'Two Sisters' Follows Norwegian Teenagers Who Left Home To Join ISIS In Syria
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
When ISIS started expanding its hold on Iraq and Syria a few years ago, tens of thousands of foreign fighters went to join the caliphate - and not only fighters. In Norway, two teenage girls decided to leave their family for Syria. Their story is the subject of a new book by Norwegian journalist Asne Seierstad called "Two Sisters." Our co-host Ari Shapiro picks up the story from here.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
The girls' father, Sadiq, had been a child soldier in Somalia. He fled the country in the 1990s, eventually settling with his wife and family in Norway. And Seierstad told me that the daughters, at least for a few years, were just typical schoolgirls - popular, good in class, good at sports. Then they started wearing skinny jeans and going to parties. Their mother wasn't too happy about that.
ASNE SEIERSTAD: So she did what a mother would do in Somalia when there were problems with the family. She went to the local mosque and asked them - what do you think I should do with my girls who are becoming too Norwegian? I'm afraid of losing them to Norway. What can I do to get them back to the Somali way? The mosque recommended a great, young, beautiful-looking Quran teacher who would lure the girls back into the Somali way of living.
SHAPIRO: He did more than that. He led them down a path that would take them away from their family, across the border from Turkey into Syria, to join ISIS fighters in the growing caliphate.
SEIERSTAD: According to the father, that was the start of the nightmare.
SHAPIRO: Their life in Syria is not fighting and holding a gun. It's not helping refugees. What is it on a daily basis?
SEIERSTAD: It's facilitating the life of ISIS fighters. It's breeding a new generation of ISIS fighters.
SHAPIRO: Having children.
SEIERSTAD: Having children, definitely, and cooking for the fighters and cleaning and just, like, you know, logistics.
SHAPIRO: The sisters are kind of gleeful about all the free stuff they get. And they have a house where they don't have to pay rent, and they kind of gloss over the fact that this was someone else's house. And the free stuff they're getting is stuff that someone else has paid dearly for.
SEIERSTAD: Yes. And it's also - this reminds me of the Nazi occupation here in Norway or in Europe in general where you'd have Nazi families taking over the homes of rich Jewish people. They didn't ask questions either - that they took over people's houses who ended up in concentration camps. They are at war, and they've just taken over the house of the enemy, and they see them as spoils of war.
SHAPIRO: I want to talk about the sisters' father, Sadiq. He does something extraordinary, which is that he actually goes to Syria to try to get his daughters back. It almost reads like a thriller novel.
SEIERSTAD: Sadiq is quite a liberal Somali. And he has experienced war, and that's probably also why he could just go down there. Like, most parents would never follow. A few days after the children went to Syria, he followed in their footsteps. But what is actually very admirable about him is, like, all the people he'd get in contact with. So in order for a father to go down in Syria - he can't just go to Syria, be there on his own in ISIS-held territory. He has to join an armed group. So he joins al-Nusra Front. And also he travels around the country looking for his girls, so we kind of see, you know, parts of Aleppo or parts of Idlib province through him.
SHAPIRO: Will you read a portion of this book where he's in a town that has been just nearly destroyed by war and he finds a place to sleep for the night?
SEIERSTAD: OK. (Reading) There were books on the shelves and clothes hanging in the wardrobes. A framed wedding photograph hung on the wall. The couple had gleaming eyes and were beautiful in the way happy people are. She was powdered, made up, wore a long, white dress and had flowers in her hair. He was clean shaven, in a white shirt and dark suit. The style of the clothing suggested it had not been long ago. They seemed so modern, so contemporary. They are still young, he thought. This is happening in our time.
SHAPIRO: It makes this huge, global conflict seem very human and individual.
SEIERSTAD: Sadiq is maybe the great character of the book. He's maybe more important than the sisters. He is the storyteller of big chunks of the book. And this scene is also where he for the first time is really angry at his girls. After this, he's referring to what he saw, the wedding photograph and everything. He goes into the bedroom, and he lays down on the bed, and then he realizes, oh, this is the young couple's bed. And where are they now? They must have fled. And then he screams out at his daughters, Ayan and Leila, like, what is wrong with you?
SHAPIRO: The father, Sadiq, is your storyteller for a lot of the book, and for understandable reasons, he lies to almost everyone. He lies to authorities, to a documentary film crew, to a human smuggler that becomes his friend. Did you worry that he might have been lying to you?
SEIERSTAD: Well, he was lying a lot to me. That's why it took a long time to write the book. So when I started writing the book, he told me that the girls were in hiding, that they fled from their husbands. This is what I believed for 1 1/2 years.
SEIERSTAD: And then it was only actually when the brother Ishmael (ph) - when he gave me - altogether it's 2 1/2 years of chat logs - when I realized they never wanted to go. This is not accurate. This is...
SHAPIRO: You mean they never wanted to leave Syria.
SHAPIRO: They never wanted to come back to Norway.
SEIERSTAD: And then after a while, I had to confront him with everything. And I just said that if you want me to write what you told me now, you have no credibility. And then he left, and we didn't talk for months.
SEIERSTAD: And then after with some mediating we met up again, and he has agreed to this book. But I have to know - like, everything in the book has to have two sources.
SHAPIRO: I'm just imagining the experience of this father, Sadiq, who for years has been telling anyone who will listen that his daughters are being held in Syria against their will, that they've run away from their abusive husbands, that they want to come back to Norway. And at some point, you confront him with the fact that that is a lie, that his daughters want to be where they are and they do not want to come home to him. What must that have done to him?
SEIERSTAD: Oh, it's so painful because they deceived him in so many ways. So he thought they are Western girls. I'm sure they want to come back. They don't want to come back. They tell him, Dad, go home. We are married here. We want to stay here. They are happier there than with him, even though they can die any day, so it's like - it's double grief.
SHAPIRO: Do you think he convinced himself? Do you think he believed that they did want to come back even though all the evidence showed they did not?
SEIERSTAD: Well, what he tells me is we will never really know. Can we really be sure when I say but they don't want to come back? He always answers, we don't really know. So he has never admitted, yes, you're right, they don't want to come home. He's still saying we don't know.
SHAPIRO: Asne Seierstad, thanks so much for talking with us.
SEIERSTAD: Thank you for having me on the show.
SHAPIRO: Her new book is "Two Sisters: A Father, His Daughters, And Their Journey Into The Syrian Jihad." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.