Reviewed by Anna Paterson in SBR 2016:2
Review Section: Non-fiction
This immensely readable memoir by a woman convert to orthodox Sunni Islam also gives us an insider’s view of the endless manoeuvring between jihadi fighters and security police forces. The flow of analytical books about radical Islam has been swelled by similar accounts from within terrorist groups but Älskade terrorist is special for two reasons: Anna Sundberg, very much a child of ‘the West’, was a genuine convert but never killed or planned killings, and, also, she stayed the course for sixteen years – facts that set her apart from both willing but short-term jihadis, such as Daveed Gartenstein-Ross, and from deliberate infiltrators, such as Anna Erelle.
Sundberg’s Swedish background alone makes her submission to relentless, religiously ordained domesticity a mystery, all the more opaque because she is so intelligent, courageous and self- aware. Her memoir is ‘told to’ Jesper Huor, a journalist whose books include a collection of interviews carried out in Afghanistan, and who provides occasional comments and investigative research.
The story begins in a nice, middle-class Swedish home: Anna, a popular, pretty schoolgirl, went on to study at the university in Lund where she had a good time – too good, perhaps. She fell in love with an attractive Algerian Muslim and her religious epiphany followed (hash-induced? she wonders now).When they married, her independence vanished at a stroke and, with it, the society that had been hers – she stayed in touch with her parents, but only just. Two babies, one co-wife and one painful separation later (her husband was a crook), Anna was surviving on benefits and the support of other Muslim women, ‘the sisters’, while looking for a new man online. ‘Sliman’, a London-based Algerian, struck her as ‘a serious Muslim’. He was actually Said Arif, a leading member of an international terrorist network under the spiritual leadership of the notorious cleric Abu Qatada. Anna and Said married and went to live in Berlin, where, still as ‘Sliman’, Said dealt in stolen luxury cars and smuggled weapons. Busy with her new life and her two little boys, Anna paid little attention.
Then things began to go wrong for ‘the brothers’, first in Europe, then in the USA, and Said moved on. In the summer of 2001, Anna and the children joined him in the Pankisi Valley in the Caucasus. Perfectly placed for insurgency in Chechnya, it was a hidden, primitive place. While the men trained for jihad in the woods like violent boy-scouts, the women, confined and struggling to provide even decent drinking water, had a hard time. Eighteen months later, the family moved again to, of all places, Damascus. From then on, it was downhill all the way: al-Assad’s secret police ‘disappeared’ Said (he ultimately ended up in a French prison), and placed Anna and the children under house arrest. Resourceful and brave, Anna managed to alert Swedish contacts, but each time the goons moved them into increasingly awful locations – worst of all, a women’s jail.
They got back to Sweden in 2003, and Anna gradually found the strength to get out of the grip of orthodox Islam, and then to tell her story. She insists that her intention is not to question Islam but to tell the story of how an individual’s dreams were shattered. Such benign vagueness is probably the best policy for someone who lives under threat, not only from former potentially murderous co-religionists but also assorted security agencies (the Swedish included). Still, her account exerts a chilling fascination, due precisely to her clear-eyed recall of day-to-day life as circumscribed by Islamic fundamentalism.