Norway’s nightmare started at 1536 hours on Friday, July 22. A bomb exploded in Oslo’s government district and killed at least seven people, though press reports of the actual death toll have varied. A Norwegian explosives expert, Per Nergaard, believes the bomb contained at least 500 kilograms of explosives.
One of the Scandinavia’s most popular tabloid papers, VG (Verdens Gang), was located nearby. Some reports claim that VG republished some of the controversial cartoons, originally found in the Danish paper Jyllands-Posten that depicted Muhammad in a less-than-favorable light. In fact another Norwegian tabloid, Dagbladet, had published a provocative cartoon of Mohammad as a pig and not, in fact, those from the Danish paper. This “insult” became a rallying cry for Islamists worldwide. In Syria angry protestors burned the Norwegian embassy while Muslim taxi drivers blocked streets in Oslo. However, based on the location of the Oslo bomb blast the government buildings and not the paper were the target.
Several hours later a gunman, possibly working alone, slaughtered over 70 young men and women during a 90-minute rampage at a Norwegian Labor Party youth camp on the small island of Utøya, located in the Tyrifjorden, one of the country’s largest lakes.
To put these horrific events in perspective, the death toll in Norway was larger, on a per capita basis, than the attacks on the Twin Towers and Pentagon combined.
Speculation of al Qaeda Involvement
Almost immediately after the Oslo explosion, experts speculated about those responsible. The most popular conclusion was that either al Qaeda or an affiliate organization was behind the outrages, possibly carried out by home-grown extremists. After all, Norway has been involved in both NATO operations in Afghanistan (though their operations have been limited to two northern cities) and Libya. In September of last year Norwegian authorities also assisted in the arrest of three Islamic terrorists, all living in Norway with alleged al Qaeda ties, for planning terrorist attacks, possibly inside Norway.
Additionally, published but unconfirmed reports in several news sources, to include the New York Times, stated that Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami (“Helpers of God”) claimed responsibility for the attack.
However, the police arrested Anders Behring Breivik, a native, blue-eyed, blond Norwegian. Police took him into custody on Utøya. Breivik was believed to have connections to right-wing extremists, possibly in both Norway and Great Britain. It now appears, however, that these “connections” were only symbolic. Breivik, who has reportedly admitted responsibility for both atrocities, is a psychotic “Lone Wolf,” whose motivation came from his own twisted world view and lack of a moral compass. Except for a couple of minor traffic infractions, it appears Breivik has no criminal record and has not been under investigation by Norwegian police authorities.
The rapid swing in the press away from blaming Islamists and towards “right-wing extremists” reflects the recent announcements of further investigations from a variety of governmental and UN authorities into these groups. Criticism has emerged in Europe where, at least according to a New York Times article, “...some experts say a climate of hatred in the political discourse has encouraged violent individuals.” Though this preposterous belief lost traction in the U.S. after Jared Loughner’s attempt to assassinate Representative Gabrielle Giffords, it may find support in Europe.
Several Lessons Learned
For law enforcement, the events in Oslo reinforce some already hard-won lessons:
• The first report is always wrong. Despite the best intentions, the chaos in any terrorist attack or other criminal event will inevitably result in poor initial reports. Officers, responding to calls for service, often find that the situation at the scene is significantly different than what was reported. The reporting problem does not necessarily lie with the inaccuracy of the reporting party or the interpretation by a dispatcher, but instead is a natural and expected part of the confusion.
• The suspect will not necessarily be of current or immediate interest to law enforcement. The U.S. Secret Service’s 1999 “Exceptional Case Study Project” offers important insights into the assassination of public figures, but may also have applicability into Lone Wolf terrorist attacks as well. Terrorists will have the initiative. As with an active shooter, an immediate, decisive, and if possible overwhelming law enforcement response is critical to ending the carnage.
• Responding to terrorist attacks and active shooters requires planning and training. It’s unlikely that emergency responders were prepared to work on two nearly-simultaneous attacks. This problem is not unique to Norway. Police in Russia and India, who have vastly more experience in dealing with these kinds of threats, have not done much better.
Norway has not had an attack of this magnitude since the Second World War. It is a nation that publicly prides itself on openness, consensus, and democratic inclusion. But, as Breivik has demonstrated, those public feelings are not universal, especially when a lunatic on the edge can take his personal angst and turn it into pure public evil.