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 wage jihad, leaving the lakes and forests of southwest Sweden for life under the Islamic State in the desert heat of Iraq.
© Office of The Chancellor Kurdistan Region Security Council, via Reuters An undated photograph of Marilyn Nevalainen. The Swedish teenager ended up with Islamic State militants near Mosul, Iraq, with a…
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, Ms. Nevalainen, now 16, and her infant son made it out alive. 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 television interview in which she contended that she had followed her boyfriend without knowing “what ISIS means, what Islam is, nothing.” She is now back in Sweden.
Europe has been troubled for several years by the number of its young people who have run off to join the Islamic State, and is increasingly concerned about the potential for them to come home to carry out terrorist acts in their native countries. Ms. Nevalainen stands out as a rare case in which a young European went unwittingly into the heart of jihadist territory, ending up with the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, and was freed.
Her story seems less one of ideology than of teenage rebelliousness and naïveté 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 of Pasi and Ann-Kristin Nevalainen, 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 neighbors and social services officials.
“She was a problem girl,” said a longtime neighbor, who spoke on the 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.”
Annika knew the Nevalainen family from when they lived in Lekvad, a hamlet of winding gravel roads, vast fields and few people. When night falls, the only lights are from the lanterns on distant farm porches.
By Ms. Nevalainen’s account, given on Kurdish television once she was out of the Islamic State’s 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 immigrated 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 2015.
In a jarring video that appears to be addressed to her parents and 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, “You can just forget about this little girl, because she is never coming back.”
The circumstances of how she eventually did come back 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 they offered no details.
A sheikh interviewed in the Kurdish city of Erbil said he had been approached to try to get her out by the girl’s uncle, who he said worked for Unicef. The sheikh said he had received photos of landmarks from Tel Keif, a village near Mosul, that Ms. Nevalainen was able to send to identify her whereabouts. He claimed he had been able to arrange her escape with smugglers and was supposed to be paid $35,000. He said that the next thing he knew, he saw the girl on television — and that he had never been paid.
The release of foreigners by the Islamic State is rare; most cases have involved ransoms. Kurdish officials denied that any ransom was paid, and the Swedish government and the girl’s parents have declined to provide any details.
Ms. Nevalainen’s 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 fiery Middle East conflicts.
In his video, the young man believed to be Ms. Nevalainen’s boyfriend says 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 said. He says with anger: “I can’t live there because they are racists. I can’t live with racist people. Damn racists.”
Kurdish officials said he was killed fighting in Ramadi, in western Iraq, sometime last fall. It is not clear if Ms. Nevalainen was forced to marry another fighter or lived with other women.
The number and activities of extremists in Sweden has grown greatly over the past 15 years, according to terrorism experts. Sweden now has more would-be jihadists per capita going to fight for extremist groups than any European country other than Belgium, according to a 2015 study by the International Center for the Study of Radicalization and Political Violence.
Recruiters for the Islamic State and for Al Qaeda affiliates active in Syria and other groups, including the 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 Magnus Ranstorp, the research director at the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish Defense University.
Ms. Nevalainen’s grandfather, Tenho Nevalainen, told a local newspaper that her parents were worried about her liaison with Mr. Ahmed.
“The family tried to keep her away from him,” he said.
In her interview on Kurdish television, Ms. Nevalainen said, “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.”
When her boyfriend said he wanted to go fight for ISIS, “I say to him, ‘O.K., 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 man believed to be her boyfriend, in his video, said she lacked for nothing.)
An initial effort to rescue her, in October, failed, according to several people close to the family. Her grandfather described that rescue attempt as “botched.”
Those who know her 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 Lisbeth Pehrsson, who lived across the street from the family for many years. “And for her little boy, I hope so.”