OSLO, NORWAY – Before the woman left for Syria in 2013, she had grown up on the eastern side of Oslo in a Norwegian Pakistani family, playing soccer and attending university, according to a recent profile. In Syria, she ended up living in ISIS territory, marrying twice in the Caliphate and having two children, officials say.
When she and her children were plucked from a Kurdish-controlled detention camp in Syria and arrived back on Norwegian soil Saturday, she was arrested for fear that she was a security risk.
The family was being kept under surveillance and medical observation in an Oslo hospital and Norwegian news outlets reported Monday that the woman would remain in custody for at least four more weeks.
The Norwegian government suggested that the decision to bring back the unidentified woman, now 29, had been a humanitarian one: One of her two children — a boy, 5, and a girl, 3 — was believed to be seriously ill. But the move has prompted a national debate over what the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said was “a difficult consular case,” and had threatened to bring down the government.
The decision was met with staunch opposition from the government’s coalition partner, the anti-immigrant and law-and-order Progress Party, and there were suggestions that if the matter was not settled to its liking, it could blow up the coalition.
The party stopped short of doing that Monday, while still registering its discontent. After an emergency meeting, the Progress Party said that it would withdraw from the four-party governing coalition, but that it would still continue to support the government.
A spokesman for the party, Jon Engen-Helgheim, said last week that he strongly disagreed with the decision to bring the woman home. She has been charged by Norwegian Security Police with “participation in a terrorist organization” for joining the Nusra Front and ISIS. The charge is punishable by up to six years in prison on conviction.
“We do not want her kind in Norway and we certainly don’t want Norwegian authorities spending enormous resources getting them to Norway,” Engen-Helgheim said.
With the militants’ loss of territory, countries across Europe have had to grapple with the return of those associated with the group. Turkey’s decision to release ISIS detainees has also forced Western European nations to confront a problem they had long sought to avoid: what to do about the potential return of radicalized, often battle-hardened Europeans to countries that do not want them.
By November 2019, there were 12,300 foreigners detained in camps in Syria, including over 8,700 children from more than 40 nations, according to estimates by the charity Save the Children. A report from the Washington Institute for Near East Policy showed similar figures.
Prime Minister Erna Solberg told the state broadcaster NRK, “What is important is that the presumably ill child now can get medical treatment in Norway.”
During a Monday news conference, Solberg explained that the government originally preferred to just bring the sick child back to the country but could not separate him from his mother. “Our dilemma was hence to bring home a child with his mother, or risk that a sick 5-year-old child might die,” she said. “To me it was important that the boy came home to Norway.”