian media over the past several year. The film also offered new coverage of Hussain’s trips to England and Denmark where he allied himself with other radical Islamic groups comprised of “brothers” depicted as disarmingly friendly as Hussain himself. They’re shown sharing meals and laughs at local cafés and in meetings, warmly hugging one another and a Hussain so touched by all the support for common beliefs that he seemed on the verge of tears. Some of those pictured in the documentary, however, later were convicted of inciting terrorism and even appearing in an ISIL propaganda film as an executioneer.
Back home in Norway, Hussain is shown out on the streets of Oslo carrying out missionary work for Islam. He clearly had a talent for engaging people in conversation, also young boys whom he encountered in the metro station at Tøyen. There’s little doubt Hussain was out recruiting converts to Islam, and then drawing them in to the fight in Syria and Iraq. He’s confronted at the end over why he never joined ISIL in Syria or Iraq himself, only to claim that his reasons were “between me and Allah (God),” and that he has an illness that prevents him from making long trips.
It was Hussain’s alleged recruitment of an 18-year-old Norwegian to join ISIL in Syria that ultimately led to Hussain’s prison sentence this week, which is likely to be appealed. He had attempted to portray himself as “a changed man” when his trial began last fall, and his high-profile Norwegian defense attorney John Christian Elden continues to claim that even all the provocative statements he made in the documentary (like his desire to “crush” City Hall’s statues, to impose Sharia law in Norway and his praise of terrorist attacks, his support for Osama bin Laden and ISIL) are merely “political positions” protected by freedom of expression. “It’s legal to argue for such changes in the law if he desires that,” Elden told newspaper Aftenposten on Thursday. “I don’t think he’ll succeed … but it’s part of our democracy that he can believe and express such things.”
Rolfsen, who edited Farooq’s documentary on Hussain and experienced having its film footage seized by police in a raid later deemed illegal, said it was important not to air it until after Hussain’s prison sentence had been announced. “It was important to have that end of this chapter in history,” Rolfsen told Aftenposten. “It’s also interesting to note that the police didn’t really need to raid my home.” He noted that other laws protecting journalists’ sources ultimately prevailed and secured production of the film, and that it now has been made public.