The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Norway’s prime minister loses majority after authorities repatriate Islamic State suspect and her children from Syria

Norway's Prime Minister Erna Solberg speaks during a joint news conference with the German chancellor on Oct. 15, 2019, after bilateral talks at the Chancellery in Berlin. (Axel Schmidt/AFP/Getty Images)
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BERLIN — The Norwegian prime minister lost her parliamentary majority Monday after the right-wing Progress Party withdrew its ministers from the government coalition. The right-wing protest move came in response to the controversial repatriation of a suspected Islamic State member and her children from a Syrian camp.

Conservative Prime Minister Erna Solberg said she would seek to continue to govern in a minority coalition with two smaller parties. The Progress Party may continue to support some of Solberg’s policies.

The Norwegian government’s crisis Monday was among the most dramatic political ramifications of a dilemma Solberg has shared with leaders across Europe. Many European nations have refused to heed calls to repatriate suspected Islamic State fighters and their children from Syria. In some cases, their reluctance drew heavy criticism from human rights groups and the Trump administration, with the latter viewing the Europeans’ approach as a security threat. Last fall, President Trump warned that the captured fighters would be released unless European governments were ready to take them back.

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Almost half a year later, only a few suspected Islamic State members have been repatriated, even as European governments are increasingly being challenged in court to do so.

The Norwegian government crisis this week appeared to show what can be at stake for governments willing to repatriate the suspects, analysts said.

The unnamed 29-year-old suspect was arrested upon her return but is denying the accusations, according to Norwegian media reports. If prosecutors are unable to prove she had ties to the Islamic State, it could put Solberg’s government at further risk of accusations that she handled the case recklessly, as right-wing critics allege.

“Even people who are usually quite liberal on immigration issues,” said Brynjar Lia, a professor of Middle Eastern studies at the University of Oslo, were opposed to having “Norwegian authorities helping [the suspect] to get back to Norway.”

It appeared unlikely Monday that the repatriation of one woman could set a precedent for the four other female Norwegian suspects who are in Syria — a figure that only includes women whose whereabouts are known.

But any effort to approve a more lenient strategy on alleged Islamic State returnees would meet staunch resistance from the Progress Party, said Lars Gule, an associate professor focusing on Islamist extremism at Oslo Metropolitan University.

Before withdrawing its ministers, the right-wing party’s officials had reportedly agreed to repatriate the woman’s children, ages 3 and 5 — one of whom requires urgent medical treatment — but not the woman.

The government said that plan was rendered impossible when authorities realized that they could not separate the children from their mother.

“Our dilemma was hence to bring home a child with his mother, or risk that a sick 5-year-old child might die,” Solberg said Monday.

Critics of the woman’s repatriation have cited concerns over a potential lack of evidence to convict her in a Norwegian court, echoing similar arguments brought forward in other parts of the continent.

Analysts acknowledged that female Islamic State members pose a security risk that is at times wrongly underrated and that proving the guilt of members of foreign militant groups in European courts can be difficult. The Norwegian suspect left the country in 2013 — before a law was passed that makes it illegal to travel to territories controlled by terrorist groups, Lia said.

But analysts said the woman — who allegedly married two Islamic State fighters in Syria — could still be sentenced on other charges. They disagreed with the assertion that European authorities would be overwhelmed with repatriations.

“We are talking about a relatively small number here, a number that Norway has no problem handling,” Gule said.

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