Utoya island three years after the massacre, Jaime Reyes Palencia/Demotix. All rights reserved.Extremism is a disease we have to cure. Like cancer it spreads, turning individuals and groups into poisonous cells disrupting society. And as we live our lives, we realise extremism is part of us; it colours how we live, what we do, what we think and what we say. We are not free from extremism.
My first realisation of this was on 7 July, 2005. My family was going to London on vacation. Due to the London-bombings our trip got delayed; thus we were in a very small way directly affected by extremism.
Years before that we had all, my family and I, been glued to the TV for days, watching the looping CNN footage of the Twin Towers of The World Trade Center collapse. In its own way, this had an impact on all of our lives, tightening up not only airport security, but also governmental mass surveillance.
These two incidents do illustrate the fact that all of our lives are in some way touched by extremism. However, we have it easy here in the west. It wasn’t here that the attacks of the early 2000’s unleashed wars, whose effects we now see in the growing instability of the Middle East. Yet still our lives are visibly touched by the consequences of extremist actions everywhere.
In 2011 my life was radically affected by violent extremism. I became a survivor of the outrageous acts of violence performed by Anders Behring Breivik on Utøya island in Norway on 22 July, 2011. Breivik was not only an extremist, he was a terrorist. His acts were rooted in his far right ideology.
To me and many, what I survived in 2011 was a new form of terrorism. Breivik wasn’t part of a formal terrorist group, he wasn’t a bearded man in a faraway cave; he was Norwegian, he grew up in the same society I grew up in. He wasn’t in any way your ‘typical’ terrorist, as they are portrayed in western media.
The most baffling fact about Breivik’s acts, at least to politicians and the lawyers involved in the case, was that he seemed to be acting on his own, as what is described as a ‘single cell terrorist’. This fact baffled them because the way in which we develop national and international security policy is in many ways outdated. In their counter-terrorism work, intelligence agencies as well as policy makers have had a tendency to seek out patterns based on known organisational models.
We use what we know in order to understand what is unknown to us—a fairly natural way to go about things, which shapes everything we do from designing aliens for sci-fi films, to trying to prevent massacres. This does however make us easy targets as we all too often don’t know how to recognise threats that pass us by. No amount of data collection or airport security can change that. So how do we go about countering these terrorists?
Breivik might be among the first of a new wave of terrorists acting as individuals rather than groups. But these terrorists are, like all of us, part of a larger context which moulds them. The trick thus becomes to identify what can be problematic about this context. What within it can make someone go from being an average Joe to becoming a violent extremist? Maybe the best resource for information on this can be those who’ve been there, who have found their way back to the light after having been consumed by the darkness of violent extremism. Maybe it can be found amongst those of us who have survived it. What’s for certain is, however, that as we face this new wave of terrorism we need to create a new wave of counter terrorism.
At the surf of this wave is the FREE Initiative. The FREE Initiative aims to prevent and counter far-right extremism across Europe by creating a platform for individual activists, organisations, government officials and others to learn from one another. This includes ‘formers’ as well as survivors, academics, youth workers, crime prevention practitioners and other groups that have valuable perspectives to add to the conversation on how to prevent future acts of violence rooted in hatred.
By bringing these voices together we can start to shape the future of counter-terrorism work. It can reach far beyond the narrow group of people working against what we refer to as ‘far-right extremism,’ to other extremist communities and beyond. Through means like the FREE Initiative, we will hopefully be able to create a more targeted cure for the global illness of extremism and the violence it can lead to, thus making everyone’s lives a little bit safer, a little bit happier, and a bit freer from the consequences of how we, in previous years, have treated the threat of terrorism through invasive means.