Caring for Norwegian terrorists abroad

Profiles of Norwegian science

Norwegian terrorists

Photo: Ilan Kelman
Stig Jarle Hansen presents his analysis at a project meeting.

Ilan Kelman
Agder, Norway

A former soldier guarding Norway’s king travels to Somalia to fight for a religious terror group. A Norwegian citizen massacres dozens in 2013 in Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall.

What should the government of Norway do? What if a Norwegian terrorist overseas asks for help to return to Norway or for legal support in their country of capture? Does the government have any duties or obligations to render assistance to these Norwegians?

For domestic incidences, procedures are clear. The terrorist who set off a bomb in central Oslo on July 22, 2011, and then perpetrated the Utøya shootings was afforded due process under Norwegian law. He was tried, convicted, and jailed, with his human rights protected and being offered as much support as the government could provide under Norwegian law.

Terrorists leaving Norway are subject to laws and justice systems (or lack thereof) of any country in which they operate. But they remain Norwegian, unless mechanisms are used to rescind citizenship, so they could still appeal to their government for help. Norwegian politicians and officials could then find themselves in a quandary about what help to provide.

Stig Jarle Hansen, professor at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, researches this labyrinth as part of a Norwegian Institute of Foreign Affairs-led project called Duty of Care: Protection of Citizens Abroad, funded by the Research Council of Norway. He aims to support the government of Norway in determining their moral and legal duties, as well as what actions they can carry out practically, when Norwegian citizens travel to other countries to support terrorism.

The baseline is that Norwegian law demands that the government assist its citizens overseas when needed. The type of assistance is not always straightforward or extensive, especially since the government will not send its own staff into danger. Instead, support from afar is sometimes the most that can and should be proffered.

Ethical dilemmas manifest. If the Norwegian’s family explains that the terrorist was brainwashed, has changed their mind, or is being detained against their will, should the government do more? What if aiding a Norwegian overseas means directly or indirectly communicating with, or abetting, a terrorist organization?

Hansen is no stranger to difficult analyses. Renowned for his insights into religious terror and political theory, he is a commentator for international media, including CNN and BBC. Focusing on the Horn of Africa and wider Red Sea region, he does much more than think at his desk. Hansen is a veteran of research in the conflict zone of Mogadishu, traveling there frequently from 2005 to 2014.

His advice focuses on Norway being more proactive in determining how to treat Norwegian terrorists who are overseas, notably through prevention. Not everyone involved—the Norwegians overseas or their families—is comfortable soliciting help. Requests for state help could be impeded by an intransient low-level civil servant, experiences of racism, or distrust of government and authorities.

Desperate families without these qualms have publicized their predicament through the media or have enlisted wider community support to tackle government lethargy. Not all can. They might not have the resources or they could be isolated from others. They possibly fear stigmatizing their cultural group.

It is tricky. Hansen highlights that the government of Norway cannot force anyone to connect with them. Norwegian terrorists overseas might not want contact. When their family pleads for support and the individual’s will is unclear, gray areas expand.

Often, the location in question lacks functioning authorities or any clear route for communicating with and extracting an individual. If the terrorist faces a near-certain lengthy jail term upon returning to Norway, what incentive exists to flee back home?

These challenging questions subject the government to criticism no matter what it does and no matter how fast or slow it responds to cases. Hansen’s research systematically lays out the questions, the options, and the consequences of each decision. Then, policies can be developed in advance, rather than in ad-hoc response to headlines.

The goal of this science is to save lives by removing terrorists from their fight—and, ultimately, to avoid anyone choosing to be a terrorist in the first place.

This article originally appeared in the March 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

Ilan Kelman

Ilan Kelman is Professor of Disasters and Health at University College London, England, and Professor II at the University of Agder, Norway. His overall research interest is linking disasters and health, including the integration of climate change into disaster research and health research. Follow him at and @ILANKELMAN on Twitter and Instagram.