Murder in Morocco

Just don't call it Jihad.

It was only last July 29 that Jay Austin and Lauren Geoghegan, a young American couple who had spent the previous year bicycling across much of Africa, Europe, and southern Asia, were murdered by ISIS members in Tajikistan. The story made international headlines. What added to the widespread interest in their fate was the fact that they had kept a blog of their journey, complete with photos and philosophical reflections. Repeatedly they denied the reality of evil and expressed the view that people are basically good. Reader comments on a New York Times article about the couple that appeared after their deaths celebrated them as “heroic,” “authentic,” “idealistic,” “inspiring,” “a Beautiful example of Purity and Light,” and so on. I disagreed. “Their naivete,” I noted in a piece I wrote about them, “is nothing less than breathtaking.”

Now comes the story of Maren Ueland and Louisa Vesterager Jespersen, which captured the interest of people in Norway and Denmark all last week. Ueland (28) was Norwegian; Jespersen (24) was Danish. They were students together at the campus of the University of South-Eastern Norway in Bø, a small Telemark mountain town (pop. 6,000) that happens to be in my own neck of the woods. Both Ueland and Jespersen were majoring in something called friluftsliv og kultur- og naturveiledning, a combination of words that defines precise translation; suffice it to say that the subject is designed for students who want to work in the outdoors, to lead guided tours in the woods, and to point out items of cultural interest to hikers – that sort of thing.

No field of study could be more archetypically Norwegian. Until recently, the official state religion of Norway was Lutheranism, but the country’s real religion is nature – specifically, going for a walk in the mountains: fresh air, quiet, serenity, a sense of being in touch with the eternal and divine. This activity even has its own standard set of rituals, among them the practice of taking along a couple of oranges, a Kvikk Lunsj (that’s a brand name) chocolate bar, a Thermos of hot chocolate and another Thermos containing boiled hot dogs. A common expression here is “Ut på tur, aldri sur” – take a walk in the wood and you’ll always feel good!

Given their choice of majors, it seems a safe bet that the hills filled Ueland’s and Jespersen’s hearts with the sound of music. No, Jespersen wasn’t Norwegian, but for three summers in a row, according to an article in Dagbladet, the “adventuresome” girl worked for a firm that offers holidays involving extreme sports, such as white-water rafting. One imagines that both young women did a good deal of walking in the steep, wild countryside around Bø. And a Norwegian-style reverence for the mountains would certainly explain the trip they planned for their Christmas vacation this year: namely, a hiking tour of the Atlas Mountains of Morocco.

Alas, the tour did not go as planned. On Monday morning, December 17, Ueland and Jespersen were found dead in an “isolated area” in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Specifically, they were found “near Imlil, on the way to Toubkal, north Africa’s highest peak and a popular hiking destination.”

As the week wore on, the news media offered updates on the case. Although neither Ueland nor Jespersen had ever been in Morocco and were not familiar with the territory, they had been backpacking alone. On the last evening of their life, they pitched a tent in which to spend the night. The next morning, a French couple, also tourists, found them dead – one of them in the tent, the other just outside. Both had been subjected to “brutal rape” and then “hacked to death.” One or both of them (sources differ) had been beheaded. The killings have been described as “slaughter” and as having been performed “ISIS style.”

An ID card found in the tent led local police to track down and arrest one suspect in Marrakesh. By late Tuesday, three others had been apprehended in that city. Soon authorities in Morocco and Denmark were suggesting that the culprits were connected to ISIS; by the end of the week their membership in that organization had been established. On Friday afternoon came news that nine more alleged members of the same ISIS cell had been arrested in Marrakesh, Tangier, and other cities. The murders are being treated, at least by Morocco and Denmark, as an act of terrorism – a conclusion supported by a videotape of the atrocity that has been circulating on Moroccan social media and that has been certified as authentic by Danish intelligence. In the video, a man says in French: “This is for Syria, here are the heads of your gods.”

One of our local Telemark newspapers, Varden, reported that Jespersen’s parents hadn’t approved of her vacation plans. “We advised her not to go,” said Jespersen’s mother, Helle. Ueland’s mother, Irene, appears to have been less worried: in the quote from her that has appeared in several newspapers, she expresses surprise at the young women’s fate because, after all, they had “taken all precautions” before going. Of course, the best precaution would have been not going. Another article quoted Thor Arne Hauer, an athletic-looking Norwegian who has worked as a guide in the Atlas Mountains. He said that even after 35 years of experience in Morocco, he always arranges to be accompanied by an authorized native guide when he ventures into the Atlas Mountains. Nobody, he emphasized, should head out into that terrain alone.  

This information doesn’t seem terribly surprising. Why, then, were those two young women so unaware of the dangers they were courting? They seem to have set out on their adventure thinking that the mountains of Morocco were no less menacing than the mountains of Telemark. How can this be? They were in their mid to late twenties, no longer children. They had lived through 911 and all the major jihadist acts that have occurred in Western Europe in the years since then. Surely they had heard of ISIS. Surely they knew that Morocco is an Islamic country (although  a supposedly “moderate” one). And yet they both decided that it was a good idea for them to spend their Christmas holiday hiking, unescorted, in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and sleeping, just the two of them, unarmed, in a tent, in the middle of nowhere.

To say that these poor young women were ignorant is not to criticize them but to point a finger at the people who shaped their image of the Muslim world. Both of them grew up in countries where, in the wake of every deadly act of jihadist terrorism, news reporters and politicians were quick to avoid, or deny, the connection of those atrocities to Islam. Throughout their formative years, the TV channels available to them were full of upbeat programs, and the newspapers and popular magazines on sale at their grocery-story checkouts full of cheery profiles, celebrating the wonderful contributions made to their societies by Muslim immigrants.

All that brainwashing plainly had an impact. In 2015, Ueland posted on her Facebook page a video showing a bearded, Arabic-looking man walking along a city sidewalk and carrying a large, suspicious-looking bag. Nearby, a police car screeches to a halt and a bunch of cops race toward him. But they run right by him and nab a clean-cut young white guy in a business suit, in whose briefcase they find a stash of narcotics. Meanwhile the Arab has met up with his wife and two small children, and pulled from his bag a folding kick scooter, which he presents to his smiling little girl. He then picks up his little boy to carry him on his shoulders, and the family continues on its way. All of this is observed by a bystander, a white woman, who, accompanied by her own little girl, has been worryingly eyeing the Arab and his bag only to realize, in the end, that her suspicions were entirely misplaced and rooted in ugly bigotry. “Think for yourself,” reads the concluding message on the screen, the point being that fear of Islam is based on unfounded Islamophobic propaganda. Of course, the video itself is sheer propaganda, dishonestly suggesting that there is no good reason for concern about Islam. Clearly, this sort of agitprop helped shape Ueland’s thinking – and thereby contributed to her violent death.

It is also worth noting that neither of the young women grew up in or near a major city where they might have been exposed more fully than they apparently were to the harsh reality of Islam: Ueland lived in Bryne (pop. 11,000) on Norway’s rugged west coast; Jespersen hailed from Ikast (pop. 15,000) on the mostly rural peninsula of Jutland. No, these were two young women who grew up seeing relatively little of Islam in real life and being regularly fed the soothing reassurances of politicians such as Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg, who, in her official comments on the double murder, called it “meaningless.” No, it wasn’t meaningless: it was an act of war by Muslims dedicated to the conquest and eradication of infidels.

As it happens, on December 20, the same day Solberg made her statement, the Italian Senate observed a minute of silence in the memory of  Ueland and Jespersen, who were described explicitly as victims of “Islamic terrorism.” But Solberg avoided such language. Even though, by the time of her statement about the murders, a video of the four perpetrators pledging loyalty to ISIS had surfaced online, and Moroccan and Danish authorities had declared the killings an act of terror, Solberg, whose priority in such circumstances is invariably to protect the good name of Islam, refused to do so. Meanwhile, as of Christmas Eve, none of the six major Norwegian party leaders with active Twitter or Facebook accounts had so much as mentioned the murders on their feeds, even though several of them had taken the time to congratulate Norwegian soccer player Ole Gunnar Solskjær for being named manager of Manchester United. Evidently, they’re determined to ride this one out in silence. Let that reprehensible fact sink in for a moment.