Norway's promise: a measured counter-terrorism strategy

Norway's response so far holds the hope of a measured counter-terrorism strategy. But the media and policy makers elsewhere also need to maintain a measured approach to terrorist attacks, argues Jaffar Al-Rikabi.

Hundreds of thousands of Norwegians gathered on Monday to mourn the 76 killed in last Friday’s terrorist attack,  laying flowers and sending moving messages of peace, diversity and tolerance. “In the middle of all the tragedy, I am proud to live in a country which has managed to stand tall in a critical time,” Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg told mourners at one church. “Our response is more democracy, more openness and more humanity, but never naïveté.”

The revelation of Anders Behring Breivik’s responsibility corrected earlier reports and analyses that alleged it was another al-Qaeda attack, with Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun, Britain’s best-selling daily paper, publishing a banner headline Saturday declaring: ‘Al Qaeda Massacre: Norway’s 9/11.’ For some Norwegians, as reported by the Washington Post, news that it was not al-Qaeda came as a relief; others disagreed. ‘If Islamic people do something bad, you think, “Oh, it’s Muslims”,’ one interviewee said, ‘But if a white Protestant does something bad, you just think he’s mad. That’s something we need to think about.’

Harrowing details of Breivik’s meticulous planning soon emerged, with revelation of a manifesto he posted on the web under the pseudonym ‘Andrew Berwick.’ 

Every terrorist act of such a heinous nature requires a villain. But focusing on a single man, and on the ‘evilness’ of his actions, as much of the  media coverage has done, risks failing to see the larger picture, and thus of proscribing the wrong policy solutions. 

Breivik – as far as current intelligence reveals – was not part of a shadowy terrorist organisation of the scale of Al-Qaeda. But that does not mean the terrible crimes he committed took place in a vacuum, to be explained solely by a warped mind. 

Ploughing through Breivik’s 1,518-page manifesto (much of which is a copy-paste of other extreme right-wing writers), the parallels between Breivik’s ideology and that of al-Qaeda and other terrorist organisations are striking. Each has a longing for a romanticised mythical version of the past they will themselves recreate, each use scapegoats to explain the failings of the present, and each illustrate an alarming willingness to use violence to fulfil their desired objectives. In the end, each plays the role of God – determining right and wrong, judging who is guilty and innocent, and handing out punishment as each deems fit.  

Identifying scapegoats

For al-Qaeda, the villain is the West, the traitors are any Muslims who disagree with their fanatical ideology; for Breivik, the villain is Islam, and the traitors are the ‘multiculturalists,’ feminists and global capitalists that have enabled Muslim invasion by weakening Europe. 

No Muslim can win Breivik’s sympathy: many, he acknowledges, are ‘good people,’ but they are only good because they are simultaneously ‘bad Muslims’ who ‘ignore’ Islam’s teachings [50]. Such good Muslims, Breivik maintains, can never be relied on, because ultimately, they can never change ‘Islam proper’: ‘To pacify Islam would require its transformation into something that it is not’ [100].

Thus, in much the same way that Al-Qaeda manufactures its own depiction of an evil, immoral west, Breivik defines Islam in the way that suits him – and in fact in the way al-Qaeda and other extremist Muslims have done – selecting Koranic verses out of context, and citing controversial narrations and unsubstantiated stories. In the end, both portrayals are built to serve the same goal: to justify the sense of inevitable enmity, and thus necessitate all-out-war. 

Reclaiming a mythical past

Al-Qaeda seeks the glory of old by reinstating a caliphate, Breivik by a “Pan-Nordic union,” [1155] and a Europe unified by a “traditional church” where the Pope is the “ultimate knight of Christendom,” [1134] and where “no Muslims are left in the country” [1302]. 

The centrality of violence and cruelty

Unsurprisingly, violence plays a central part: it is, for Breivik, the “mother of change” [839]. Cruelty is justified and absolutely necessary to delivering the political message: “Once you decide to strike, it is better to kill too many than not enough, or you risk reducing the desired ideological impact of the strike” [837]. 

Judge, Jury and Executioner

Like Bin Laden and other terrorist leaders, Breivik assumes for himself the role of “jury, judge and executioner... representing the highest military and political authority in Western European countries” [1117]. 

A measured counter-terrorism strategy 

Some of Breivik’s theories are laughable – such as the claim that the European Union has a secret ‘Eurabia’ project [280] or the claim that feminism has ‘feminised’ and weakened European men, making the continent vulnerable to a Muslim invasion [345]. Others are dangerously seductive, and echo arguments that have sadly become increasingly common place, including the claim that immigrants offer ‘zero’ economic benefits to Europe, or that Islam and Muslims are inherently violent and antithetical to the west.

Confronting the ideals and methods of the Breiviks of today’s world requires a similar counter-terrorism approach to the one that should have been implemented against al-Qaeda in the aftermath of the tragedy of 9/11. 

Moralising rhetoric, infringes on civil liberty and the abandoning of the law – precisely when it is needed most – is not the right counter-terrorism strategy. Nor is a focus of resources solely on Muslim extremists. Instead, as some notable academic contributions have recommended, government policy can be enriched by historicising terrorism to learn from past world experiences (see, for instance,  Adam Roberts); tackling the infrastructure that sustains terrorism (see  Audrey Kurth Cronin and John Arquilla); and maintaining principled trust in the law and respect for human rights (see Rosemary Foot and Adam Roberts).  Such works suggest six key guiding principles for a sensible counter-terrorism strategy:

1. Historicising terrorism

Terrorism did not begin with 9/11 nor, sadly, will it end with Norway’s recent tragedy. As a tactic, terror has been used throughout the ages: in modern history, it provided the spark for the First World War, it was common in Europe in the shape of the Red Brigades in the 1970s, and it was rife in colonial struggles in North Africa, conducted both by insurgents and states (the Algerian war of independence being the definitive example). Such experiences are studied, but it seems their lessons have not been distilled widely enough (for instance, how counter-productive torturing accused terrorists frequently proves to be). And they qualify the knee-jerk impulse that terrorism today is wholly new and thus requires completely different tools and laws of war. 

2. Debunking the ideologies that nourish terrorism

Terrorism thrives because there are ideologies that sustain it – whether it’s fanatical Wahabbi scholars in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, or right-wing fascists in the mould of Breivik and the like. Their allegations must be debunked with enlightened and open debate, and this is a responsibility that falls not only on the shoulders of political and religious leaders, but also on the media, NGOs and society at large. In the context of Europe and the far right, informed discussion and review of policies on immigration, multiculturalism, and other controversial areas needs to be conducted without resort to sensationalised media stories and political point-scoring. 

3. Disrupting the financial and organisation networks that sustains terrorism

Terrorism also thrives because it is maintained by networks of finance, organisation and collaboration. These networks must be identified and disrupted – one of the most pressing and difficult challenges that face intelligence agencies today. But this must always be done in ways compliant with domestic and international law, and in ways that do not provoke foreign publics. It is also important to note that terrorist attacks can be conducted on minute budgets, and that no amount of financial oversight and intervention will eliminate the risk of lone wolf attacks.

4. Undermining support for terrorism

Terrorism thrives because it wins over people to its cause, either as active participants or sympathisers. Every effort must be made, therefore, to win-back people vulnerable to the appeals of terrorism movements. That requires conducting a cost/benefit calculus to every counter-terrorism mission. For instance, are US  drone attacks in Yemen or Pakistan (even if conducted with secret permission from national governments) effective tools, or do they do more harm than good, terrorising and alienating locals and thus pushing them closer to extremist groups? 

5. Trusting in the law and due process to deal with terrorism’s perpetrators

When terrorists and alleged terrorists are sought and captured, it must be so within the mandate of the laws that we pride ourselves for having. Norwegian authorities’ reaction thus far is worthy of praise: putting Breivik on trial without televising each court session takes away a media platform for the furthering of his cause (something Breivik identifies in his manifesto, see page 1103) but without compromising the workings of the law and due process. 

6. Treating terrorism as a problem of error as much as of evil

You win more vulnerable people, Adam Roberts compellingly argues, by articulating terrorism as “dangerously wrong conduct” rather than simply evil. The people from whom the terrorists come from (fundamentalist Muslims; right-wing extremists etc.) will more likely be won over by a narrative that stresses the error of terror tactics, than a preachy condemning tone that threatens to cobble sympathisers and active participants in the same simplified category of ‘evil.’

These principles are difficult to implement in practice. And even if they are implemented successfully, they cannot guarantee the end of terrorism altogether. No policy can do that. But as a launch-pad for discussion and review, they add depth to counter-terrorism strategies in ways that should make less likely a repetition of tragic scenes like those that befell Norwegians last Friday. 

About the author

Educated at Oxford and Georgetown Universities, Jaffar Al-Rikabi is a researcher in Middle East politics and economics