Erik Solheim, the former Norwegian politician who spent years brokering peace on Sri Lanka, was among those wondering whether the brutal terrorist group IS was behind the Easter attacks on the island nation. The speculation comes just as the Norwegian government is under pressure to bring home IS widows and their children from refugee camps in Syria and Iraq.
Solheim, who later traveled the world as a top UN official, told Norwegian Broacasting (NRK) that Sri Lanka has been a stable country in recent years. As a UN envoy he led negotiations to end Sri Lanka’s civil war and knows the country well. He wonders whether IS has exploited an opportunity to spread terror in other parts of the world because the group has been dramatically weakened in the Middle East.
“This is speculation at an early point, but historically, Muslims on Sri Lanka have been a very moderate group,” Solheim told NRK. “There have been very few extremists and hardly any violence on Sri Lanka that’s tied to Islam. It’s been the Buddhists, Hindus and other groups who turned to violence.”
The coordinated attacks on Easter Sunday morning, which had left nearly 300 people confirmed dead by midday on Monday, aren’t typical of Sri Lanka’s other groups either, according to Solheim. “This is all still new, but it can be that IS, which has been defeated as a military group in the Middle East, sees itself as well-served by spreading terror in other parts of the world, to show that they still exist.”
Solheim, who had to resign his latest UN post but retains respect for his efforts on Sri Lanka, thinks it “can be as simple as acting where there’s an opening.” It doesn’t take many extremists, he noted, to carry out an operation like this, “even if it demands a certain amount of organizing.”
Fuelling IS debate in Norway
No one had claimed responsibility for the attacks on Sri Lanka as of Monday, fueling the speculation. Sri Lanka’s government blames a local Islamist group that it thinks had support from “an international network.” Neither Solheim nor two other professors at the University of Oslo think it’s tied to either the Tamil liberation movement or radical Buddhist groups. Iselin Frydenlund, who specializes in religious studies, claimed Tamils would never attack Catholic targets, while Øivind Fuglerud ruled out Buddhist attacks against the hotels that were targets. Nationalists on Sri Lanka have plagued Christians, said Frydenlund, while Catholics and Muslims on Sri Lanka have sought more protection as minorities. Muslims themselves, who lived peacefully on Sri Lanka for centuries, have also been targets since the civil war ended, she said.
That can boost speculation that Islamic extremists were behind the attacks, because of radicalization and, as Solheim noted, a perceived need by groups like IS to prove that they still exist. That plays into a debate in Norway at present over whether the Norwegian government should actively try to help and repatriate IS women and children who are Norwegian citizens. Several humanitarian organizations and the Christian Democrats’ party, which is part of Norway’s conservative coalition government, think the government has been much too passive on the issue and that they should bring the IS women and children home.
Norway’s police intelligence agency PST thinks there may be at least 40 children born to Norwegian IS fighters or Norwegian widows of IS fighers who are currently living in squalid camps in former IS territory in Syria and Iraq. “We know about two women with three children at the camp in Al-Hol, in eastern Syria,” Foreign Minister Ine Erikesen Søreide told newspaper Aftenposten just before the Easter holidays.
Søreide claims the Norwegian government “is actively working to find solutions” for the Norwegian children in Syria. She’s working with 12 other European countries faced with the same dilemma over how to help the children of IS women.
The government has repeatedly claimed it will not send ministry officials to the camps to retrieve the women of children. They are free to seek consular help on their own, but humanitarian organizations claim that’s unrealistic given the distance, personal expense or access to travel to the nearest Norwegian embassy or consulate.
“The concern for the children is very high,” Søreide said, adding, however, that the risks of kidnapping or terrorist attacks are high for anyone trying to liberate women and children from the camps. It may be higher now, if the attacks on Sri Lanka were carried out by Islamic extremists keen to preserve IS. The women, meanwhile, face criminal charges of aiding or abetting terrorism upon their return to Norway, and there are fears some of the grown children may also have been radicalized.
While some IS women have expressed regret for joining IS, others remain committed to it. One 32-year-old Norwegian woman from Trondheim who’s now living at the Al-Hol camp in Syria described her time with IS as “the best four years of my life.” She needs an operation for a back injury and hopes she can have surgery back home in Norway, but claims she still wants to live among Muslims. She enjoyed keeping house and making food while the men were out fighting, even after being widowed twice.
“We had a very good life in the Islamic State,” she told Aftenposten. “When I compare it to how life was in Norway, I believe the Islamic State gave us better treatment than any other place.” She doesn’t view IS as defeated: “I think this is just an ordeal right now, because Allah says in the Koran that he will test Muslims. I know Allah will come to help us.”