- By Robert ZeligerRobert Zeliger is News Editor of Foreign Policy.
To be clear — no one has yet claimed responsibility for today’s blasts in central Oslo. But Norway has not been immune from terror threats in the past. Al Qaeda’s new chief, Ayman al Zawahri, has called for attacks on the country. After an audio message from Zawahri in 2003 singled it out, a spokesman for the foreign ministry said the government was “surprised” to be a target. Zawahri threatened Norway again in 2007, for participating “in the war against the Muslims.”
Last year, Norway arrested two immigrants from China and Uzbekistan with alleged ties to al Qaeda. (A third man believed to be connected to the group was arrested in Germany). Norwegian authorities believed they were plotting an attack in Norway, though that was never confirmed. At the time, the minister of justice said the arrests indicated that the country needed to pay closer attention to possible links between immigrants and terror groups overseas.
But, why Norway?
The country supported the invasion of Afghanistan (though its troop presence is very low — only about 400 soldiers); and there is still lingering anger over the Danish Mohammed cartoon controversy from 2006. A Norwegian newspaper reprinted some of them, forcing the government to apologize. Norway’s embassy in Syria was attacked by protesters. Some analysts say Scandinavian countries are often lumped together by extremist groups — meaning Denmark and Norway are seen as intertwined. In fact, one of the immigrants arrested last year in Norway, reportedly told police his target was originally the Danish newspaper that first published the cartoons.
Another potential explanation has to do with the complicated case of Mullah Krekar, an Iraqi Kurd who worked with Islamist groups there before moving to Norway in 1991 and claiming refugee status. He’s praised bin Laden and has called for attacks against U.S. interests in Iraq. In 2005, he was ordered deported after being declared a national security threat, but his deportation was suspended. Earlier this month, prosecutors in Norway charged Krekar with threatening government officials. Krekar has denied having any links to al Qaeda and it seems unlikely the group would seek vengeance for his arrest.
In the end, Norway may simply have been attacked because — despite being a low priority for terror groups — it proved to be an easier target than higher profile locations. And in the wake of bin Laden’s killing, al Qaeda has been looking to launch an attack against the West.
“It may be pointless to search for a single grievance,” said Thomas Hegghammer, an expert on terror groups with the Norwegian Defense Research Establishment, last year after the arrests were made. “Most likely, a combination of factors placed Norway on the jihadists’ radar. In al-Qaeda’s binary worldview, Norway is part of the ‘Jewish-Crusader alliance.’ Not a platinum member, perhaps, but a member nonetheless…. Frustrated by the difficulty of striking key adversaries like Britain and the United States, al-Qaeda seems to be moving down the food chain.”