Radicalization and Deradicalization: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria

By: CPT Marius Kristiansen , Norwegian Armed Forces


A distinctive feature of certain armed conflicts over the last 30 years is the involvement of unpaid, radicalized Muslim foreign fighters who do not have any personal stake in the conflict besides a particular kind of religious belief.1 People become foreign fighters for reasons that depend on several factors that differ from one conflict to another.

Norway, a relatively small country with only five million inhabitants, is one of several European countries that have seen a substantial number (per capita) of their citizens leave to become foreign fighters in Syria.2 The Norwegian government has developed a comprehensive plan to prevent radicalization, with some success, but radical beliefs that lead to extremism or even violent action are not limited to certain Muslims or a particular end of the political spectrum. Norway and other countries must do more first to understand why some people become radicalized enough to take violent action in the name of any cause, and then to develop policies to counteract those processes. It is difficult to find scholarly sources for this topic, especially on the profiling of Norwegian foreign fighters, mainly because they are still such a new phenomenon. Adding to the difficulty, most of the research in this area has been conducted by the Norwegian Police Security Service and the Norwegian Intelligence Service, and is therefore classified. Available open sources include social media statements, pictures, and blogs. In the process of writing this article, I was fortunate to be able to discuss the topics of profiling and assessment with some leading terrorism researchers at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and the University of Oslo.

Profile of a Norwegian Jihadi

The conflict in Syria had drawn 30 to 40 Norwegian foreign fighters to the region by the end of December 2013, according to several reports.3 By late 2015, that estimated number had grown to more than 80, and as of mid-2016, the numbers are still higher.4 Most of these individuals are men, but at least two women are also known to have joined the fight in Syria.5 These foreign fighters are using violence in an unlawful manner and can therefore be categorized as terrorists from both a Norwegian and an international perspective. It is possible to profile several of these Norwegian fighters and analyze their radicalization process, because some of them have made official statements to the media and spoken at public events organized by semi-official organizations. The group with the most active profile and a record of official appearances is called Profetens Ummah ("The Prophets' Community"), whose leaders have connections with recognized international radical Muslim communities and individuals.6 One well-known radical British imam, Anjem Choudary, for example, has been working alongside his Norwegian counterparts and has supported their efforts to widen their influence in Norway.7

The education level of the Norwegians who commit to jihad and become foreign fighters varies, but most do not possess a college degree. Many of them had jobs in Norway, but some were entirely dependent on the Norwegian welfare system. Young men aged 20 to 30 from the eastern part of Norway predominated in this jobless group, and most of them were affiliated with Profetens Ummah.8 Several of those who went to Syria are related, and most of them are friends who have known each other for a long time.9 Most of the Norwegian foreign fighters have ethnic connections to the northern parts of Africa and are therefore Muslim by birth and family culture, but the group also includes a few ethnic Norwegians, several of whom converted to Islam.10 It may be worth noting that a number of the most overt participants in this cohort come from one city, Fredrikstad, and were part of a close football (soccer) community there. This finding was echoed in a documentary presented in 2015 by the Norwegian television broadcaster Norsk Rikskringkasting (NRK).11 One Norwegian killed while fighting in Syria, for example, was a close friend of one of Norway's most famous football players.12

Why Do Norwegians Become Foreign Fighters in Syria?

There are a number of reasons why people devote themselves to becoming foreign fighters. It may take a long time for a person to become so committed to the jihadi cause that he is willing to sacrifice his life for it, but this process can happen quickly in some circumstances. This holds true for the Norwegian foreign fighters as well. The Norwegian Defence Research Establishment and the University of Oslo have tried to identify the reasons that Norwegians go to Syria and, in a preliminary conclusion, highlight four major motivations.13

Political and religious idealism: Several of the individuals who have stated that they are going or are likely to go to Syria to fight think it is the right thing to do based on a political or religious conviction. Many people in this group are fighting against the Syrian regime because of their perception that the government violates human rights, while others regard the Syrian civil war as a fight between good and evil. This group includes those who are motivated by martyrdom.14

A shift from humanitarian ideals to jihad: A small number of the Norwegians who are fighting in Syria were originally motivated to go there to provide humanitarian aid, not to fight. Because of various circumstances, however, this motivation changed, and instead of becoming aid workers, they became fighters.15

Attention, recognition, and fame: Some of the Norwegians who went to fight in Syria were purely motivated by a desire for recognition or fame. Most of the people belonging to this group are not Muslims by birth, but are ethnic Norwegians who converted to Islam before traveling to Syria. A few were not at all religious when they went but were attracted to the fight by some romantic idea of their own. Several of the people in this category use social media extensively, because they seek the attention that a high media profile can potentially give them. A comparison could be made between these fighters and participants in reality TV shows. This group is responsible for the birth of the so-called "Paradise Hotel jihadist."16

A window of opportunity: A few of the Norwegian contingent of fighters in Syria are motivated by the fact that they can do things in Syria they would not be able to do elsewhere without being punished, such as killing people or using drugs. Others in this group want to become terrorists, but they do not want to conduct acts of terrorism in their own "neighborhood."17 The majority of the expatriate group simply want to go to Syria and do things without anybody controlling them. Young people who have been living under a strict religious regime imposed by their parents constitute the majority of this group.18

Similarities with Radicalization in Other Parts of Europe

In his chapter of the book, Understanding Violent Radicalisation: Terrorist and Jihadist Movements in Europe, Petter Nesser presents three general motivational paths to jihad through radicalization that are prevalent in Europe.19 He describes them as: "entrepreneurs and protégés," who seem to be motivated mainly by ideology and activism, and who often act as recruiters in the radicalization process; "misfits," whose main motivation appears to be personal grievances, problems, and frustrations; and "drifters," who appear to be well-functioning individuals but who frequently have mixed motivations for joining and may be easily swayed by relatives and friends who are extremists. These paths correlate to a large extent with the Norwegian radicalization process outlined in this article.

Radicalization Triggers for Potential Norwegian Foreign Fighters

Two key triggers explain why some people from Norway radicalize to the extent that they become foreign fighters in Syria.20

First, in Norway, there has been a competition for influence among several semi-official Islamic organizations, led by Profetens Ummah and Islam Net. These two organizations have been using official media and unofficial blogs to argue against one another for years.21 The Syrian conflict represents an opportunity for members from both organizations to show that they are brave enough to participate in a real war in the name of Allah. Before either one reached the threshold of actually sending members to Syria, the two organizations escalated the level of rhetorical conflict in Norway by publicly provoking each other to the point of no return.22 The result was that some Norwegians devoted themselves to the fight in Syria to prove their faith. In my assessment, this ideological contest became the main reason for such extreme radicalization.

Second, despite the fact that the Syrian civil war is one of the most devastating conflicts seen in many years, the international community does not appear willing to become involved. Millions of children, along with their families and others, have become refugees in their own country.23 The fact that the rest of the world, including Norway, is apparently indifferent to the suffering of the Syrian people is a potential source of frustration and anger in groups that are susceptible to radicalization. In combination with some of the other motivational factors described in this article, I believe such a sense of outrage is likely to be a significant factor, or even a trigger, in the radicalization of Norwegians who go to Syria as foreign fighters.

Norway's Plan for Deradicalization

The Norwegian government's general plan for deradicalization is currently being reconstructed. The current "Action Plan to Prevent Radicalization and Violent Extremism" states that the issues of radicalization and deradicalization are domestic problems that fall under the mandate of the police.24 If radicalization takes place in an "international context," that is, outside of Norway, then the responsibility belongs to the Norwegian Intelligence Service. The main goal of this plan is to develop a preventive dialogue to influence persons who could potentially become radicalized.25 Local police, it says, should try to prevent radicalization through dialogue with the individuals or groups that are assessed to be susceptible, while Norwegian society as a whole is urged to motivate young people to complete school and higher education. Both leading researchers and leading police officials have criticized the current plan quite extensively. When it was first presented, one prominent researcher, Brynjar Lia, denounced it as nothing more than a "PR move" by the Norwegian government.26

Triggers That Have Deradicalized Norwegian Foreign Fighters

Norwegians who traveled to Syria as foreign fighters have reacted differently to their experiences. Some individuals who returned to Norway became even more radicalized, while several others turned away from radicalism altogether. A few of those who renounced jihad received help from public authorities to complete the process, an option that is included in the Norwegian government's current "Action Plan." 27 The ones who did not require any external influence to give up jihad did so because of a change in motivation, which came about for two main reasons. The first came from the fighters' realization that their perception of the conflict in Syria was far from its reality. They did not change their opinion of what is right and wrong regarding violent jihad, but things in Syria were not what they expected.28 The second group did change their opinion of what is right and wrong after experiencing what is actually taking place in Syria.29


In my opinion, Norway clearly faces serious challenges regarding radicalization, and the problem extends far beyond the current hot topic of religious extremism. The Norwegian challenge, as I see it, comes not only from religious extremism, but reaches across the political spectrum from neo-Nazis and right-wing extremists on the one hand, to animal-rights proponents and left-wing extremists on the other. It is high time for the Norwegian government to reconstruct Norway's approach to the challenges that every kind of radicalization presents.

The work has started, but it is far from finalized.30 My hope is that the results of Norway's efforts to fight radicalization will be more than another general plan for which only the Ministry of Justice has responsibility. A broader, whole-of-government approach will not be easy, nor are there likely to be any quick fixes in this matter. I do believe, however, that what Norway needs to cope with the challenges that radicalization presents is a comprehensive plan involving a number of ministries, departments, and other governmental agencies. Although it is outside the scope of this article to describe such a plan in detail, I want to emphasize that any plan that has sufficient magnitude to produce the needed effects will require a heartfelt commitment from all levels of Norwegian society and the Norwegian people as a whole. ²


About the Author(s):

CPT Marius Kristiansen serves in the Norwegian Armed Forces.

  1. Thomas Hegghammer, "The Rise of Muslim Foreign Fighters: Islam and the Globalization of Jihad, International Security 35, no 3 (Winter 2010/2011): 53–94:http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/files/The_Rise_of_Muslim_Foreign_Fighters.pdf go back up
  2. Thomas Hegghammer, "Number of Foreign Fighters from Europe in Syria Is Historically Unprecedented. Who Should Be Worried?," Washington Post, 27 November 2013:https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/monkey-cage/wp/2013/11/27/number-of-foreign-fighters-from-europe-in-syria-is-historically-unprecedented-who-should-be-worried/ go back up
  3. Benjamin Weinthal, "Historically Unprecedented Number of European Muslim Fighters in Syria," Jerusalem Post, 29 October 2013: http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Historically-unprecedented-number-of-European-Muslim-fighters-in-Syria-333457; Aaron Y. Zelin, "Up to 11,000 Foreign Fighters in Syria; Steep Rise among Western Europeans," ICSR Insight, 17 December 2013, figure 1:http://icsr.info/2013/12/icsr-insight-11000-foreign-fighters-syria-steep-rise-among-western-europeans/ go back up
  4. Karen Tjernshaugen, "Most Foreign Fighters Come from These Countries," Aftenposten, 9 December 2015: http://www.aftenposten.no/verden/Fra-disse-landene-reiser-flest-fremmedkrigere-18374b.html; Olav Døvik, Martin Fjørtoft, Marit Gjellan, and Helge Carlsen, "PST: – Flere Norske Fremmedkrigere" [PST: More Norwegian foreign fighters], Norsk Rikskringkasting (NRK), 8 January 2015:http://www.nrk.no/norge/pst_-_-flere-norske-fremmedkrigere-1.12138692 go back up
  5. Helen Collis, "Norwegian Sisters, 16 and 19, ‘Travel to Syria to Help Muslims in Any Way They Can'," Daily Mail, 21 October 2013:http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2470210/Norwegian-sisters-16-19-travel-Syria-help-Muslims.html go back up
  6. Michael Sandelson, "Norway Radical Islamist in Syria, UK Imam Helps," The Foreigner, 19 October 2012: http://theforeigner.no/pages/news/norway-radical-islamists-in-syria-uk-imam-helps/ go back up
  7. Torgeir P. Krokfjord, "Here Is the Imam Together with Norwegian Islamists. Now He Is Arrested and Accused of Terrorism," Dagbladet, 25 September 2014:http://www.dagbladet.no/2014/09/25/nyheter/norske_islamister/syria/isil/terrorisme/35441827/ go back up
  8. Brynjar Lia, "Conference: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria" (lecture/conference contribution, Oslo, Forsvarets Forskningsinstitutt [FFI], Oslo, January 2014). go back up
  9. Ibid. go back up
  10. Thomas Hegghammer, "Conference: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria" (lecture/conference contribution, Oslo, FFI, Oslo, January 2014). go back up
  11. Min Sønn, Fremmedkrigeren [My son, the foreign fighter], TV documentary, directed by NRK Brennpunkt (Oslo: Norsk Rikskringkasting [NRK], 2015). go back up
  12. Stein-Erik Stormoen, "Tarik Hedret Sin Døde Venn Etter Matchvinnermålet" [Tarik honored his late friend after scoring the winning goal], Verdens Gang, VG, sec. Sporten, 8 January 2013. go back up
  13. Petter Nesser, "Conference: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria" (lecture/conference contribution, FFI, Oslo, January 2014). go back up
  14. Hegghammer, "Conference: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria." go back up
  15. Ibid. go back up
  16. "Paradise Hotel" is a popular reality TV show in Norway and other parts of Europe, in which attractive young people engage in self-indulgent behavior while sequestered in a luxury hotel for several weeks. Lia, "Conference: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria." go back up
  17. Thomas Hegghammer, "Should I Stay or Should I Go? Explaining Variation in Western Jihadists' Choice between Domestic and Foreign Fighting," American Political Science Review 107, no. 1 (February 2013): 1–15: http://hegghammer.com/_files/Hegghammer_-_Should_I_stay_or_should_I_go.pdf go back up
  18. Ibid. go back up
  19. Petter Nesser, "Joining Jihadi Terrorist Cells in Europe: Exploring Motivational Aspects of Recruitment and Radicalization," in Understanding Violent Radicalisation: Terrorist and Jihadist Movements in Europe, ed. Magnus Ranstorp (London: Routledge, 2010), 87–115. go back up
  20. Nesser, "Conference: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria." go back up
  21. Fahad Quershi, "Profetens Ummah Skyter Seg Selv i Foten" [Prophet's Ummah shoots itself in the foot], Islam.net, 26 October 2013:http://www.islamnet.no/nyheter/kronikker/2343-profetens-ummah-skyter-seg-selv-i-foten go back up
  22. Ibid. go back up
  23. "Urgent Action Needed to Reach and Protect Children Trapped by Syria Conflict," UN News Center, 23 September 2013:http://www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=45933#.V1iyW5MrLUI go back up
  24. Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police, Collective Security—A Shared Responsibility: Action Plan to Prevent Radicalization and Violent Extremism (Oslo: Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police, March 2010):https://www.regjeringen.no/globalassets/upload/JD/Vedlegg/Handlingsplaner/Radikalisering_engelsk.pdf go back up
  25. Ibid. go back up
  26. Ibid. go back up
  27. Ibid. go back up
  28. Nesser, "Conference: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria." go back up
  29. Lia, "Conference: Norwegian Foreign Fighters in Syria." go back up
  30. Government of Norway, Department of Justice, "Vil Bli Bedre På Forebygging Mot Radikalisering" [Norway's Department of Justice would like to improve prevention of radicalization], Regjeringen, 28 November 2013:http://www.regjeringen.no/nb/sub/radikalisering/aktuelt/vil-bli-bedre-pa-forebygging-mot-radikal.html?id=746890 go back up
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