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Stephen M. Walt

Missing the (real) warning signs

A quick footnote to the tragic events in Norway.  Although as Greenwald points out, various unreliable sources were quick to assume that the attacks was the work of al Qaeda or some other Islamist group, there was in fact good reason to suspect from the start that right-wing extremists were really to blame. As I ...

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

A quick footnote to the tragic events in Norway.  Although as Greenwald points out, various unreliable sources were quick to assume that the attacks was the work of al Qaeda or some other Islamist group, there was in fact good reason to suspect from the start that right-wing extremists were really to blame. As I noted back in February, a 2010 study to Europol had shown that the vast majority of "terrorist" incidents in Europe were the work of European anarchist groups, and only a tiny fraction had anything to do with Islam. Here’s what I said back then:

In 2009, there were fewer than 300 terrorist incidents in Europe, a 33 percent decline from the previous year. The vast majority of these incidents (237 out of 294) were conducted by indigenous European separatist groups, with another forty or so attributed to leftists and/or anarchists. According to the report, a grand total of one (1) attack was conducted by Islamists. Put differently, Islamist groups were responsible for a whopping 0.34 percent of all terrorist incidents in Europe in 2009. In addition, the report notes, ‘the number of arrests relating to Islamist terrorism (110) decreased by 41 percent compared to 2008, which continues the trend of a steady decrease since 2006.”’

So if journalists and right-wing bloggers had been paying attention, they might have guessed that it was far more likely that a European was responsible. But they didn’t, which tell you a lot about their mind-set and motivations.

Moreover, as Matt Yglesias observes over on his blog, the attacks in Norway also cast doubt on the whole "safe haven" argument that has been used to justify our protracted, costly, and counter-productive effort to reorder political and social relations throughout Central Asia.  Norway was far better governed than Afghanistan or Pakistan is likely to be in our lifetimes, yet that didn’t prevent a local extremist from perpetrating a horrific crime, inspired at least in part by the hyperventilating hatred disseminated by prominent rightwing Islamophobes here in the United States. Put differently, the United States could stay in Afghanistan and Pakistan for the next century, and it would still be unable to guarantee that this territory didn’t contain some hostile cells of extremists bent on attacking the United States or its allies. And even if we could, we obviously couldn’t be sure that bad guys weren’t in Yemen or Oslo or Bakersfield or Des Moines or Portland or Key West, or anywhere else.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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