As the self-styled Islamic State (IS) “caliphate” collapsed in March 2019, the international community was faced with the problem of more than 70,000 IS family members stranded in Syria. The Kurdish Peshmerga gathered these family members into camps in northeastern Syria. Currently, these camps still house around 60,000 people, of which 30,000 are Syrians, 20,000 are Iraqis and around 10,000 are of other nationalities, including approximately 1,000 from Europe (Egmont Institute, October 2020).
To the disappointment of Kurdish authorities, most European countries have been reluctant to repatriate their nationals from these camps due to security fears. This article examines how the Nordic countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland have been tackling the issue and highlights recent changes in their respective policies, specifically toward IS-linked women and their children.
Among the Nordic countries, Denmark has taken a notably dualistic approach in dealing with its approximately 160 citizens who travelled to Syria and Iraq. Returning IS fighters benefited from the so-called “Aarhus model” of reintegration and de-radicalization instead of custodial sentences. However, the country also in 2019 passed a law to strip citizenship from its dual nationals fighting for IS (The Local, October 24, 2019).
On the question of IS women and children stranded in the Kurdish-run camps, the government of Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen initially refused to consider repatriation. However, on May 18, foreign minister Jeppe Kofold made a surprise announcement that the government reviewed its negative stance on repatriating its citizens held in the Kurdish camps and that Denmark would now seek the repatriation of three Danish IS women and 19 children. The announcement has been seen as a significant step down from the government’s previous stance (The Local, May 19).
The reason for the policy change was a new assessment from the Danish Security Intelligence Service (Politiets Efterretningstjenetse, or PET) that children in the al-Hol and al-Roj camps were under a greater threat of radicalization than in Denmark (PET yearbook, March 2021). It was, however, also assessed that significant pressure from parties on the left, which prop up the minority Social Democratic government, influenced the policy decision (The Local, May 19).
Notably, among the children that the government seeks to repatriate, 14 belong to three females, while the remaining five belong to mothers who will not be repatriated. It, therefore, seems that Denmark is opting for a selective repatriation policy.
Two weeks before Denmark changed its policy stance, a Norwegian IS woman was sentenced by a court in Oslo to three years and six months in jail for terrorism offences (nrk.no, May 4). The woman and her two children, including a five-year old boy and three-year old girl, were repatriated by the Norwegian government from Syria in January 2020 (nrk.no, January 14, 2020). The decision to repatriate the woman and her children was done for humanitarian reasons, as one of the children was believed to be seriously ill. The decision, however, threatened to bring down the Conservative government as the government’s coalition partner, Progress Party, staunchly opposed the decision and in the end left the government in protest (nrk.no, January 20, 2020).
The 30-year-old woman was born in Pakistan and arrived as a child to Norway. She later joined a local Salafist group calling itself “The Ummah of the Prophet,” where she met her husband-to-be, the Norwegian-Chilean Bastian Vasquez. He travelled to Syria in 2012 and the woman traveled a year later, marrying Vasquez in Syria. The marriage was short-lived, as Vasquez is believed to have died in April 2015 while building bombs for IS. The woman then remarried two times, including first to an Egyptian IS fighter, who served as a sharia judge and died fighting in 2017, and then to another Egyptian IS fighter. After IS’ “caliphate” collapsed, the woman and her two children from her first two marriages ended up in the Kurdish-run al-Hol camp. In January 2020, the woman and her two children were assisted by Norwegian authorities to return to Norway, where she was arrested for suspected terrorism offences, including membership in IS (nrk.no, May 4).
Altogether, around 140 individuals are believed to have travelled from Norway to join IS in Syria and Iraq. Norway has successfully prosecuted some of the IS returnees. The current number of IS-affiliated women from Norway and their children who remain in Syrian camps is unclear. In April, however, it was reported that one Norwegian-Russian woman with her two children had escaped from Syria to Turkey (Aftenposten, March 27).
In May, another well-known Norwegian IS woman, Aisha Shazadi Kausar, pleaded publicly for Norwegian authorities to help her and her son to return to Norway (Aftenposten, May 18). The request led to a renewed debate on the Norwegian repatriation policy, with Progress Party leader, Sylvi Listhaug, stating “enough is enough” (Aftenposten, May 18). It remains to be seen how Norway will react to Kausar’s plea.
The only Nordic country that has thus far not actively repatriated any of its citizens from the Kurdish-run camps is Sweden. According to Sweden’s intelligence service, SÄPO, around 300 Swedes or Swedish residents, a quarter of whom are women, joined IS in Syria and Iraq, including most in 2013 and 2014 (SÄPO, June 27, 2017). Among these, around half have returned to Sweden on their own.
Sweden did not initially have existing legislation to prosecute people for membership in a terrorist organization, so there have been only a few trials in Sweden of IS returnees. However, in March 2021, a 31-year-old Swedish woman, who travelled to Syria via Turkey in mid-2014, was convicted of “arbitrary conduct with a child” for putting her then two-year-old son’s life at risk. The woman had been arrested by Kurdish forces in early 2018 and following lengthy detentions in Kurdish camps managed to flee to Turkey in early 2020. After being deported to Sweden in November 2020, the woman was sentenced to three years in prison (The Local, March 9). The woman was possibly one of a group of four IS-linked women and nine children that managed to escape from al-Hol camp in Syria to Turkey and return to Sweden in November 2020. The group also included a 48-year-old woman who left Sweden for Syria in 2011 and her two children. Three of the women left from the Stockholm area (SVT, November 1, 2020).
The Swedish government’s position has been to seek the repatriation of children held in the camps and simultaneously support the establishment of an international tribunal to investigate and bring to trial IS-linked women who have committed crimes in Syria. While progress in establishing an international tribunal has been slow, the repatriation of children has been blocked by their mothers and Kurdish authorities’ unwillingness to separate the children from their mothers (The Local, April 12, 2019; The Local, May 16, 2019).
In late May, the Swedish Green Party called on the government to repatriate the 20 Swedish IS-linked women and around 30 children still in Syria back to Sweden. It argued that the current policy was not working and everything should be done to get the children to safety (SverigesRadio, May 5). It remains to be seen whether the government heeds this call.
Among the Nordic countries, Finland was the first to start actively repatriating its citizens from the Kurdish-run camps, even though the Finnish security intelligence Service (SUPO) publicly warned that the repatriated Finnish IS-linked women would likely increase the terrorism threat in Finland (Iltasanomat, December 17, 2019).
The question of active repatriation of IS women was hotly debated in 2019 by the Finnish parliament. It caused a serious controversy a year later after the current foreign minister Pekka Haavisto of the Green Party was found guilty of sidelining a senior civil servant, who had insisted on a governmental decision on repatriation in contrast to treating the issue as a mere consular affair (yle.fi, December 9, 2020).
The repatriation of Finns started with two young orphans in December 2019 (yle.fi, December 21, 2019). A year later, in December 2020, the government repatriated a group of two IS women and their six children (yle.fi, December 20, 2020). These two women included “Sanna,” who was a Finnish IS fighter’s wife and was interviewed by CNN in March 2019 in the Syrian desert. Before her departure from Finland, Sanna, a convert to Islam whose real name was not made public, belonged to a wider network of radicalized Salafists from the capital area of Helsinki. Sanna left Finland in 2015 and travelled with her children to live in the IS “caliphate” with her husband, who had left Finland already a year earlier, but later died in Syria (Iltalehti, December 22, 2020). Besides these repatriations, in spring 2020, three Finnish IS women and nine of their children escaped from al-Hol Camp to Turkey, from which they returned to Finland, with assistance from Finnish authorities (yle.fi, May 31, 2020).
The Finnish government has been defending its policy of active repatriation with children’s rights overriding any security concerns associated with their parents. In public statements, politicians from the ruling coalition government have assured the public that the Finnish security authorities would investigate the IS-linked women for possible terrorism or other criminal offenses. To date, however, these preliminary investigations have not led to any formal criminal investigations (Helsingin Sanomat, May 4).
Instead, efforts are ongoing to tighten Finland’s counter-terrorism laws, as Finland’s track record for bringing justice to those suspected of terrorism offenses has been weak. Out of its IS returnees or repatriated IS family members, no one has been convicted for terrorism offenses. A recent report by the Finnish Police concluded that “Finland is one of the few countries amongst EU member states which has not secured any sentences related to terrorism financing or the [foreign terrorist fighter] phenomena.” The report further noted that while Finland’s terrorism legislation did not differ greatly form other EU member states, including its Nordic neighbors, several other factors, including a higher threshold for launching criminal investigations, had contributed to this situation (Finnish Police, April 26).
In order to address these failings, the Finnish government suggested in late May modifications to the counter-terrorism laws, including criminalization of “participation in the activities of a terrorist group” (Finnish Government (press release), May 20). These modifications will be most likely approved by Parliament this upcoming fall. However, they will not address the current challenges of Finnish IS returnees and repatriated IS women.
While relatively similar culturally, the question of IS women and their children has revealed interesting policy differences between the Nordic countries. Sweden, Norway and Denmark have been reluctant to actively seek the repatriation of its citizens from the Kurdish-run camps. However, Finland sought early on to bring its IS-linked women and their children back home. While this eagerness might be somewhat surprising because Finland has failed for a decade to bring any of its IS suspects to justice, this discrepancy can be explained by the current Finnish government’s emphasis on human and, in the repatriation debate more specifically, children’s rights. In contrast, in acknowledging the difficulties of bringing to justice its IS-linked women, Sweden has opted to wait and hope for trials to take place in the Middle East region. Meanwhile in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, the debate on active repatriation has been dominated by national security considerations. In Denmark’s case, these considerations somewhat surprisingly seem to lead to the same end result as Finland’s more value-based considerations.