Chilling hostage ‘for sale’ poster highlights ISIS propaganda drive
Timing of offer to sell Norwegian hostage is significant given the upcoming local elections in the European country
The self-proclaimed Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group, a terrorist organization holding onto large swathes of territory in eastern Syria and northern Iraq, announced on Wednesday that its Norwegian and Chinese hostages were for sale. Soliciting buyers, ISIS published a chilling poster of the Norwegian hostage, Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad, 48, wearing a yellow prison uniform, accompanied by specific details of how his freedom could be purchased. In the poster, which was addressed to “pagans, crusaders, and their allies,” the terror group also accused the Norwegian government of having “abandoned” Mr. Grimsgaard-Ofstad for not having succumbed to its ransom demands.
Responding to the chilling announcement only hours later, Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg delivered a measured response in which she stressed that her government would not pay ransom to the terrorist group while revealing that a crisis team had been working since January to secure Grimsgaard-Ofstad’s release. It was only, however, after it became clear to ISIS that Oslo would not give in to its demands that the hostage’s identity was released as part of an effort to apply pressure on the government. ISIS’ underlying message is clear: unless its demands are met, the Norwegian hostage will inevitably face a similar fate as seen in the gruesome public executions the group has been known to have carried out in the past.
The timing of the ISIS announcement could not have been more significant as it arrived only days before Norway’s upcoming municipal elections, in which the country’s conservative ruling party is expected to secure additional gains. The conservative party, along with its junior coalition partner, has from the outset campaigned for limited immigration while arguing that it would be up to the various municipalities to determine how many Syrian refugees would be resettled into the local communities.
By making its hostage demand so close to the Norwegian elections, ISIS is arguably not aiming to influence its outcome, but rather as an attempt to use the event to maximize its propaganda messaging by spreading fear and anxiety. While ISIS has proven to be an opportunity driven enterprise, by releasing the identity of the Norwegian citizen it is not only signaling that his life is hanging in the balance but that he will be used as a propaganda tool to spread fear among Europeans already wary of the thousands of Syrian refugees crossing their borders. This, coupled with ISIS’ chilling aptitude for manipulating social media for its propaganda purposes, demonstrates that it is ISIS that is unwilling to find a solution to the hostage’s release as it arguably fully understands that Oslo cannot possibly meet its demands.
Given the gravity of the situation, it is not surprising that the Norwegian government has released few details about the Grimsgaard-Ofstad saga. According to Norwegian media reports, Mr. Grimsgaard-Ofstad was a student who voluntarily crossed the Turkish-Syrian border as he was known to have developed an interest in the many conflicts of the Middle East coupled with an apparent appetite for adventure.
What are Norway’s options?
Last June, Danish photographer Daniel Rye Ottosen was freed from ISIS captivity even though the Danish government had refused to pay a ransom; his family reportedly scraped together three and a half million euros to pay for his freedom. While Prime Minister Solberg asserted that she would not negotiate with a terrorist organization, Mr. Grimsgaard-Ofstad’s family could attempt to follow the Ottosen model by raising the necessary funds. A second option would be for the Norwegian government to solicit Qatari assistance as Doha successfully helped free American journalist Theo Padnos from Jabhat al-Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate operating in Syria. While al-Nusra broke away from ISIS in February 2014, and the two factions have been battling each other since then, it is conceivable that Qatar through its network of Syrian rebel groups could find a fixer who could potentially help secure Mr. Grimsgaard-Ofstad’s release.
By releasing Mr. Grimsgaard-Ofstad’s identity, ISIS, unfortunately, appears to signal its unwillingness to negotiate a ransom with a third party to secure his release. Instead, the terrorist group seems determined to capitalize on the massive Syrian migration wave to Europe by using the Norwegian hostage for his maximum propaganda purposes to advance its cynical agenda. With dozens of Norwegian nationals estimated to have traveled to Syria for Jihadi purposes, Mr. Grimsgaard-Ofstad’s yet undecided fate is bound to have a profound impact on how the country grapples with the Syrian refugee crisis well beyond Monday’s municipal elections.
Sigurd Neubauer is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington.
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