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Breivik court verdict: security lessons?

Now that the legal question of Anders Breivik’s sanity has been resolved it should be possible to focus more closely on his political motivation and the security lessons that arise from this case. This should help inform a debate about how best to tackle the growing problem of far right violence in Europe and the US

Today Anders Breivik’s trial came to a conclusion when he was found to be sane and sentenced to a maximum twenty one years in prison. Previously two teams of court-appointed psychiatrists who examined Breivik had reached opposite conclusions. The first said that he was a paranoid schizophrenic, and the second assessed him to be sane.

As the psychiatrist Tad Tietse noted in respect of the first report, it may have told us ‘more about the socially embedded nature of psychiatric diagnosis and the prevailing political climate in Norway than any claim it was the result of some kind of cold, hard, value-free science’. Be that as it may, it is to be hoped that if and when the next serious case of far right terrorism takes place in Europe or the US, governments, police and judiciary will have a better grasp of the political rationale that drives it irrespective of the mental profile(s) of the individual perpetrator(s).

To express the same point on a different premise:  it is to be hoped that far right terrorists will in the future be treated the same as all other terrorists. Whether they operate as ‘lone wolves’ (or ‘solo terrorists’) their far right political affiliations (like Breivk’s prior membership of the Progress Party) should not be lightly disregarded. 

Notably, the legal and medical fixation with Breivik’s mental health followed an immediate interest in the same topic by political commentators determined to deny a political terrorist motivation for Breivik’s violence. 

Such a strong focus on the mental wellbeing of the accused is unusual in a case of political terrorism. That said, cases of political terrorism are rare in Norway and it is probable that the psychiatrists in the case lacked experience of examining politically motivated individuals like Breivik. Unfamiliarity with political violence might help explain a failure on the part of the first team of psychiatrists to grasp the significance of Breivik’s lengthy manifesto 2083 - A European Declaration of Independence - a document he circulated to hundreds of contacts that helps reveal the extent to which he was influenced by a global anti-Muslim movement known as the Counter Jihad Movement.

Significantly, the counter-jihad movement contains commentators who are notoriously quick to link a handful of al-Qaeda terrorist attacks in Europe and the US to what they call the ideology of radical Islam or Islamism (or sometimes Islam itself). In fact, the links (in terms of a shared political ideology) may be much closer between prominent members of the counter jihad movement and Breivik than between most al-Qaeda terrorists and many mainstream Muslims who are regularly and pejoratively stigmatised as fellow travellers or closet supporters of al-Qaeda by the counter jihad movement.

It should not be left to Breivik to explain and promote his political motivation and his political campaign from his prison cell. Now is the time to expose it, discern its proximity to the counter jihad movement and, at some points, its alarming appropriation of mainstream discourse on Islamism, Muslims and immigration. To hide instead behind the legalities of sanity and insanity serves Breivik’s victims - and the unknown or unremarked victims of countless acts of lesser political violence against Muslims, ethnic minorities, immigrants and their allies – very poorly indeed. 

Duty to the victims and the bereaved

The overwhelming majority of Anders Breivik’s victims were young, left wing activists who would still be alive today if their killer had not taken his attachment to far right politics to such a lethal conclusion. While their bereaved parents, siblings, relatives and friends are bound to be relieved that Breivik has finally been brought to justice at least some will, in addition, be eager to understand why and how he carried out his violent acts as part of their difficult bereavement journeys.

For some it may be comforting to witness the overwhelming majority of their fellow citizens standing steadfastly against a significant minority of far right bigots. But political terrorists like Breivik are always a tiny minority (within a much larger community of like minded activists) who will seek to conceal their preparations so as to avoid detection prior to carrying out their criminal attacks. Therefore, for all that is positive and effective in ‘open confrontation with right-wing bloggers and activists’ as a ‘strategy to combat [far right] extremism’ it is also necessary to tackle far right terrorism and political violence as effectively as any other kind, including that which is carried out or threatened by Muslim extremists, generally under an al-Qaeda banner .

Police failings 

Just weeks before the verdict was announced, an official report highlighted police failings that may have prevented Breivik being arrested shortly after his first bomb attack against a government building in Oslo and before he landed on Utoya Island to carry out a shooting spree. The report also highlighted a separate police failure to arrive on Utoya Island as speedily as possible and thereby bring an earlier halt to the killing. 

The second of these two failures revolved around a decision by police officers to wait for expert colleagues before taking a ferry to Utoya Island – a disturbing scenario that suggests a negative example of ‘health and safety’ culture overruling a fundamental police commitment to public safety. As a result Norway's police chief Oeystein Maeland resigned from his post.

Less explicit, the report suggested that ‘with better ways of working and a broader focus, the police security service could have become aware of the perpetrator prior to 22 July’. This might well be taken to refer to missed intelligence opportunities to monitor Breivik after he purchased ingredients for his bomb. It is hard to imagine that such a failure would have occurred if Breivik had instead been an identifiable Muslim purchasing the same ingredients in the same circumstances.

The report was oddly silent on Breivik’s far right political motivation saying instead that it had ‘foregone issues related to the perpetrator’s motive....’ and intriguingly, that it had ‘not explored the measures society puts in place for the early prevention of radicalisation’.

Far right radicalisation

How might the ‘early prevention of radicalisation’ relate to Breivik’s case? Had Breivik been a member or associate of a white supremacist or neo-Nazi organisation it is reasonably safe to assume that he would have been actively monitored by police and police security services. Instead, Breivik was able to take advantage of the fact that his prior membership of the Progress Party and his wide engagement with the counter jihad movement was apparently not regarded as evidence of ‘extremism’ or as a basis for reasonable suspicion in his activities.

There are numerous examples of how ‘the new far right’ has successfully re-invented itself and created sufficient distance from ‘the old far right’ so as to become immune to pro-active police and security investigation. In the UK, for example, government and police have steadfastly refused to cast the English Defence League (EDL) in the role of ‘extremists’ despite a growing catalogue of violence carried out by its members and supporters. In consequence EDL (and their counter-jihad counterparts across Europe and the US) are considered as more of a public order or social cohesion problem than a counter-terrorist or political violence issue. As a result they are not considered as suitable for ‘counter-radicalisation’ strategies in the way that supposedly ‘radical’ Muslims often are. 

Instead, in Norway, across Europe and the US, ‘the early prevention of radicalisation’ has come to denote intrusive strategies that are aimed at individual Muslims who are suspected or deemed to be at risk of radicalisation into violent (or increasingly non violent) Muslim extremism (which includes terrorism inspired or directed by al–Qaeda). The UK has been a leader in this field of work and while some work carried out under the Prevent umbrella has been narrowly and effectively focused on terrorism and violent extremism other strands of work has been ineffective and counter-productive by virtue of being too broadly cast against politically active Muslims who pose no threat to security or social cohesion.    

It is far from certain that any of Anders Breivik’s victims – particularly those members of AUF (Labour Youth) killed on Utoya Island who he regarded as prime targets – would be alive today if their killer had received psychiatric treatment or counselling during the months he was planning his acts of terrorism. In contrast, it is safe to assume that the AUF summer camp of 2011 would have reached a peaceful non-violent conclusion if Breivik had not become influenced by the Counter Jihad Movement. So rather than medical help did Breivik need political counselling?

This is not an idle thought. In neighbouring Sweden, for example, there is an experienced street based group in Stockholm called Exit run by former far right activists that helps individuals disengage from far right politics and far right violence. Admittedly, Breivik was not as visibly engaged in far right politics as some Exit clients but if he had been subject to closer security monitoring it is entirely feasible that he could have been ear marked for such an intervention.

Even handed counter-terrorism policy

However, so long as the disparate elements of the counter jihad movement in particular, and the new far right movement in general, are wrongly treated as somehow representing a lesser threat of extremism and violence than their less sophisticated neo-Nazi colleagues in the old far right we will fail to tackle the motivation for both Breivik’s actions and hundreds of acts of lesser political violence that have gone largely unremarked during the last decade.

It is of course vital not to infringe the civil liberties of far right activists and counter jihad activists unless there is compelling evidence of the kind that might have arisen during Breivik’s long period of terrorist preparation and planning. That said, it is equally vital that governments and law enforcement agencies do not show sensitivity to the civil rights of the far right and the counter jihad movement while disregarding the civil rights of politically active Muslims. From now on there needs to be an even handed counter-terrorism policy in Europe and the US.    

About the author

Robert Lambert is Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence, University of St Andrews. He is the author of Countering al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership, Hurst, London in September 2011. Previously a Metropolitan Police Special Branch detective, his final police role was head of the Muslim Contact Unit; other roles included undercover police officer. 


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