Norwegian salafi-jihadis and ‘counter-radicalization’ in Norway reconsidered

For the past two years, I have as a researcher collected data on ‘counter-radicalization’ policies in Norway for an international and trans-disciplinary research project funded by the Norwegian Research Council (NRC) through its SAMKUL Programme. Entitled ‘Muslim Diversity and Governance of Islam’ and co-ordinated by the political scientist Olav Elgvin at Fafo Institute For Social Research and the University of Bergen, our project has aimed at exploring state and Muslim civil society interaction and co-operation on matters of common and shared interest in various policy fields. I am now in the process of completing the writing up of this material for submission to relevant scholarly journals. In our project, it was of course inevitable that ‘counter-radicalization’ would come up as a central topic. For what Arun Kundnani has perceptively referred to as the ‘radicalization optic’ has if anything been the primary optic governing liberal and democratic European states’ relations with Muslim civil society actors in recent years.

Though the popularization of the term ‘radicalization’ in media and policy circles, as Mark Sedgwick has demonstrated, dates back to the London bombings of 2005, the ‘radicalization optic’ has in its current inflection a genealogy dating back to al-Qaida’s terrorist attacks on the USA on September 11 2001.

There is, as Sedgwick observes in his seminal article, considerable confusion about what the term ‘radicalization’ might conceivably refer to, not the least among terrorism researchers dedicating much of their time and resources to research on this contested concept. In my research, I have been encouraged to find that central actors in this field, whether it be a municipal level, in the Norwegian police or in Muslim civil society organizations have, in the face of a media and political discourse saturated with and by the term have, knowing fully well about its potentially stigmatizing effects on legitimate, non-violent and democratic activities, have long since made an independent choice to avoid using the term at all.

Norway does of course present a bit of a paradox in the wider Western European context, in that the to date worst terrorist attacks in Norwegian history was perpetrated by a white right-wing extremist, and that there has to date not been a single known terrorist attack perpetrated by Muslim salafi-jihadists on Norwegian territory.

That fact appears to have little difference in terms of political and intelligence service priorities when it comes to ‘counter-radicalization’ in Norway both before and after Anders Behring Breivik’s terrorist attacks of July 22 2011: The Norwegian Police Security Services (PST)’s Annual Threat Assessments have every single year since 2011 maintained that the threat from what it terms ‘extremist Islamism’ is far greater than that from right-wing extremism. Official sources interviewed for my research on ‘counter-radicalization’ made it perfectly clear that even though the Norwegian right-wing government’s ‘Action Plan Against Radicalization and Extremism’ from 2014 refers both to right-wing extremist and extremist Islamists’ potential for ‘radicalizing’ target communities in Norway, the present government has since coming to power in October 2013 been overwhelmingly interested in ‘radicalization’ as applied to Muslims, rather than Norwegian right-wing extremism.

This has also been the case at municipal levels, a finding confirmed by a report from the independent research institute NIBR in Norway.

There is of course a price to be paid for this continued policy of being ‘blind on the right-eye’ which both government, the police intelligence services and academics were involved in in the years leading up to 2011. And that price has by and large been faced in the by now widespread stigmatization of wider communities of Norwegian Muslims in the name of ‘countering radicalization’, what with Norwegian Muslims being favourite targets for both hate crimes and online hate speech.

The preliminary findings of my research project into ‘counter-radicalization’ very much suggests that the Norwegian right-wing government has privileged a set of Muslim civil society partners classifiable as ‘liberal’ both when it comes to policy development and funding in the ‘counter-radicalization’ field over and above partners classifiable as ‘conservative.’

When this is arguably problematic, it is not at all due to there being anything inherently problematic or unwelcome about a ‘liberal’ Muslim orientation and disposition, but due to the fact that the former have a very limited appeal and reach among Muslim youth ostensibly at risk of ‘radicalization’ due to the fact that these are Muslim civil society organizations with no membership base whatsoever; an Islamic orientation which has often put them at odds with a Muslim mainstream which has if anything become more, not less conservative in recent years, in a time of increasing fragmentation and polarization of the Islamic field in Norway.

I use terms such as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ guardedly, for analogous to the situation in ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ Christians, these terms carry a normative load for those involved: ‘liberal’ being a term of opprobrium for Muslims identifiable as ‘conservative’ much as the term ‘conservative’ is a term of opprobrium for Muslims identifiable as ‘liberal’. When these terms seem appropriate to use for analytical purposes, however, it is because they enable us to locate various Muslim actors in Norway on a religious spectrum in which ‘liberals’ are generally more positively inclined towards hegemonic conceptions of inter alia womens and LGBT rights in Norway than ‘conservatives’ are. Lest I be misunderstood, let me however hasten to add that ‘liberals’ and ‘conservatives’ both claim to anchor their orientations in their Islamic faith, and that it is certainly not for an anthropologist to evaluate claims as to which of the two groups are more ‘faithful’ to the Islamic tradition, even though such claims are certainly central to them both.

But ‘liberal’ Muslim civil society organizations in Norway generally have a high media profile, and an extensive and well-developed network both in the central state bureaucracies in the Norwegian capital of Oslo as well as among staff at various Western embassies in Norway (especially the US Embassy). Unlike more conservative Muslim civil society organizations (most notably, the Sunni-dominated umbrella organization the Islamic Council of Norway, IRN), they are also adamantly opposed to having any contact or dialogue whatsoever with Norwegian salafi-jihadists and their sympathizers. Which of course strikes one as a bit of a puzzling strategy if the overall aim is to prevent ‘radicalization’. The logic that has developed in this social field is of course an echo of the lessons that should have been learned by now from the British PREVENT programme. Namely that the more the state and the government draws the proverbial ‘good Muslims’ into a privileged partnership against the ‘bad Muslims’, the less credible the ‘good Muslims’ become in the eyes of not only the ‘bad Muslims’, but also the mainstream among Muslims.

The privileged relationships these ‘liberal Muslim’ civil society organizations have had vis-a-vis the central government not only has to do with their work and investments in the field of ‘counter-radicalization’, but also with the elective ideological affinities at work: ‘liberal’ Muslims being inevitably much more likely to find the government more receptive than ‘conservative’ Muslims under present political circumstances in Norway. What interests me here, is not so much what kind of Muslims and what kinds of Muslim claims Norwegian authorities ought to be receptive towards, but rather the question of which Muslims are most likely to be effective when it comes to impact and reach among Muslims at risk of ‘radicalization.’ Which is why Lars Akerhaug, a media reporter who works for a media outlet with close links to the Norwegian right-wing government gets it completely wrong when he pretends that the government’s funding of ‘counter-radicalization’ initiatives is about providing platforms for the voices of ‘young Muslims.’ ‘Counter-radicalization’ in Norway is pace Akerhaug about effectively preventing terrorism in Norway, not about amplifying the voices most likely to tell you what you want to hear in the mediated public spheres. Period.

Some of the ‘counter-radicalization’ initiatives the Norwegian right-wing government has funded under the auspices of its 2014 Action Plan are actually beyond the parodical. What to make, for example, of the whopping Norwegian kroner 400 000,- in funding to a ‘liberal’ Muslim ‘counter-radicalization’ outfit for the purpose of ‘street theatre against radicalization’ in 2015? One seriously wonders whether the state bureaucrats and government cabinet ministers involved in this budget allocation actually sincerely believe that any prospective Norwegian Muslim ‘foreign fighter’ recruit would be dissuaded by street theatre performances. By way of comparison, the Islamic Council of Norway received an allocation of Norwegian kroner 125 000 from the same government funding scheme in 2015 for its ‘counter-radicalization’ initiatives. With one notable exception (the newspaper Vårt Land), Norwegian mainstream media, who often pride themselves on their ‘holding power accountable’ has hitherto not demonstrated any interest in or willingness to follow the money and paper trail of funding allocations in this policy field.

In a 2013 review article about the ‘state of the art’ in ‘radicalization research’, Peter Neumann and Scott Neumann noted that a lot of the research was based on secondary sources and poorly controlled government funding.

Three years on, that still seems to be the case. Norwegian research on ‘radicalization’ in the context of salafi-jihadism has to a large extent pursued analysis of these phenomena within a framework in which salafi-jihadist ideology in and of itself has been one of the most important variables.

The Norwegian government’s 2014 Action Plan adopts the same problematic reading and definition of the processes involved in ‘radicalization.’ Lest I be misunderstood, there is no argument to be had about the importance of salafi-jihadism in legitimating the brutalities and atrocities that salafi-jihadist terror organizations such as al-Qaida and ISIS have involved themselves in. Shiraz Maher published the seminal and standard-setting title on this at Hurst & Co. in 2016.

Nor can there be any doubt that for the characters involved in the leadership of the small Norwegian salafi-jihadist groupuscule which first emerged in early 2010 and later in 2012 became publicly known in Norway by its self-serving name ‘The Prophet’s Ummah’, the attractions of salafi-jihadist ideology were important and real. The few Norwegian researchers who have had primary access to the leadership of this group, which has been involved in the recruitment of so-called ‘foreign fighters’ from Norway to ISIS and other salafi-jihadist outfits in Syria and Iraq, have established that they not only played a mentorship role vis-a-vis these recruits, but were themselves mentored by the now imprisoned British-Pakistani salafi-jihadist propagandist and recruiter Anjem Choudhary via Skype sessions and meetings with him in Norway.

From the Norwegian newspaper reporter Erlend Ofte Arntsen’s fine and nuanced account of Norwegian ‘foreign fighter’ recruits to the bloodlands of Iraq and Syria, published in 2016, it is also clear that the young Norwegian-Pakistani salafi-jihadist ‘Ubaydullah (aka Arslan Maroof) Hussain from Oslo, who in 2012 emerged as the official spokesperson and most prominent public figure for the Prophet’s Ummah in Norway, for a number of years played a role as recruiter, organizer and ideological mentor for young Muslim Norwegians attracted to salafi-jihadism and the idea of going to Syria and Iraq as ‘foreign fighters’.

That much is clear from Arntsen’s meticulous documentation of the Facebook and Whatsapp messages of some of these ‘foreign fighters’, in which references to ‘Ubayd, messages to ‘Ubayd and advice to contact ‘Ubayd crop up over and over again.

‘Ubaydullah Arslan Maroof Hussain, who himself suffers from a medical condition which as Åsne Seierstad notes in her account of two young Norwegian-Somali teenage sisters who through an initial attraction to Salafism and private tutorials with a young Norwegian-Somali Salafi madrassa teacher ended up as brides for ISIS soldiers in Raqqa, Syria, is likely to restrict him to a role as a salafi-jihadist keyboard warrior, is currently on trial at Oslo Magistrate’s Court, charged with terror recruitment under Norwegian General Penal Code § 147 C. The Prophet’s Ummah and ‘Ubaydullah Hussain is believed to have played a role in the recruitment of a great number of the more than 80 Norwegian citizens who have to date travelled to Syria or Iraq as ‘foreign fighters’. 18 of these are believed to have been killed already. The strength of Seierstad’s book is her documentation of the role that non-militant forms of quietist-activist Salafism, in Norway represented by the Salafi organization IslamNet since 2008, has played in ‘priming’ a relatively small group of young Muslims for further ‘radicalization’ into salafi-jihadism. The two sisters in Seierstad’s account were both active members in IslamNet; Arntsen documents that no less than eleven Muslims who at one point were members or attended IslamNet’s lectures and conferences have ended up as ‘foreign fighters’.

With regard to the erstwhile leadership of the ‘Prophet’s Ummah’, Norwegian police and police intelligence services’ long-standing strategy of a systematic and relentless pursuit of its leadership figures – including the notorious ex-criminal and psychopath Arfan Bhatti, ‘Ubaydullah Arslan Maroof Hussain and Mohyeldeen Mohammed – through criminal prosecution and surveillance operations have suceeded admirably well. Hussain has been tied up in a series of court cases since 2012, whereas Bhatti upon his return from imprisonment in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province (NWFP), where he had travelled for the purpose of finding a ‘caravan of jihad’ to join, has been convicted on criminal charges relating to domestic violence which pre-dated his departure from Norway in 2012. Mohyeldeen Mohammed, a Norwegian-Iraqi, did a brief stint as a salafi-jihadist in Syria in 2012, managed to do some Facebook photo-ops armed with guns somewhere in Syria, but has been under strict surveillance since his return in 2013, and now only performs his occasional rabid salafi-jihadi antics in Norwegian news media. Though the ‘Prophet’s Ummah never seem to have consisted of more than 20 hardcore members in the PST’s estimates (Arntsen 2016, page 168), their membership core, reach and impact in Norwegian Muslim communities have been drastically reduced since 2012. Norwegian ‘foreign fighter’ recruitment to Syria and Iraq reached saturation point in 2014, after ISIS conquered the city of Mosul in northern Iraq and ISIS’ leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi proclaimed the re-establishment of the caliphate under ISIS’ and his own leadership as a ‘caliph’: in the summer and autumn of 2014 alone, some 30 Norwegians left Norway in order to become salafi-jihadist ‘foreign fighters’ in Iraq or Syria (Arntsen 2016, p. 307). Now, any government, whether right or left, would of course proclaim that a reduction in the number of ‘foreign fighters’ is due to its own ‘counter-radicalization’ efforts. However, in the Norwegian case, it is quite clear that 2014 marked the saturation point for salafi-jihadist ‘foreign fighter’ recruitment. The dramatic decline in the number of such recruits since then may have as much to do with the pool of potential recruits having reached its limit by then, combined with the setbacks of ISIS’ on the battlefields of Iraq and Syria, and the increasingly authoritarian Turkish government having realized that the salafi-jihadist Frankenstein monster that it had by and large permitted safe passage into Syria untill then had turned up at its own doorstep.

Arntsen’s book on Norwegian ‘foreign fighters’ is particularly insightful in its coverage of Norwegian ‘foreign fighters’ from the relatively small town of Fredrikstad in Southeastern Norway. In what the New York Times described as a virtual small town ‘pipeline to jihad’ in Syria, Fredrikstad and in particular its former working-class district of Lisleby, saw no less than eleven young men, many of whom had attended the same high school, recruited as Norwegian salafi-jihadist ‘foreign fighters’ in Iraq and Syria. Of these eleven, five have been killed in Iraq or Syria, and three of the six who eventually returned to Norway have ended up with long prison sentences. Arntsen also tells the story of three troubled Norwegian converts to Islam from Levanger in mid-Norway who in 2014 ended up with ISIS in Syria and Iraq. These were two young men and a young woman who had been part of the same drug milieu at home. One of the two male drug addicts actually dissappeared from a local psychiatric hospital in 2014, only to travel directly to Syria (Arntsen 2016, p. 312). Arntsen’s account is an account of what the German author Hans Magnus Entzensberger over ten years ago referred to as ‘radical social losers’ and an apposite riposte to anyone given to asserting that experiences of social humiliation and socio-economic deprivation and marginalization play no part in ‘radicalization’ into salafi-jihadism.

An important 2016 PST report on the background of 137 individuals brought to the attention of the PST as foreign fighters, members of a salafi-jihadist milieu, or sympathizers of salafi-jihadism in Norway paints a similar picture.

Some highlights from the report: The war in Syria (2011 – to date) appears to be the central axis around which the samples’ ‘point of radicalization’ revolves. The single largest group in the sample consisted of Norwegian converts to Islam (18%), who according to the report were overrepresented and far outnumbered both Norwegian-Pakistanis (10%) and Norwegian-Somalis (11%), who in light of their numbers in Norway along with Norwegian-Bosnians (2,5%) were actually underrepresented. 88 % of the sample consisted of males, 12% of females. The median age was 27,5. 17,5% of the sample had lost their parents during childhood or youth. 76% had a Norwegian citizenship. A minimum of 47% of the sample had either not started, or completed high school in Norway; practically no one in the sample had completed higher levels of education. 68% of the males in the sample had either been accused, charged or convicted for crimes before they were ‘radicalized’, as had 31% of the females. A full 31% of the males in the sample had been registered with a criminal case before the age of 16. 46% of the males in the sample had been accused, charged or convicted for violent crimes, and 42% of the males in the sample had registered involvement in drug-related crimes. Even though the PST report suffers from a lack of definitional clarity and discussion of problematic and contested concepts it applies (such as ‘Salafism’ and ‘radicalization’), the conclusion also merits highlighting: “This report demonstrates that it is not the ordinary Muslim youth or convert which is in danger of being recruited to Islamist extremism in Norway. Those at risk are mainly persons who seem to have had a particularly troubled childhood- and youth with adaptational problems, substance abuse and crime. Most of these have low levels of education and bad prospects of employment.”

To put it bluntly, reports and books such as these suggest that future ‘radicalization’ research in Norway requires criminologists, sociologists and social psychologists more than most other disciplines in order to break the required new conceptual and analytical ground, and in order to get out of the framework of ideology which has hitherto been so prevalent. What is more, reports and books like these very much suggest that a right-wing government ideologically committed to increasing socio-economic inequalities, the precariousness of work, weakening social welfare provisions and (by default) increasing the ongoing racialization of poverty in Norway, combined with a selective blindness to the violent threat from white right-wing extremism, is consciously making political choices which from the point of view of preventing future ‘radicalization’ among Muslims in Norway may be both problematic and poor choices.

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