Countering the Radical Right

Behind Norway’s terrorist attack that was luckily thwarted

Has the Norwegian police learned anything from its failure in the 2011 Breivik attacks?

Mette Wiggen
9 September 2019
Police officer walks out of the Al-Noor Islamic Center after a shooting in Baerum, near Oslo, Norway, on Aug. 10, 2019.
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Picture by Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

A recent terror attack at a mosque near Oslo raises important questions about the extent and range of radical right extremism and the Norwegian state response to it. On the 10th of August 2019, the young radical right extremist Philip Manshaus broke into the al Noor mosque in Bærum, 14 km south west of Oslo. He started shooting but was stopped by 65-year-old Mohamed Rafiq who held him while two others went to get help.

There were only three men in the mosque at that time of the day before eid when it would have been full. Before the 21-year-old Manhaus left home he had killed his step sister who was not ethnically white. Little is still known about the motivation for killing the sister.

Emergency services were contacted immediately but it took the police 20 minutes to arrive. Once there, they were slow to enter and even asked Irfan Mushtaq, a board member who arrived later, if he was the gunman. Mushtaq had been notified about the shooting by a joiner who worked on a roof nearby. When he arrived, one of the men was on the phone with the police, but Mushtaq took over. He was surprised that the police delayed entry to the mosque and were more keen on interrogating him about possible internal conflicts within the mosque.

In an interview with Klassekampen, Mushtaq says that he had to plead for them to send an ambulance. While waiting for the police, he went to help Rafiq tie Manshaus down and then proceeded to get Rafiq out.

The police gathered in a corner by the main entrance to the mosque and Mushtaq had to call out six times for them to come over to help, while the police told them to lie down. Mushtaq refused as he wanted to bring Rafiq into safety. He said it was comical standing there with a bleeding old man, while the police is commanding them to lie down.

The following day, members of the mosque met the Prime Minister Erna Solberg who asked basic questions about internet trolling already widely reported in the media. Mushtaq felt let down and said Norway needed to learn from New Zealand and take racism and attacks on Muslims seriously. Mushtaq’s own children were called ‘terrorists’ at school and one of his daughters received a hand-written death threat. The government needs to tackle Islamophobia and racist rhetoric in schools and everywhere else.

As we have seen in recent attacks in the USA, when it comes to individuals and radicalisation, it is difficult to separate normalised racist rhetoric from acts of racist terror. Attackers can respond directly to what they think politicians and people of authority are saying publicly. There is no doubt Norway should have done better after what they learned from Utøya in 2011, and the investment into anti-terror and the responses to the report about the police response by the 2011 commission that lambasted the police. The main findings were that the police responded too slowly and that they should have acted on intelligence about the killer while he was planning the assault.

As in the Breivik case, the police had received warnings about Manshaus a year ago. But they had decided not to act as they thought it unlikely his hatred and online racism would translate into physical attacks. Manshaus had recently praised the New Zealand attacks online. Norway was lucky in this case, but there is no guarantee the next attack will be prevented.

The questions that continue to be posed by security and intelligence services, as well as academics, are who is dangerous and when do they act on their rhetorical support for racial supremacy and Islamophobia?

C- REX, the Centre for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo, was set up as a response to the terrorist assault in Norway in 2011. Its focus is to study right wing extremism, hate crimes and political violence as well as to contribute to the formulation of a strategy to prevent terrorist attacks in Europe. C-REX is a joint collaboration with five of the leading Norwegian institutions on extremism research

Tore Bjørgo director at C-REX contends that they don’t know enough about potential terrorists. In Norway, the biggest problem is online hatred, yet to date no one understands this phenomenon well enough, particularly when it translates into action on the streets. Even groups like the Soldiers of Odin aren’t seen to pose a terror threat but have a large potential for political violence.

Researchers at C-REX have been working on developing a toolkit to spot potential terrorists; the technology is based on key words used by suspects online and they have found that in the case of the attack in New Zealand and in Norway the perpetrators showed 85%- 95% more anger than others. They use algorithms to analyse texts and to create profiles of individuals. The police receive many manifestos like in the case of Breivik but can’t tell when this should be acted upon. Milan Obaidi at C- REX and Nazar Akrami at the University of Uppsala, who have worked with Danish colleagues, Swedish police and the Swedish military’s research institute think they might have come up with a solution.

The police response in the Bærum attack has been strongly criticised. Instead of responding with a number of officers they started questioning those who called for help and then to ask about possible internal mosque conflict. The police responded to criticism that the caller had poor Norwegian and wasn’t using a registered sim card.

The journalist Maryam Iqbal Tahir says in Aftenposten that when you ring the emergency services you expect to be rescued not to be treated as a perpetrator. The police need better routines and need to respond faster. Luckily the perpetrator had already been restrained by the bravery of Mohamed Rafiq but 20 minutes for the police to arrive to the attack location, when the police station is 6 km away is disingenuous. Iqbal Tahir says the response is not much better than it was during the attacks in 2011; they should have been there within 5 minutes after the emergency call – it took them 20. Iqbal Tahir is concerned about trust and blames the police in general for not being more open and inclusive in the ‘prevent’ work that they do. They should also be prepared to apologise, she argues, when they accuse or blame the wrong person.

The Muslim Council in Norway have repeatedly asked the government to come up with concrete solutions to tackle racism and it turns out the Norwegian Police Security Service notified local police early this summer about heightened risks to mosques but it seems like no local police had passed this information on to leaders of the mosques. In Bærum the mosque had recently self funded improved security for the building.

Benedicte Bjørnland, head of Norwegian Police Security Service, has ordered an external investigation into the police response to the attack on Al Noor mosque.

Torkel Brekke at C-REX stresses that they need better methods to prevent terror than just preventing negative perceptions about Muslims among the general public. Put another way, getting rid of Islamophobia certainly doesn’t mean we are free from the threat of terror.

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