On 18 November 2015 Islamic State soldiers in Syria murdered a hostage. A 48-year-old Norwegian man in a prisoner’s yellow jumpsuit was casually shot dead.
Islamic State had been trying to get a ransom for Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad since it grabbed hold of him in March. His previous captors had given up trying to squeeze money out of the Norwegian government and passed him on to the Islamist fanatics.
Norway refused to pay kidnappers. It tried to persuade Islamic State to let Grimsgaard-Ofstad go free. All the Nordic negotiators got in return was videos showing the hostage suffering the after effects of sadistic torture.
The negotiations were top secret until September when Islamic State published photographs in its Dabiq online magazine showing a grim looking Grimsgaard-Ofstad, along with a 50-year-old Chinese hostage called Fan Jinghui.
The headline read: ‘For Sale‘.
The Business Of Kidnapping
‘To whom it may concern of the pagans, crusaders, and their allies, as well as what are referred to as human ‘rights’ organizations,‘ ran the Islamic State text, ‘this Norwegian prisoner was abandoned by his government, which did not do its utmost to purchase his freedom. Whoever would like to pay the ransom for his release and transfer can contact the following telegram number.’
If Islamic State had been hoping to put pressure on Norway, it miscalculated. There was no ransom payment. Grimsgaard-Ofstad and Fan Jinghui were murdered two months after the pictures appeared.
Fresh photographs appeared in Dabiq showing Grimsgaard-Ofstad on the ground with a bullet hole in his head.
The world media ran stories on the execution, spat at Islamic State’s vicious cruelty, and immediately forgot about Grimsgaard-Ofstad. Journalists knew little about him anyway. He had gone to Syria on his own for unknown purposes. He lived in Oslo and was studying for a masters in Political Science.
But there was a lot more to him than that.
Man With A Mission
Ole Johan Grimsgaard-Ofstad was born in Porsgrunn, a largish town in the Telemark area of Norway. As a young man he was quiet and reserved, fond of reading. He got interested in politics as he got older and studied Political Science at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology in Trondheim.
Whatever politics he’d studied at university turned him strongly to the right. He joined a far-right group called Nordmenn Mot Innvandring (Norwegians Against Immigration) and in November 1991 got himself in the newspapers after a fight between left and right erupted during a meeting by Arne Myrdal, the controversial leader of NMI.
At this time Grimsgaard-Ofstad seems to have been a 24-year-old studying History in Volda, down the coast from Trondheim. Possibly it was post-graduate work. The fight at the NMI rally left him with bruising and stitches. A Volda newspaper called Møre tracked him down for an interview.
Møre seems to have regarded him as a typical Nazi skinhead, although the photograph shows a man with thinning hair and a moustache somewhere between Nietzsche and the Village People. Grimsgaard-Ofstad insisted he was a nationalist, not a Nazi.
The newspaper was not convinced.
Man With A Gun
A few years later Grimsgaard-Ofstad took a more extreme path in life. He went to Bosnia and fought for the Serbs.
In 1991 Yugoslavia had broken apart into a civil war of competing nationalisms after the death of Communist dictator Josep Tito removed the region’s unifying force. In the first year it was Slovenia and Croatia fighting for independence from a Serb-controlled government. A year later Bosnia went up in flames as Muslims, Croats, and Serbs fought to carve out their own nations.
Far-right feeling in the West supported the Croats with their resurrected Ustaše symbols and celebration of a WWII regime that allied itself with the Nazis. The Hrvatske obrambene snage (Croatian Defence Forces – HOS), paramilitary wing of a local far-right party, welcomed foreign volunteers who shared its ideology. Neo-Nazis from nations including Germany, France, and America signed up.
Grimsgaard-Ofstad went the other route. The Serbs in Bosnia had plenty of support from Russia and other Orthodox nations but were widely seen as Communist villains by the kind of far-righters Grimsgaard-Ofstad would have been associating with in Norway. Later, after NATO and America intervened in Kosovo against the Serbs, far-right sympathies moved to the Slavic side and stayed there.
But in the early 1990s the Norwegian Political Sciences graduate was going against his comrades by joining a Bosnian Serb paramilitary unit.
Man With An Ideology
No-one seems to know what Grimsgaard-Ofstad did in Bosnia. He is rumoured to have belonged to the Бели вукови (White Wolves) paramilitary unit which was involved in fierce fighting on the Moševačkom hill.
The unit was well known for being home to a large number of Russian volunteers. No-one seems to have objected to a Norwegian comrade with an interest in far-right politics and paganism.
After the fighting stopped, the facts around Grimsgaard-Ofstad’s life get foggy. He ended up back home in the Norwegian capital of Oslo. Whatever he did for money remains obscure, although friends seem to have described him as a ‘political scientist‘ so perhaps there was think tank work involved or something freelance. But newspapers that dug into his background found only a succession of manual labour jobs with house moving companies.
Despite the politics and war, he remained a quiet and solitary man who preferred to deal with his family through letters rather than face to face. His mother and aunt got regular correspondence. He interacted with the rest of the world through a computer screen. Grimsgaard-Ofstad only broke his natural reserve when politics was mentioned.
Especially Middle Eastern politics.
Man With A Map
As the 21st century got underway Grimsgaard-Ofstad took an increasing interest in Islam and the Middle East. He started to be seen around Oslo wearing Palestinian scarves. He made contact with Lebanese nationalists.
The far-righter supported President Assad’s government when 2011 protests in Syria turned into a vicious civil war and Islamic State was born. He left comments on webpages about Zionism and the superiority of the ‘Nordic races‘ virulent enough to attract the attention of anti-racist activists.
His Facebook page contained daily updates and posts about Syria and other hot spots in the Middle East. He travelled to the region (although probably not Syria itself) in 2013. The next year he re-enrolled in Trondheim’s Norwegian University of Science and Technology for a Masters in Political Science.
By his late 40s Grimsgaard-Ofstad fitted into the image of what the media would soon be calling ‘alt-right’: a part populist, part-white nationalist, part-identitarian internet activist with a bust of Beethoven on his desk and Facebook likes for neo-folk bands and obscure indie bands and Middle Eastern news sites and Scandinavian mythology sites and Eurasian discussion forums where Aleksandr Dugin was regarded as a wise sage. He cheered on Putin’s Russia in the battle over Ukraine.
In January 2014 he left his studies and travelled to Syria.
Man With Nothing
If anyone knows why Grimsgaard-Ofstad flew to Turkey and made contact with men prepared to smuggle him over the border into Syria then they aren’t talking.
The Norwegian had spoken to associates about visiting the area to help with his Political Studies course but others think he could have been looking to use his Bosnian Serb military skills, presumably by joining forces loyal to Assad’s government. Whatever he intended, it wasn’t to be taken hostage by the same men who smuggled him across the frontier. The anonymous group contacted the Norwegian government and demanded millions of euros in ransom. Oslo refused to pay. After a few months the smugglers handed Grimsgaard-Ofstad on to Islamic State.
And some time in November 2015 he was killed and became just another victim, with that grim-faced photograph with the wandering eye and cropped skull stuck forever on news websites.
What did a 48-year-old man, who looked older and whiter-haired than he should have at that age, hope to find in Syria? Information? The thrill of combat? A heroic death in battle? Political contacts? A way forward for the populist far-right in Europe?
Instead he found captivity and torture at the hands of violent jihadists who didn’t care about his politics or his world view or his lonely life behind a computer screen. They only cared about squeezing a ransom out of the Norwegian government. And that didn’t happen.
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