UPDATED: The Norwegian-Pakistani widow of a Norwegian IS terrorist faced a custody hearing Monday, after landing back in Oslo with her two ailing children over the weekend. She continues to claim she’s innocent of the terrorism charges against her, while setting off the threat of a government crisis that was more real than ever Monday morning.
The woman is not contesting an Oslo County Court order that she be held in police custody for at least four weeks. Police intelligence agency PST, which handles terrorism cases, said later on Monday that the woman is cooperating with police. She’s charged with taking part in two terror organizations, from 2013 to 2019.
The country itself faced a dramatic day Monday after news broke that the Progress Party, which has mightily objected to the repatriation of the IS widow and her children, was convening an extraordinary national board meeting at midday. Party leader Siv Jensen, who has served as Norway’s finance minister for the past six-and-a-half years, was already due to meet with Prime Minister Erna Solberg to present a list of new demands aimed at compensating Progress for their loss over the repatriation. The news of the board meeting immediately sparked reports that Progress was instead “on its way out” of Solberg’s conservative coalition.
“Today we will have a national board meeting, and the board is the entity that will decide both the government question and other important questions,” said Jon Engen Helgheim, a top Progress politician who served as party spokesman on state broadcaster NRK’s Politisk kvarter program Monday morning.
(A few hours later Progress did indeed withdraw from the government coalition.)
Helgheim’s remark came after increasing numbers of Progress politicians had told NRK that they didn’t think Solberg’s four-party coalition “will survive this crisis.” The other three parties’ decision to rescue the IS widow’s five-year-old son (who’s believed to be seriously ill) and accept that both the woman and her three-year-old daughter also be repatriated, was “the last straw” for Progress. They didn’t want to help the woman in any way, only the children. The conflict is rooted in her refusal to let her children travel without her.
It reportedly got worse late last week after many Progress members claimed Solberg had raised questions about their morals. “There’s nothing wrong with the Progress Party’s morals,” Jensen snapped back. Although she and Solberg have cooperated well since first forming the government in 2013, Jensen has had to appease the most right-wing convervative factions in her party as well.
Widow pleads innocent
The 29-year-old woman at the center of the conflict, meanwhile, continues to claim that she had nothing to do with actual terrorist activities over the past several years. Newspaper Aftenposten has reported that she’s charged with traveling to the Middle East in 2013 and being involved first with the Al-Qaida-linked terror group Jabhat al-Nusra and later the Islamic State (IS).
She has told Aftenposten, however, that she merely was looking for a way to avoid being forced by her family in Oslo to marry a Pakistani cousin. She was born in Pakistan herself but emigrated to Norway with her family as a toddler and grew up in Oslo. Journalist Joachim Førsund, who has made a podcast series on Norwegians who went to fight in Syria, has told NRK that she grew up on Oslo’s east side in a “relatively normal Norwegian-Pakistani family, played football, went skating and lived a normal life.”
She reportedly was studying at university level when she chose to travel to the Middle East, first to Turkey. “I knew that my family wanted me to marry a cousin, I just wanted to get away from that,” she told Aftenposten when it sent a team to the Al-Hol refugee camp where she was living last spring. She said she had become acquainted online with the Chilean-born Norwegian citizen Bastian Vasquez, who had grown up himself in Norway, became radicalized and emerged as a terrorist in the Middle East.
She says she married Vasquez (who later was killed), went to Syria with him and they had a son, who’s now said to be seriously ill and was taken immediately upon arrival early Saturday to Ullevål University Hospital. She claims it was not her choice to move to Syria with Vasquez and that it also was “a mistake” to meet him in Turkey.
Aftenposten reported that after his death around 2016, she married another man and had her daughter with him. His fate was unclear. The IS widow claims that during the five years she was in Syria, she only made food, washed clothes and cleaned the house, but Norwegian courts have ruled that IS wives played a critical role in the terror organization’s project. They held “invaluable support roles,” taking care of the men at home, keeping them motivated to fight and ensuring a new generation of jihadists.
Security threat unchanged
The woman has not protested the looming custody order against her, while her defense attorney has argued that it will be difficult to prove any actual terrorist activity. She arrived in Oslo with a large security entourage around her and her children, all of whom were taken to hospital where special arrangements are in place to care for her children. They were not immediately separated, to relieve more stress on the traumatized children.
Her defense attorney, Nils Christian Nordhus, told NRK that his client denies any criminal offenses. “She wants to use the time ahead well, to secure her position,” Nordhus said. “One of her goals is to give PST as much information as she can, to help them hinder people from traveling to areas of conflict in Syria.”
PST declared over the weekend that the national security threat has not been raised in connection with the woman’s arrival, while Foreign Minister Ine Eriksen Søreide reported that claims would be lodged against the woman to pay for her own travel expenses back to Norway.
It remained unclear what the overall repatriation effort has cost taxpayers so far. Solberg continues to defend it. “I did not want the potential death of a Norwegian child in Syria on our watch,” the prime minister told NRK on Thursday. It ended up costing her the majority government she finally formed exactly one year ago.