Center for World Conflict and Peace

Center for World Conflict and Peace

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Thoughts on the Norway Attacks

While Yohanes has already written a blog post on the recent violence in Norway, I feel compelled to add my take as well. The bloodshed, the destruction, such a tragedy. The stories of innocent children being gunned down from behind are horrific. But it's more than that. Admittedly, as someone of Norwegian ancestry (with family from Bergen), this set of events has especially tugged at my heartstrings.

Originally, I planned on writing a comprehensive analytical post on what happened in Norway. But Yohanes beat me to it. And he did a nice job. So instead, I'd like to put forward a few points that Yohanes didn't discuss. In this way, I hope my arguments below complement rather than overlap with what Yohanes has already written.

1. We usually think of the relationship between large terror groups and small cells and single individuals as one in which the latter learns from and mimics the former. After all, it is the large terror groups that have the manpower, funding, organizational structure, and base of skills to do things their smaller counterparts probably can't do: to be ambitious, to innovate, to adapt to the existing political and strategic landscape. But terrorism expert Bruce Hoffman argues we could see the relationship between the large and small reversed in the future. Specifically, he claims that that terror groups like al-Qaeda could copy the Norway attacks.

When we think about the direction that al-Qaeda is heading, there is some justification for Hoffman's claim. Al-Qaeda is a weakened and decapitated group that, aside from its main bases in Af-Pak and Yemen, mostly relies on small cells and lone wolf attacks. This where AQ is right now. And it's no shock that AQ leaders have recently called on its supporters to launch violent solo attacks. After seeing the extent of the death and destruction caused by Anders Behring Breivik, it's possible that AQ might encourage this specific type of lone wolf attack. If AQ leaders want the organization to continue to function and remain relevant, they must adapt to existing external pressures and constraints (chiefly, though not exclusively, from the West) that they currently face. One way to do that is to get creative in way that requires little cost and effort from AQ headquarters.

2. The attacks are a reminder that just as there are extremists in the Islamic camp, there are also non-Islamic extremists around the world. Whereas most radical, violent Muslims have one main unifying argument--namely, that the West is conducting a crusade against their co-religionists, culture, land, and Islam more generally--the grievances of non-Islamic terrorists can be boiled down, with some exceptions, to two discrete categories. On the one hand, we find delusional anti-government groups and individuals who believe the state is out to get them (take their guns, limit their freedom, etc.). And on the other hand, we see anti-immigrant kooks, like Breivik, who worry than an oncoming wave foreign peoples will dilute and pervert their culture, laws, values, politics. Nevertheless, both sides, both Islamic and non-Islamic terrorists, have something in common: they believe they're protecting their way of life against an existential threat.

Certainly, some, though by no means all, of the non-Islamic terrorists are in fact Christian devotees. But of the Christian terrorists, keep in mind that not all are really religious fundamentalists. Some are cultural Christians. This is the label that best fits Breivik. Sure, at times he professed his Christian bona fides in his 1500-page manifesto. But a close read also reveals that he's not a Christian fundamentalist. This isn't someone who takes inspiration from the Bible or prayer or a Christian community of worshipers. Rather, Breivik supports Christianity because he views it as a potent force that has upheld the historical political status quo order in Europe. In his mind, were Christianity to be supplanted by Islam, Europe's usual way of life would be finished.

The basic crux of point #2 here should seem obvious, but it needs to be said. The war on terrorism has probably blinded some Westerners to the fact non-Islamic terrorists exist. Just look at the first gut reactions of American pundits and media in the wake the Noway attacks. Quite a few were extremely quick to blame Islamic terrorists in general or al-Qaeda specifically, with almost little to no evidence to support such assertions. Furthermore, in the U.S., the notion of far right extremists has become heavily politicized. When the Department of Homeland Security released a 2009 report entitled "Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment," the White House was slammed by conservative politicians, pundits, bloggers, and groups, calling it a "hit job" and a "piece of propaganda." Newt Gingrich called for the firing of the report's author. And under immense pressure, Secretary Napolitano caved in, apologized for the report's contents and promised a re-do in the future.

3. Is the violence a manifestation of the broader rise of the new far right in European politics? Over the last few years, far right parties have been gaining ground politically in France, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Germany, and Austria. Their political message essentially preys on the fear that the Other (usually minorities, but also at times international institutions and great power countries) will sully and ultimately destroy European culture, politics, history, and economics. The most pressing concern, according to the fearmongers, is the potential Islamization of Europe via a steady influx of Muslim immigrants from Africa, South Asia, and the Middle East. These parties tend to fuse such disparate but in some cases related strands of thought as populism, nationalism, and anti-Islamism

Does this nascent climate of hostility toward the Other in European societies motivate someone like Breivik to commit mass murder? At this point, we don't know, and it's probably a bit unfair to put direct blame on these parties. Yet at the same time, we shouldn't rule out the possibility that there's some connection between the two. It's conceivable that ugly messages received by unstable people at the just the right moment in their lives could prove disastrous.

4. It will be interesting to see how the Norway attacks impact the European debate about multiculturalism. In the last year, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and British Prime Minister David Cameron, among others, announced that multiculturalism has failed. In their view, governments that support multiculturalism have unintentionally created the emergence of small pockets of segregated communities along ethno-religious lines in which each has its own values and interests. According to the critics, the big problem is when politically correct authorities leave these communities alone and untouched, refusing to force them to adapt to the wider society, for it's under these circumstances that extremism and radicalism is more likely to take hold and thrive. The issue now is that these same views are espoused by the Norway killer. Does Breivik's beliefs delegitimize the position of multiculturalism critics in the eyes of Europeans?

5. I hope the attacks serve as a wake-up call that even peaceful, non-militaristic, internationally cooperative countries like Noway can be targeted by terrorism. Now, to be clear, I am not suggesting that Norway begin a massive arms program or transition to a police state. But the country ought to take the security of citizens more seriously. For example, Breivik was allowed to shoot unfettered for 90 minutes. That's just unacceptable, no matter what excuses the Norwegian government or police forces offer. The place from which the shooter bought fertilizer was alarmed enough to reportedly notify the authorities. What happened there? Unfortunately, I assume the police failed to investigate him or place him under surveillance. But apparently, Norway's lax concern for security goes beyond these recent events. According to a 2010 Wikileaks document, Norwegian officials believed the country was immune to terrorism, that violent attacks were things that happened in other countries, not idyllic Norway. Such attitudes alarmed American officials, who saw Norway as complacent and unprepared to deal with security threats.

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