Norway’s 9/11?

Kristian Berg Harpviken, director of Norway's Peace Research Institute Oslo, explains why the Norwegian capital might have been on a terrorist's shortlist of potential targets.

Thomas Winje/AFP/Getty Images
Thomas Winje/AFP/Getty Images

Foreign Policy: We don’t know much about this bombing yet, but who would have been interested in attacking Oslo?

Kristian Harpviken: The only concrete supposition that would emerge in a Norwegian context would be al Qaeda. There has been specific mention of Norway [in its communications], alongside a number of other countries that have been part of the war on terror [and] part of the war in Afghanistan, including on one occasion fairly recently after the killing of Osama bin Laden. That is the only concrete angle there is to it — but the police have not yet indicated anything in terms of where they are looking, as far as I understand it. There’s still quite a bit of work to be done before they have an overview of what happened, or even an overview of the extent of the damages and the number of people killed and injured.

FP: What are the most important questions to be asking at this point?

KH: The immediate question that comes up of course is whether anti-terror preparedness [in Norway] has been of a sufficient scope. It’s clear that Norway has significantly strengthened its intelligence and other warning capacities from 2001 up to the present. In fact, last summer, about this time of the year, a different plot was revealed by the Norwegian authorities. It still isn’t entirely clear what the aim was, but probably it was Jyllands-Posten, the newspaper that published the caricatures [of Prophet Mohammed] in Denmark, that was the target. I’m sure there’s going to be a lot of debate about that, of whether Norway’s preparedness is any way behind comparable countries.

FP: Tell us about the back story to these threats in Norway — there was the al Qaeda incident last summer, the Mullah Krekar case, and now this.

KH: You already mentioned the two key incidents. There has been a long parallel story in Norway about the publication of the caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed. [The Danish cartoon] was published by a largely unknown newspaper called Magasinet, and they came under severe threat. This was in parallel with the same threats being issued against Jyllands-Posten in Copenhagen. The outcome in Norway was very different from that in Denmark — I think for two reasons. One is simply that the extent of the Islamist radicalism in Norway has been fairly limited. I think in Denmark you have several much stronger militant radical Islamists groups represented. That’s been very limited in Norway. So obviously dealing with this in Norway is not as complicated as it would be in Denmark. But the other reason is just as important: In Norway, this was handled very differently by a number of key institutions both within the government and in civil society. The government was very clear that it understood the reactions to the publication of the caricatures, but also that it is a society where there is freedom of expression and that therefore there was nothing it could or wanted to do to limit it. But just as importantly, in civil society we were building on a fairly long-standing institution of multifaith dialogue, something called the Interfaith Council of Norway, where the religious leaders of different denominations — Christian, Muslim, Jewish, as well as a number of other faiths — came together and issued common declarations condemning the threats of terrorists.

FP: So there was a sense that this was something that had been dealt with well on the social level in Norway and that this was really an external threat rather than an internal threat?

KH: Yes, it was much more an external threat than an internal threat. This was picked up by a couple of radical elements in Norway, but they did not convert that into concrete threats. The concrete threats came from groups based outside of Norway.

FP: Obviously, it’s still very early in this incident, but does this bombing change the calculus in terms of how Norwegians perceive the threats against them and what needs to be done to contain these threats? Do you see that being up for discussion?

KH: Absolutely. This is about the only thing we can say with certainty at the moment. That is that this going to change the debate about international terrorism and counterterrorist measures in Norway. It may even be that it will have a serious impact on the local elections in the fall.

FP: What is the plausible political fallout of all of this?

KH: It’s a bit difficult to tell the political fallout in part of course because of what we learn in the next few days, and in part it will depend on how the government is able to deal with this incident and how it is able to communicate with the Norwegian public. It is of course one concern that this can drive a wedge between at least parts of the immigrant population and the majority population in Norway. Now the debate about integration of the Muslim minority in Norway is — although not as complicated as [in] other European countries — a major challenge. I think this can also lead to a quest for further border control, further anti-terror measures of various kinds, but of course it is also not unlikely that this can raise questions about Norway’s engagement in the world. Afghanistan, in particular, has actually undermined Norway’s national security rather than strengthened it.

FP: How does Norway’s participation in Afghanistan play into the picture?

KH: When Norway has been specifically mentioned — always alongside other countries, but sometimes in lists consisting of as few as two or three countries — by leaders of the al Qaeda network, it has been with explicit reference to Norway’s participation in the war on terror and the war in Afghanistan. So it’s clear that that is one of the elements that will come up.

FP: How would you characterize Norway’s debate over civil liberties versus security in dealing with terrorism? Has it been a rancorous one, as it has been in other countries, or are people generally in agreement as to where you draw that line?

KH: I would say that this has not been a very divisive issue in Norway. In part this is because we have a government now including the Socialist Left Party which is historically the party that has been the most diverging voice on foreign and security policy issues. And they have, as a member of government, in fact been responsible for these very [security] policies, so I think that has in many ways diffused some of the tension that would otherwise have been in the public debate. But there also haven’t been major attacks in Norway. In November 2010, the newspaper Aftenposten conducted a poll, and only 11 percent were very concerned about the prospect of a terrorist attack. Thirty-three percent were somewhat concerned. I assume that if you ask that question tomorrow, those numbers would be very different.

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