Swedish teen joined ISIS out of ignorance

Marilyn Nevalainen, now 16, and her infant son are back in Sweden after being rescued on Feb 17 by Kurdish special forces in northern Iraq. Her boyfriend was killed fighting in Ramadi in western Iraq.
Marilyn Nevalainen, now 16, and her infant son are back in Sweden after being rescued on Feb 17 by Kurdish special forces in northern Iraq. Her boyfriend was killed fighting in Ramadi in western Iraq.PHOTO: KURDISTAN REGION SECURITY COUNCIL

In a twist to a familiar European tale, her story is not one of ideology but of rebelliousness

MARK MUNICIPALITY (Sweden) • It was a running-away-from-home nightmare for the age of global terrorism. Marilyn Nevalainen, a pregnant teenager, decided to follow her boyfriend last year when he set out to fight with militants, leaving the lakes and forests of south-west Sweden for life under the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) in the desert heat of Iraq.

Apparently lacking any clear idea of what she was getting herself into, she ended up with militants near Mosul, with a new baby to care for and her boyfriend dead on an Iraqi battlefield.

Remarkably, Marilyn, now 16, and her infant son made it out alive. They are now back in Sweden.

Much remains unknown about how she turned up two weeks ago in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, and she has not spoken publicly beyond a brief TV interview.

Europe has been troubled for several years by the number of its young people who have run off to join ISIS, and it is increasingly concerned about the potential for them to come home to carry out terrorist acts in their native countries.


I said to him, 'Okay, no problem', because I didn't know what ISIS means, what Islam is, nothing.

MARILYN NEVALAINEN, on her reaction when her boyfriend said he wanted to fight for ISIS.

Marilyn stands out as a rare case in which a young European went unwittingly into the heart of militant territory, ending up with ISIS, and was freed. Her story seems less one of ideology than of teenage rebelliousness and naivete gone awry in a world where, with a bit of determination, a young woman can travel unchallenged from Sweden to the war zones of the Middle East.

The second of at least four daughters, she grew up in a village in Sweden's rural Mark municipality. It was a childhood troubled enough that her family voluntarily placed her in the care of a foster family, according to social service officials.

  • Young radicals

  • Scores of young people across the world are feared to have been radicalised by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), including a 19-year-old Singaporean detained since April last year. Many were intercepted by the authorities before they could reach the Middle East. But some managed to get there. They include:

    • Two Austrian teenage girls, born to Bosnian migrants, were persuaded to go to Syria in April 2014. It is believed they married local fighters there, and they are thought to be pregnant.

    • A 17-year-old who ran away from Australia to join ISIS reappeared months later in a video of the group, vowing to "not stop fighting", said reports in October 2014.

    • University student Syamimi Faiqah, 20, left Malaysia in October 2014 and headed to Syria via Turkey apparently, said Malaysian police. It is thought that she planned to wed an ISIS fighter.

    • A Dutch mother was reported in November 2014 to have travelled to Syria to save her daughter from ISIS militants. She managed to bring the girl back, said the BBC. The teenager was charged back home.

    • A South Korean teenager last seen in Turkey in January last year was found to have tweeted his desire to join ISIS. Seoul's spy agency said the 18-year-old was getting training from ISIS.

    • A boy aged 13, whose family was originally from France, was reportedly killed in January last year while fighting for ISIS. His two brothers were also believed to have died that way.

    • Three British schoolgirls reportedly flew to Turkey in February last year, and are believed to have travelled to Syria to join ISIS. A lawyer for their families said in July last year that two of them had married ISIS fighters.

    • Melbourne teen Jake Bilardi, 18, converted to Islam after his mother died of cancer. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported that he went to Syria to fight for ISIS. He reportedly died in March last year carrying out a suicide bombing in Iraq.

"She was a problem girl," said a long-time neighbour, who spoke on condition that she be identified only as Annika. "She didn't like to go to school and the parents tried to help her, but they were too late and she went away. If she didn't get to do what she wanted, she rebelled."

The case highlights how even villages in the heart of rural Sweden are grappling with the presence of increasing numbers of Muslim refugees, some of whom may bring with them preconceptions about the West and even allegiances to groups in Middle-East conflicts.

In a video that was obtained by a Swedish tabloid, the Aftonbladet, a bearded young man who seems to be her boyfriend and identifies himself as Mokhtar Mohammed Ahmed speaks into the camera in Swedish, saying the reason he and Marilyn left Sweden was racism. "You have forced me to leave because you would not let the two of us live in peace," he says. He adds with anger: "I can't live there because they are racists. I can't live with racist people. Damn racists."

By Marilyn's account, given on Kurdish television once she was out of ISIS territory, she dropped out of school when she was 14 and fell for her boyfriend, a Muslim from North Africa who was five years older and had emigrated to Sweden on his own by 2012, according to records from the Swedish migration board.

It was a little less than a year after they met that the pair left for Syria, in the summer of last year.

In his video, the man believed to be Marilyn's boyfriend says: "You can just forget about this little girl, because she is never coming back."

Kurdish officials said Ahmed was killed fighting in Ramadi, in western Iraq, some time last autumn.

The circumstances of how Marilyn eventually returned remain unclear.

Senior Kurdish officials say she was rescued on Feb 17 by Kurdish special forces without a shot being fired. The officials said they were able to locate her using information derived from her occasional use of the Internet, but offered no details.

The release of foreigners by ISIS is rare; most cases have involved ransoms. Kurdish officials denied that any ransom was paid, and the Swedish government and the girl's parents declined to provide details.

In her interview on Kurdish television, Marilyn said: "At first we were good together, but then he started to look at ISIS videos and started to speak about them and stuff like that, and I don't know anything about Islam, or ISIS, or something, so I didn't know what he meant."

When her boyfriend said he wanted to go fight for ISIS, "I said to him, 'OK, no problem', because I didn't know what ISIS means, what Islam is, nothing."

Soon after she arrived in Mosul, she began to reach out to her mother, according to her own account. In the television interview, she said it "was a really hard life" there.

"In the house we didn't have anything - no electricity, no water - and it was totally different from our life in Sweden," she said.

The number and activities of extremists in Sweden have grown greatly over the past 15 years, according to terrorism experts. Sweden now has more would-be militants per capita going to fight for extremist groups than any European country other than Belgium, according to a study last year by the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence.

Recruiters for ISIS and for other groups, including al-Shabab, target the second generation of immigrants, terrorism experts said.

"The issue of the foreign fighters is quite serious given the numbers but, until last year, there were very few barriers to people going," said Mr Magnus Ranstorp, the research director at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish Defence University.

Those who know the girl and her family said they wanted her homecoming to bode well, but they sounded unsure. "You have to hope that it goes well for her in the future," said Ms Lisbeth Pehrsson, who lived across the street from the family for many years. "And for her little boy, I hope so."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2016, with the headline 'Swedish teen joined ISIS out of ignorance'. Print Edition | Subscribe