Åsne Seierstad’s new book studies radicals

Two Sisters

Åsne Seierstad

Photo: Urd Milbury / Norwegian Embassy
Ambassador Kåre Aas (left) and Åsne Seierstad discuss radicalization at a panel held this April at the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C.

Christine Foster Meloni

Norwegian author and war correspondent Åsne Seierstad is on a national book tour to promote her latest book, Two Sisters. She made a public presentation at Washington’s premier independent bookstore Politics and Prose on April 12.

Seierstad is an internationally acclaimed writer who travels to the most dangerous war zones in the world and writes books based on her meticulous, in-depth research. She focuses on the human aspect of the conflicts, trying to discover why people find themselves in these very violent situations and what the consequences are.

In her latest book she chronicles the heart breaking story of two teenage girls whose family had emigrated from Somalia to Norway and were living quite a good life there. But the girls inexplicably became radicalized and fled to Syria to join ISIS.

The author was interviewed by Jacki Lyden, who covered events in war zones as a news correspondent and host for National Public Radio. (An audio file of this interview can be accessed at the bookstore’s website at archive.org/details/412Seierstad.)

Seierstad explained why she became interested in the sisters. She wanted to find out the cause of their radicalization and, with this goal in mind, she conducted numerous in-depth interviews with their family, friends, and others who had come into contact with them. She spent a great deal of time, in particular, with the girls’ father who went to Syria to try to bring his daughters back home, without success. They had both married ISIS fighters and, although they lived in a dreadful, war-torn environment, they surprisingly preferred it to their tranquil Norwegian setting. They, therefore, refused to join their father.

Seierstad was unable to make direct contact with the girls but did have access to a large body of primary sources, including their instant messages and email communications, exchanged primarily with their parents.
The day after her appearance at P & P, Seierstad was the primary panelist at a breakfast seminar organized by Norwegian Ambassador to the U.S. Kåre Aas and held at his Embassy residence. The topic was “Preventing Radicalization and Violent Extremism.”

Ambassador Aas first introduced Seierstad, who made introductory remarks, and he then presented the other distinguished panelists: Tone Skogen, State Secretary for the Ministry of Defense in Norway; Alina Romanowski, Principal Deputy Coordinator for Counterterrorism in the U.S. government; and Nancy A. Youssef, national security reporter for the Wall Street Journal.

The ambassador asked questions of the panelists and then opened the discussion to the seminar attendees. The major focus was on what actions could be taken to stop the radicalization phenomenon. Why do young people become radicalized and what measures can be taken to stop it? And what can be done to rehabilitate those who return to their countries?

Many important questions were asked and possible solutions were proposed. For example, why are so many women going to the war zone in Syria? It is the first war in which this phenomenon has occurred. Fifteen percent of the ISIS recruits are women who are playing an equal role with men, not an ancillary one. Also there was general agreement that the ISIS fighters who return to their original countries should be incarcerated, but what should be done with them while they are in prison?

As Ambassador Aas emphasized, it is a global problem that affects everyone in the world. Journalists such as Seierstad and dedicated individuals in positions of authority, such as Ambassador Aas, are essential spokespeople who can help us understand what is going in these dangerous situations and encourage us to act.

The book: Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey into the Syrian Jihad, by Åsne Seierstad, was published in English (translated from To søstre by Seán Kinsella) in April 2018.

This article originally appeared in the May 18, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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Christine Foster Meloni

Christine Foster Meloni is professor emerita at The George Washington University. She has degrees in Italian literature, linguistics, and international education. She was born in Minneapolis and currently lives in Washington, D.C. She values her Norwegian heritage.