Literary Journalism Explores the Why of Young Women’s Radicalization

Book review: Two Sisters, by Asne Seierstad

One October day in 2013, Somali-born Norwegian sisters Ayan and Leila (pseudonyms) left a note explaining their intentions, then boarded a flight from Oslo, beginning a journey that led them to a border town in southern Turkey. From there, they crossed into Syria, choosing to live in terrorist-controlled Raqqa, marry IS fighters and have babies, and embrace a radical, extreme version of Islam, effectively abandoning the hopes and dreams their parents had in bringing them from war-torn Somalia to the west.

Norwegian journalist and war correspondent Asne Seierstad is well known for several books with similar topics on Middle Eastern conflicts and terrorism. I haven’t gotten around to her best known work, The Bookseller of Kabuland am hesitant to read the disturbing-sounding One of Us, despite its reputation as excellent narrative nonfiction, about Anders Behring Breivik and Norway’s 2011 terrorist attack.

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this book at first either, but some positive reviews since its US publication tipped the scale for me. I’m glad I did – I was glued to it. It’s excellent literary journalism – detailed, drawn from many sources, telling the story of the girls’ radicalization and the aftermath of their journey to Syria from multiple perspectives. Seierstad’s purpose was clear: “What I found most important to answer: What causes two girls, who are good students, who are ambitious, and who fled from war when young, to seek out war again and submit to the strict control of the Islamic State?”

Their father Sadiq settled in Norway after leaving his native Somaliland and civil war, having fought at a young age, losing his father and brother. Eventually his wife Sara and their then-three children, including Ayan and Leila’s brother Ismael (my favorite person in this book – more on him later) joined Sadiq in Baerum, a suburb of Oslo. Sadiq worked for Coca-Cola and studied engineering while Sara struggled to fit into Norwegian life, being functionally illiterate and making only modest attempts to learn the language. Their three older children and the two younger boys born later adapted well – they had extensive friend circles, did well in school, worked small jobs, played sports, and were active in the religious community.

Using interviews with family, friends, classmates and teachers, police reports, school records, emails and chats, Seierstad charts the course the girls’ extremism took, from its seeds to what’s known of their lives in Raqqa, the de-facto IS capital. She also tells the story of their father’s frantic, expensive, and extremely dangerous attempts to either rescue or kidnap the girls from Syria, as he’s convinced they’re held against their will by their husbands, despite all information indicating otherwise.

Almost immediately after the girls’ departure, Sadiq travels to Turkey then Syria, following clues from their social media posting locations. He can’t come to terms with the fact that they don’t want what he does – a comfortable life with family in Norway, the promises of their excellent education, being settled somewhere safe albeit non-Muslim majority, with subsidized housing and welfare benefits. In the shock of this refusal he becomes an unreliable narrator despite his devotion to rescuing his daughters, who have no desire to leave even after years in war-ravaged Raqqa.

Sadiq had entered a parallel universe, where dream and fantasy mingled with events around him. His hope reshaped reality into a fairy story of his own invention. Just like religion.

Sadiq enlists the help of a documentary film crew, Norwegian police, and a Syrian smuggler who becomes a friend, giving insight into his own precarious existence. As the truth becomes even more difficult for him to accept with time, considering the girls’ minds remain unchanged, he lies to get help and to assuage his own desperate feelings. It’s a very sad story, made harder by Ayan and Leila’s refusal to acknowledge their family’s pain caused by their choices.

It seemingly began when Sara and other mothers hired a Koran teacher to give their children weekly religion lessons. Sadiq and Seierstad pinpoint this teacher as sparking the sisters’ radicalization. He espoused extreme viewpoints of Islam that didn’t brook much argument and they found answers to questions of identity and a desire for religious purity.

Ayan also became very active with Islam Net, a youth organization “based on puritanical principles”. “The preaching was charismatic; feelings were to be awakened, thoughts would follow, life was to be pure and true.” The group stressed the strength of its teenage members’ identities as Muslims first and Norwegians second, if that nationality mattered at all: “Why be a second-class Norwegian when you can be a first-class Muslim?” They encouraged the dangerous thinking that all teenage “setbacks and growing pains” were the result of being Muslim in a non-Muslim land that didn’t understand them.

Interestingly, of a handful of girls who attended school together and joined Islam Net, only one didn’t end up in Syria, and she came close enough by marrying a young Islamist, eventually escaping back to grateful parents. She’d been discriminated against and boxed out of Islam Net for her refusal to properly cover herself, insisting it wasn’t obligatory in Islam. The group’s intolerance and rigidity of dogma is telling.

This side story of the friends’ paths (some extremely sad) drove home how widespread this radicalization and attraction to Syria is – this book centers on Ayan and Leila, but once in IS territory they’re joined by two other close friends, with further acquaintances here and there. It underscores the story’s importance too – this wasn’t isolated. Neither was it entirely secret.

The girls’ viewpoints were known – they fought with their schools over being allowed to wear niqabs and expressed their ideas clearly and unapologetically. In a class discussion, Ayan “scoffed” at 9/11 victims, saying “The Americans got what they deserved.”

It’s hard to feel sympathy for the girls, who remain in sporadic but frequent contact with their family, often instant messaging with Ismael in the years after leaving. They don’t seem to get why their actions are reprehensible, why their family is broken and wouldn’t want to join them in Syria. Ismael repeatedly tries to break off contact, out of anger at what they’ve put the family through, emotionally and financially, and because he can’t stand the thought of maintaining a happy, chatty relationship when he vociferously disagrees with their choices and ideology, coupled with the weighty knowledge that his sisters could be killed anytime.

In response, Ayan seethes, “You have to care about me!” Sometimes you’re reminded of the self-centered teenage mindset at the heart of it all and it just feels so sad.

In response to the traumatic development of his sisters running away to become ideologically fanatical housewives in a warzone, Ismael turns from religion, creating another break within the family. Sara is more religious, hurt by Ismael’s loss of faith and subsequent atheism. It seems that if she hadn’t already lost two children, she’d disown him. As it is, she returns to Somaliland with the younger boys, preferring they receive a proper Koran education there. Sara insists that the girls have been brainwashed, that someone else is responsible for their actions. She and Sadiq are both delusional with grief and unable to accept the truth of the matter, that the girls want the life they’ve chosen.

Ismael stood out to me as an exceptional teenager. He attended the same Koran lessons as his sisters but was quick to pick up on the hypocrisy the teacher displayed in his interpretations. His sisters’ flight into jihad was the final straw in breaking his ties with religion, and he displays remarkable conviction in his dedication to scientific principles and facts. He stands up to his sisters when they harp on their beliefs and defend IS from Raqqa. I was so impressed by him, especially as he deploys a sharp, smart sense of humor against their canned IS propaganda lines.

In a text chat, Leila insists that the media has ISIS all wrong:

“They have a national army and are prepared for an attack by the Americans, they’ve even invited them to try.”
“That’s like me writing to John Cena saying ‘come and fight me, you coward, I’m ready for you.’ U feel the analogy.”

This phenomenon of westerners, especially women and girls, fleeing stable democracies to join IS has dominated headlines and remains a struggle to comprehend, but Seierstad’s researched and detailed account of this specific incident is very revealing. She succeeds both in showing the naivete of the girls, their impressionability when religious awakening meets teenage angst, plus the stubbornness of rigid ideology even while living in a warzone. She quotes their chats with friends in Norway, as those friendships dwindle thanks to the sisters’ insistence on supporting a horrific system:

“We need to make more babies,” Ayan [wrote a friend]. “If the war is a long one we’ll need new soldiers.”

Seierstad wisely presents the narrative and lets readers consider the circumstances and bigger questions themselves.

Researchers, politicians, and youth workers are attempting to understand why some teenagers reject education and a life in peaceful surroundings to join a terror organization. There is no single explanation, but one can point to several factors, including the search for identity, meaning, and status; the desire to belong; the influence of others; excitement; the need to rebel; and romantic notions. In the girls’ case, elements of a profound religious awakening can be added. Push-and-pull factors feature prominently when researchers talk about radicalization. Something pushed them out, something pulled them in.

Two Sisters:
A Father, His Daughters, and Their Journey Into the Syrian Jihad
by Asne Seierstad
translated by Sean Kinsella
originally published 2016 in Norway as To søstre
published in the US April 3, 2018 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux

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16 thoughts on “Literary Journalism Explores the Why of Young Women’s Radicalization

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  1. I read a fictionalized version of Islamic radicalization last year, Laleh Khadivi’s “A Good Country.” I thought it was excellent, so I’ll definitely have to check this out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This one is really well written, it almost reads like fiction but unfortunately it’s not. I really recommend it, and I felt like I learned a lot from it. I’ll still never “understand” why they turn to this, but with the circumstances fleshed out like this you can at least get a better picture.
      That would be interesting for you to read this after having read a fictionalized version and see how they compare!


  2. Hello, just finished this one. I completely agree with your excellent review. I also thought the brother was admirable. I was, probably not fairly, angry that the mother got that Koran teacher to teach them.. Like you I was glued to the story but saddened by it, such foolish girls. It felt like they were “groomed” to turn against the West and support terrorism. And what a dreadful mess Syria and Iraq are in, so awful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Wasn’t this book amazing?? I still think about it, I loved it. Their brother was wonderful. I thought it was so interesting how the father was a bit unreliable in the telling himself, and the mother was really culpable in all of this too…maybe easier to say in hindsight but I think she could’ve managed the situation with the teacher better and had to have understood what was going on. It’s just so sad and pointless, to have so much after what your parents have been through and managed for you. We had several teenage Bosnian girls from Vienna leave for Syria too, it devastated the community. They’re both dead now and one was allegedly beaten to death for finally trying to escape. It was surreal to me to think of them fleeing the same war my husband’s parents fled with them, and to see how my husband and his brother appreciate all they have and the opportunities it gave them and these girls went such a different way. It’s just so hard and heartbreaking.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh my goodness just dreadful about the girls from Vienna. What an absolute heartbreak for their parents. I tried to find out what has happened to the girls in the book, do you know? Terrifying how hardline young people/children become when indoctrinated, like Hitler’s Youth. Did you ever read a German book called Jugend Ohne Gott, a novel by Horvath ( I think). Studied it at school and that was about teens being brainwashed into Nazism.

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    1. It was absolutely awful about those girls, and made more difficult because of the near impossibility of getting accurate news about what had happened. Just heartbreaking. I also wanted to know what happened to them but hadn’t been able to find anything! The names she used in the book were pseudonyms, I know that, so that does make it more difficult too. I wish she would do a followup piece, at least. I don’t know the German book at all but that sounds so interesting!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Also agree with your description of the father as “unreliable narrator”; actually think that was a charitable assessment of him. Hate to be unkind to a father who has gone through that immense heartbreak but did feel there was an element of embroidery/fantasy in his stories.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree. I felt so bad for him but so much about his story was very strange, including his time in Syria. I think you’re right that there was some embroidery and fantasy, but I also wonder why about some of it. I got the impression he was covering up a bit for something he might’ve felt guilty about, maybe encouraging their study or something, I’m not sure.

      Liked by 1 person

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