Cautionary tale

Swedish teenager rescued from ISIS highlights unusual side of global terrorism: accidental extremism

Marilyn Nevalainen. (Kurdistan Region Security Council)

New details are emerging about the life of Marilyn Nevalainen, the Swedish teen rescued from ISIS captivity. In May of 2015, Nevalainen fled from her home in Sweden with her boyfriend to ISIS-occupied Mosul while she was pregnant. Nevalainen and her infant son — she gave birth while in ISIS territory — were rescued by Kurdish forces two weeks ago, an unusually happy outcome, given that foreigners rarely make it out of the ISIS captivity alive. Nevalainen is just one of many European teenagers who have run away in recent years to join extremist groups, but her case is something of an anomaly, because her fate seemed all but sealed in the war-torn region. A chilling video obtained by a Swedish tabloid appears to be addressed to her parents and contained an ominous message. A young man with a beard speaks directly into the camera and identifies himself as Mokhtar Mohammed Ahmed. Believed to be her boyfriend, he speaks in Swedish and says, “You can just forget about this little girl, because she is never coming back.”

The teenager’s journey to Mosul appears to have been fueled primarily by impulsivity and naïveté. Nevalainen grew up in a rural village in Sweden. The New York Times quotes a neighbor who describes her as “a problem girl,” and there does indeed seem to have been trouble within the home. Nevalainen’s family voluntarily placed her in foster care, and she left school when she was 14. Nevalainen then fell in with a Muslim teenager, five years her senior, who had recently immigrated from North Africa. In an interview with Kurdish television after her rescue, Nevalainen said of the relationship, “At first we were good together, but then he started to look at ISIS videos and start 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.”

Without fully understanding what she was getting into, Nevalainen found herself in war-torn Mosul, with an infant to care for. Her boyfriend was soon killed during a battle. Nevalainen reached out to her mother, and ultimately was extricated by Kurdish forces — the second rescue attempt. Kurdish forces launched a rescue operation in October that was unsuccessful. But her story is, as Alissa J. Ruben of the Times puts it, “a running-away-from-home nightmare for the age of global terrorism.”

Read the full story at The New York Times.

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