Three young men who have been tied to Islamic extremism in the past three years all grew up in a small town in Norway’s northernmost county of Finnmark. They had all arrived in Norway as asylum seekers from former Soviet republics in the Caucasus and Central Asia, areas that have spawned several others who have carried out terrorist attacks abroad, most recently in Stockholm.
It was just a day after the Stockholm attack, carried out by a man from Uzbekistan, that a 17-year-old from Vadsø in Northern Norway set off a bomb scare in Oslo last week. The young terror suspect now in custody in Oslo, after he was found in possession of an explosive device, is the latest to have grown up in Vadsø. It’s a town of less than 6,000 inhabitants on the scenic coast of the Varangerfjord. Vadsø has a long history of immigration, mostly from Finland, and has taken in scores of refugees in recent years. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that during the past three years alone, Vadsø has also taken in 91 young asylum seekers who arrived in Norway on their own.
Now questions are rising over how well the recent arrivals are being integrated. The 17-year-old terror suspect arrived at the age of 10 with his father, mother and siblings, all of them Russian citizens from the Caucasus. He attended Norwegian schools and became fluent in Norwegian, but nonetheless began showing enough signs of interest in the terrorist organization ISIL that worried acquaintances contacted authorities.
“We took our concerns to the town leadership in Vadso, to the police and to child welfare officials (Barnevernet),” one of the leaders of a martial arts and athletics organization where the 17-year-old was a member told Aftenposten. He criticized a lack of follow-up and programs to keep teenage refugees and young asylum seekers out of trouble.
Vadsø officials defend integration efforts
The 17-year-old reportedly was an acquaintance of two other refugees from Chechenya who worked out at the same athletics organization. Both later traveled to Syria in 2014, allegedly to fight with ISIL. One of them, born in 1993, is believed to have been killed in Syria. The other is believed to still be living, now with a wife and children, in ISIL-controlled areas of Syria.
The 17-year-old allegedly made comments in support of ISIL that prompted leaders of the athletics group to react. Another 18-year-old acquaintance, however, told Aftenposten that he never heard any disturbing remarks from the 17-year-old, who performed well in the athletics organization but moved to Oslo to attend high school.
Vadsø officials defended themselves against criticism that they haven’t done enough to prevent radicalization within the immigrant community in Vadsø. “We have a good apparatus for spotting problems among our immigrant youth,” Vadsø Mayor Hans-Jacob Bønå told Aftenposten. He pointed, for example, to a “contact forum” consisting of representatives from the police, PST (Norway’s police intelligence and anti-terror unit), the town council and the asylum center in Vadsø.
Bønå said he was aware of the concerns around the 17-year-old, who came from the same area of the Caucasus as the two others who left Norway to fight for ISIL. He couldn’t say whether the three were all friends, but stressed that Vadsø officials also are developing a project in cooperation with PST and local police to hinder radicalization and violent extremism.
The 17-year-old continues to deny having anything to do with ISIL or Islamic extremism himself. Asked what he was doing with an explosive device on a Saturday night in downtown Oslo, his defense attorney claimed it was “just a boyish prank.” She said he claimed he was taking the device to an area where there were no people when he was stopped by police. They’d been tipped by an off-duty security guard who spotted the teenager kneeling down behind a parked car with the box containing the explosive device. The security guard has since been hailed by Justice Minister Per-Willy Amundsen for reporting such suspicious activity.
PST and police claim they are taking the incident very seriously and investigating it intensely. PST officials confirmed they were aware that he allegedly had shown extremist attitudes two years ago, when he was just 15. “We have worked in a preventative manner with him,” PST chief Benedicte Bjørnland told Aftenposten. She said PST officials, however, “had no reason to believe that he intended to acquire improvised explosives” that, according to her colleague Signe Aalling, “could have injured people.”
PST, which took over the investigation from Oslo police, now thinks it’s most important to reveal the 17-year-old’s motivations, intentions and whether he was acting alone. “We’re talking about Islamic extremism here,” Bjørnland said. “Our investigation will hopefully reveal whether the police have averted a terrorist attack.”