OSLO, Norway (AP) — Somali immigrants in Norway fear that violent extremism is taking root in the community after reports of young Somali-Norwegians traveling abroad to join jihadist groups.
One of the gunmen in the Nairobi, Kenya, mall attack that killed 67 people last month has been identified as Hassan Abdi Dhuhulow, a 23-year-old Norwegian citizen who returned to his native Somalia in 2010.
Norway's Somali community was still coming to terms with that news when it was struck by another startling development: Two teenage sisters — 16 and 19 — had left their family in Norway to join the civil war in Syria.
"It is very shocking," said Mohamed Husein Gaas, a Somali-born East Africa expert at the Fafo research foundation in Oslo. "No one thought two young girls would travel to a place where they don't have any connection."
It's not clear how exactly the sisters from suburban Oslo, who have not been named, planned to participate in the Syrian war. But they told their family they wanted to take part in jihad, said Bashe Musse, a Somali community leader and local politician in Oslo.
Norwegian newspaper VG said they flew to Turkey and made their way to the Syrian border, without telling their family until they had left Norway.
Musse said he has been in contact with their father, who traveled to Turkey in hopes of finding the sisters near the border where the Norwegian police say they were last spotted.
He reached one of his daughters by phone, but she told him it was too late to stop them from joining the "jihadists," Musse said.
"I don't have words to express how difficult this was for the (Somali) community," Musse said. "In so short time, two cases. ... It's kind of a wakeup call."
He added that the vast majority of Somalis in Norway don't support violent extremism. About 30,000 people in Norway were either born in Somalia or have Somali parents. The wealthy Nordic country is one of the most popular destinations for Somali immigrants in Europe along with Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands.
The Syria conflict has attracted hundreds of foreign fighters from European countries, many of whom have joined Islamic militant groups. An estimated 30 to 40 people — and possibly more — have left from Norway alone, according to the domestic intelligence service PST. Security officials are concerned that they could pose terror threats once they return home combat-hardened and traumatized by war.
"Once they return they may be capable of carrying out a violent act in Norway," PST chief Marie Benedicte Bjoernland told The Associated Press in an interview late Wednesday.
Like in other countries, jihadist groups are targeting young Muslims, and in some cases Norwegian converts, through a mix of online propaganda and personal contact. Why Norwegian youth would give up a secure and comfortable life in one of the world's richest countries is something Bjoernland struggles to explain.
"We don't have a clear answer. It is a mental journey," she said.
For Dhuhulow, whose family moved to Norway in 1999, that journey started in the years before he returned to Somalia in 2010.
Norwegian authorities have declined to confirm his identity because the investigation is ongoing, but Bjoernland told the AP on Wednesday that the Norwegian suspect was well known to her agency in 2010 and that it even tried to steer him away from a path toward terrorism.
"We had several talks with him ... before he left Norway more than three years ago," Bjoernland said. "Obviously we didn't succeed, but there was quite an effort put into the preventive side of this."
She declined to give details of the conversations, and said the Norwegian "most likely" died in the attack, though PST investigators haven't confirmed that. The Kenyan government said Sunday it believes it has recovered the remains of the four gunmen seen in CCTV footage carrying out the attack.
Security camera images showed what appeared to be Dhuhulow and three other gunmen firing coldly on shoppers as they made their way along store aisles after storming the upscale mall last month.
The Somali Islamic extremist group al-Shabab claimed responsibility, saying the attack was retribution for Kenya's military involvement in Somalia.
Norway just recently made it illegal to receive training from terror groups. But even with that law it is difficult for authorities to prove that a suspected wannabe militant is traveling abroad to train with or join jihadist groups.
"When they are radicalized and when they are determined to go, for instance to Syria or other conflict areas, we don't have many legal measures to stop them," Bjoernland said.
"We do preventive work. We talk to them. We try to persuade them not to go, because it's a dangerous journey," she said. "I wish we were more successful. We have succeeded in turning some around from traveling. But quite a few have actually left."
Associated Press writers Mark Lewis in Stavanger, Norway, and Jan M. Olsen in Copenhagen, Denmark, contributed to this report.