Outrage marks new departure not just for Norway but for Europe in general
NORWAY MAY not have foreseen Friday’s unprecedented attack, but the country’s security services were alive to the growing strength of far-right, cross-border extremism.
In its latest annual assessment of national security threats, published in February, Norway’s Police Security Service suggested: “A higher degree of activism in groups hostile to Islam may lead to an increased use of violence. Norwegian far-right extremists are in contact with Swedish far-right extremists, as well as with other far-right extremist groups in Europe.
“Contact also takes place between Norwegian and Russian far-right extremists,” it said.
“An increased level of activity among some anti-Islamic groups could lead to increased polarisation and unease, especially during, and in connection with, commemorations and demonstrations.”
Violent far-right radicalism was hardening, in other words, but the result would most likely be a rise in tensions – “polarisation and unease” – rather than terrorism. This is consistent with the assessment elsewhere in Europe, where far-right violence, while sometimes fatal, has rarely escalated beyond group thuggery or the use of knives.
A report by Europol in 2010 said while the overall threat from right-wing extremism “appears to be on the wane”, the new professionalism in their propaganda and organisation showed far-wing extremist groups “have the will to enlarge and spread their ideology and still pose a threat in EU member states”.
Norway has not quite been insulated from far-right violence up to this. In 2001, for example, Benjamin Hermansen, a 15-year-old boy with a Ghanaian father and a Norwegian mother, was stabbed to death near Oslo by youths attached to the neo-Nazi group Boot Boys. The killing jolted the country, and tens of thousands of people joined anti-racism demonstrations.
But Friday’s events mark a new departure not just for Norway but for Europe in general. Stylistically, at least, the Norwegian attacks evoke the tactics of the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh (also a fertiliser bomb aimed at a government target) more than anything seen on this side of the Atlantic, where far-right bombings have been rare.
One of the most deadly attacks occurred in 1999, when neo-Nazi David Copeland targeted gay and ethnic minority communities in London with three nail bombs. Three people were killed and scores were wounded. Jonathan Evans, the director-general of Britain’s MI5, said last September that the Copeland case was a good example of the threat posed by “the determined lone bomber”.
Of the Scandinavian states, Sweden has long been more preoccupied with its far-right extremists than Norway. “The far-right and extreme-right scene in Norway is incredibly marginalised and cannot be compared with Sweden, where it is very organised and professional, with everything from militant neo-Nazis to Sweden Democrats,” says Lisa Bjurwald, a Swedish journalist who has just completed a book on the far right.
A report commissioned by the government in Stockholm in 2009 found far-right groups had more members, more “experience in deadly violence and greater access to firearms and explosives” than other radical groups.
Four neo-Nazis were charged in early 2005 over a terrorist plot to attack the Swedish parliament building and schools, while last November a Swedish man was arrested in Malmö in connection with more than a dozen unsolved shootings of immigrants, including one killing.
Russia, meanwhile, has seen a wave of far-right violence in the past year – much of it directed at immigrants from central Asia and the Caucasus. During violent disturbances last December, some 5,000 men and women filled Moscow’s Manezk Square, near the Kremlin, making Nazi salutes and shouting racist slogans. Two passersby who looked as though they were from the Caucasus were reportedly beaten by the crowd.
Serbia has also been grappling with a surge in far-right violence. Thousands of black-clad young men rampaged through central Belgrade last October, hurling Molotov cocktails and stun grenades at police trying to protect a gay rights march.
A mix of violent soccer fans and groups with long-standing links to nationalist politicians and organised crime, this movement espouses hatred of minorities and feeds on anger towards the west over its actions against Serbia during the Balkan wars of the 1990s.
Far-right extremism is a broad category, encompassing ideologically disparate groups that draw on often antagonistic influences that include Nazism, xenophobia, racism, gang culture or religion. Their grievances can seem rooted in national preoccupations.
But while Anders Behring Breivik appears to have acted alone and chosen a symbolically domestic target, early reports suggest he was plugged into networks that reached far beyond Norway’s shores. Far-right acts of violence “may appear sporadic and situational”, Europol noted in 2007, but it would be wrong to see those behind them as anything other than “organised and transnational”.