Why did teenage Somali-Norwegian sisters flee to Syria to join ISIS? Featured

The author who investigated the story learned the girls’ father was lying, and was threatened by a Norwegian tabloid

When Sadiq Juma learned that his two teenage daughters had left the family’s home in Norway to join ISIS in Syria, he set off to retrieve them. Formerly a teenage rebel soldier in the Somalian Civil War, Juma had courage, determination and experience with the chaos of conflict, but there was something he hadn’t reckoned with—what if his daughters didn’t want to come back with him?

Juma is at the heart of Norwegian journalist Åsne Seierstad’s new book, Two Sisters, which reads as both a heart-stopping documentary thriller and a deeply researched attempt to connect the dots between seemingly peaceful family life in a prosperous country and the decision to join a jihad. Like Seierstad’s last book, One of Us, about the 2011 Utøya massacre by white supremacist Anders Breivik, Two Sisters constructs a detailed narrative from interviews and people’s online traces. She lacked access to the sisters: both “Ayan,” who was 19 when they left in October 2013, and “Leila,” who was 16 (the siblings are given pseudonyms), ignored Seierstad’s requests to communicate. She spoke with their friends, their teachers, their eldest brother (“Ismael”) and their parents. To complicate matters, Sadiq proved an unreliable witness.

Apparently desperate to believe the girls wanted to leave Raqqa, where they were holed up, he would tell anyone—including Seierstad, a film crew that was following him around, and the smuggler he hired to help him try and bring the girls back—that they were actually hiding from ISIS and ready to be taken out of Syria. Seierstad found herself arguing with the hero of her story, and then receiving threats from a Norwegian tabloid. She spoke with Maclean’sabout trying to understand radicalization, and how challenging it can be to ferret out the truth.

Q: Your book describes how the Juma sisters’ radicalization started when they were taught by a young preacher who had been recommended to their mother by a mosque, and how the process continued via the Salafist youth organization Islam Net. The question arises: to what extent can, or should, teaching and preaching be monitored for fomenting extremism?

A: [In March], I went to a seminar at King’s College in London, one of the most prominent institutes for the study of radicalization and political violence, and one point of discussion was what to do with all of the Salafi organizations? They promote an ideology which is very close on some levels to the Islamic State, but they’re non-violent. It’s a reductionist view of identity: you are not Canadian or Norwegian or a student or from Oslo or this and that; you are only Muslim, and only a specific “brand,” and after a while, your only points of reference are from the view of that organization. No one had a solution. This is not illegal. It’s the same with the right-wing extremists: we can’t ban them either . . . It’s important to engage at an early age, because we now see that radicalization starts really early.

Q: And the Juma sisters, along with other young people from their community, were taught by a Salafi preacher—who one father had worried was an extremist—in their own homes.

A: It’s very tragic. The [sisters’] mother has never really gotten to know Norway, and we all fear what we don’t know. Some of the other [Somali-Norwegian] mothers in the book, when they see the change in their daughters, say, “Hey, what’s happening to you?” When the girls start to complain—“Oh, I’m harassed. I want to quit school. I want to quit the sports club”—the mother’s like, “The school hasn’t changed. Your classmates haven’t changed. You have changed.” She calls the teacher and takes action, and that girl is now happy; she’s living an ordinary student life. Still Somali, still a Muslim, with her hijab. She was tempted by this whole adventurous and romantic idea of the caliphate, but then she got back to the European way of living, which is, if you live in Europe, probably the best you can have. All of these Salafi organizations make life very difficult for so many immigrants and young Europeans of different backgrounds, because they propagate a life that’s incompatible with achieving anything in Europe. When you can’t hold a job [because] you can’t be in a room alone with a man, or you have to cover up . . .

Q: Ayan and Leila became radicalized, but their brother Ismael became an atheist. Did you get a sense of why there was such a drastic difference between them?

A: No. That’s a very difficult question, because when you look at those individuals who are going [to Syria], it’s difficult to find one factor why. Just as when it’s a group of young Norwegians or Canadians who start to experiment with drugs, most of them are not going to become addicts, but maybe there are two who will. With the Qur’an teacher, there were 10 or 12 students, and it was only Ayan and Leila who went [to Syria]. That was the argument the Qur’an teacher and those who hired him used: “Hey, if it was to do with him, why didn’t they all go? It must have been the girls.” And of course, both things were true. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, it’s because they had problems in the family, or they had some trauma.” Not necessarily. A psychiatry professor in Norway, working mainly with anorexic girls, said after reading the book that he’d found so many similarities with some of those young girls who competed [with each other]: the anorexics can never be thin enough, and these girls can never pray enough. We also need to demystify radicalization—with those two girls, I think part of the reason [they went] was they were very entrepreneurial, setting their own paths. They were getting the money [they needed to leave]; they were adventurous and brave. Of course, they also had a very strong belief in the afterlife.

Q: They end up being brides of ISIS, and there’s a dissonance between the cozy domesticity they portray online, in conversation with their family, and their cheerleading for terrorism and the caliphate. Do you have a sense of how much of that is genuine?

A: It’s hard to know, and now, we don’t really know where the girls are. The parents haven’t heard from them in months, so I would be very interested to ask them, now that [the caliphate] has crumbled. It seems to me that part of this is, you’ve done something very abrupt in your life, and you don’t want to have committed a mistake. And between the two sisters and the brother [Ismael], a tone of competition. Many people told me about the girls: “She could never lose an argument. Even if she knew she was wrong, she wouldn’t give in.” The caliphate’s golden years were 2014 and 2015, and these girls came in with money and became the upper-class elite of Raqqa, getting into the best houses, the villas where the Syrians had been thrown out, and thinking, “We deserve this. And the Hassidic Jews deserve to get raped because they are not women; they are spoils of war.” These girls had gone through a life of very humanistic Norwegian schools. Didn’t they have an inner voice sometime saying, “Hey, that can’t be right?” I can only guess, and I just hope they get out alive so they can tell their story.

Q: When you write about Sadiq’s apparently narrow, violent escape from his captors in an ISIS jail, you put it in Sadiq’s words, as he recounts the story to others, rather than your own. I take it you are not convinced by his account?

A: That is true. That was the very first story that he told me, and in the beginning, I wrote it all down and believed in him. Sadiq told me, “My girls are in hiding from ISIS. They have escaped from their husbands. I need to help them to get out.” But when I got the chat logs [between the girls and Ismael], after maybe one and a half years of my work on this, I was like, “That’s very strange: They don’t seem to have been aware of Sadiq’s [rescue] attempts.” Ismael said, “Well, they never wanted to [escape].” I was also working with the film crew, and Sadiq started to [tell] different versions [of stories] to me and to the filmmakers. We gathered proof so we could confront him with everything. That didn’t go so well. I was quite angry at him . . . He had many lies, and he had made me believe a lot of things [including] failures of the secret police.

He didn’t want to see me for three months. [After that], he wanted the book out, so we continued, and I said, “I need always to have a second source on everything that you tell me.” He kind of accepted that fact. This [account of] how he fled—there was no second source for that. The problem is I kind of cherished that story. But I also do write that an al-Nusra [rebel] fighter wrote [an account of Sadiq’s imprisonment online that described] a fight between the prison authorities. It’s interesting because it shows the inside of an ISIS prison—it’s not monolithic. Yeah, the judge had released him, but the boss of the prison wanted to keep him. Specifically that story, how he got out of that prison, is not certain. Of course, I could have made the book harsher to Sadiq, but then I’m writing about a man who has lost his daughters, who is in turmoil and has already been criticized by the Somali community. I had to write it in a way that wouldn’t make life more difficult for him. We see [events directly] from his perspective sometimes.

Q: He also lied to the tabloid Dagbladet, passing off fabricated “on the ground” information about ISIS—which they then published themselves—in order to fund his rescue attempts. It was you who revealed this. I understand Dagbladet took exception?

A: The paper actually tried to threaten us. We did show them most of [what I’d written about them] before [publishing the book], and they were like, “Oh, if you write in your book that the father co-operated with us, maybe ISIS will kill the guy.” They even sent my publisher videos of beheadings—she was terrified. They were like, “What if ISIS see that the girl’s father is co-operating with Western media?” [But] no one in ISIS is responsible for what their parents do, ever. Very few parents support what their children do down there. That was really embarrassing for that paper.

Q: In March, Norwegian justice minister Sylvi Listhaug resigned after the fallout from her Facebook post accusing the Labour party—whose youth camp Breivik had attacked in 2011—of privileging terrorists’ rights over national security. Are her views shared by a significant proportion of the Norwegian population?

A: In the 10 days [leading] up to her resignation, the party was rising in the polls, and they got 3,400 new members. Obviously, there are people who do share her views. Her conspiracy theory that the Labour party cares more about terrorists than about the security of citizens, and other things that she said about some Western leaders who “conspire with Islamists” in order to take over our government, are the same conspiracy theories that Breivik was writing about in his manifesto. She didn’t take [her post] down until she understood this could cost her something, and it did cost her her job. But it was up there for a week, [despite] all the criticism she got. I think she’s a totally disgusting person, and very, very dangerous.