Following the prolonged detention of Islamic State (IS)-linked European citizens in al-Hol and similar camps in northeastern Syria from 2019 onwards, many countries have become more amenable to repatriation. This comes as pressure to resolve these citizens’—and particularly their childrens’—fates has increased. The Nordic countries are particularly affected by this situation because dozens of citizens and children from Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and Finland have been detained in the camps since spring of 2019 (Human Rights Watch, May 26, 2021).
While the Nordic countries were initially reluctant to repatriate their citizens due to security concerns, between 2020 and 2023 each country has revisited their approach. They have all now repatriated several citizens while promising that those who have committed terrorist offenses will be prosecuted upon returning to their countries of origin. This article examines the track record of the four Nordic countries in prosecuting their female citizens who have been repatriated from Syrian detention camps.
Denmark: Prosecuting Female Returnees for Engaging in Islamic State Activities
Despite initial opposition, the Danish government announced in May 2021 that it would repatriate three women and their children from Syria, following the recommendation of the country’s intelligence service (The Local, May 19, 2021). The women were retrieved in October, and at least two have been prosecuted for terrorist offenses since then.
In February 2023, a local court sentenced one of the women, who was a 38-year-old dual citizen of Denmark and Bosnia and Herzegovina, to four years in prison. According to the ruling, she promoted the activities of IS “by acting as a housewife and wife of persons that were active in IS, and helping IS maintain and consolidate its position in the area” (Danmarks Domstole, February 28, 2023). Consequently, her Danish citizenship was revoked.
Finally, in November 2022, a 35-year-old Danish woman was sentenced to three years in prison for entering Syria and promoting IS activities “by acting as the housewife and wife of a person who was active in the terrorist organization” (The Local, November 19, 2022). As can be seen, Denmark has successfully utilized its domestic legislation to legally prove engagement in a terrorist activities in the case of returned women, primarily through their roles as spouses and caregivers.
Norway: Prosecuting Female Returnees for Membership in Islamic State
In March, Norway repatriated two women (who were sisters), and three of their children (Regjeringen.no, March, 29). Both were taken into custody upon their arrival in Norway (VG, March 30). They are likely to be prosecuted for terrorist offenses after the investigations into their suspected terrorist offenses are concluded.
This was not the first time Norway repatriated individuals from the conflict zone, however. A woman and her two children were repatriated from a detention camp in January 2020 for humanitarian reasons. This was because one of her children was believed to be seriously ill (nrk.no, January 14, 2020).
She was arrested upon returning to Norway for suspected terrorist offenses, including membership in IS. She was then sentenced by a court in Oslo in May 2021 to three years and six months in prison. Similar to the cases in Denmark, the prosecution successfully argued that raising children within IS territory qualified as participation in a terrorist organization (nrk.no, May 4, 2021).
Sweden: Prosecuting Female Returnees for War Crimes
Between 2021 and 2022, Sweden repatriated a total of 12 women and 23 children from northeast Syrian detention camps (Just Security, December 6, 2022). It is not clear whether any of these repatriated women have been charged. However, there have been two reported court cases involving IS-linked women.
In March 2023, however, a local court in Goethenburg sentenced a female returnee to three months in prison for a “war crime.” In its ruling, the court stated the woman had twice published photographs of heads impaled on a fence at a roundabout in Syria and had written derogatory comments about the victims. This “seriously violated the personal dignity of protected persons” under Swedish law (Politico.eu, March 29).
One year earlier, a Stockholm district court further found a Swedish woman guilty of a “war crime.” As a legal guardian, she failed to protect her son, who was 12-years old at the time, from being recruited and being used as a child soldier by IS. She was sentenced to six years in prison (UNITAD, March 7, 2022).
Finland: Struggling to Prosecute Female Returnees
In December 2019, the Finnish government announced it would start repatriating its citizens from the Kurdish-run camps in northeastern Syria. Between late 2019 and early 2023, at least 9 women and 26 children returned to Finland. While some arrived through repatriation, others returned autonomously with the support of the authorities who facilitated their return to Finland from Turkey. (Iltasanomat, January 23).
Finnish policymakers have consistently assured the public that they are doing everything possible to ensure criminal accountability for IS-linked women who are suspected to have committed terrorism offenses in the conflict zone. Several such women are known to have engaged in pro-IS activities (ICCT, May 19, 2021). However, by mid-2023 no charges have yet been filed for suspected terrorist offenses or war crimes.
Although the overall number of court cases is low, there are differences between the Nordic countries in terms of prosecuting repatriated IS-linked women for suspected terrorist offenses. Norway and Denmark have each prosecuted repatriated women with rulings, highlighting that being a wife or a mother within IS territory qualifies as participation in a terrorist organization. Thus, both countries remain well-positioned to prosecute similar incidents, should further repatriations occur.
In Sweden, few women have been prosecuted for war crimes, as extant counter-terrorism legislation did not enable prosecution for terrorist offenses in their cases, although it is unclear whether any of the repatriated women have faced charges. The country has, however, convicted two IS-linked women of war crimes committed in Syria. In Finland—which was among the first European countries to decide to repatriate its IS-linked women and their children—no charges of on terrorist offenses or war crimes against repatriated women have been filed to date. This being the case, it is doubtful that criminal accountability in Finland or Sweden will be achieved if further repatriations do occur.