July 22, 2011 8:29 pm

Suspicion turns from Islamist extremists to neo-Nazis

When news broke of Friday’s terrorist attacks in Norway, the immediate suspicion focused on Islamist extremists or possibly even a group working on behalf of Libyan leader Muammer Gaddafi.

The assumption was that Norway, a member of Nato, was being punished for its role in the US-led military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan or the ongoing operation against Col Gaddafi’s regime in Libya.

However, as the evening unfolded, doubts started to emerge. Police revealed that the 32 year-old man arrested in connection with the attacks was not only a Norwegian citizen but also Norwegian born. Officials described him as blond and “ethnically Norwegian”.

This opened the possibility of homegrown extremism with no connection to radical Islam.

“Much now indicates that this is a person with military training, and who is possibly connected with a neo-Nazi environment here at home [Norway],” said Cecilie Hellestveit, a Middle East expert at the International Law and Policy Institute in Oslo.

In its most recent threat assessment, Norway’s security service said “national extremism” would “not pose a serious threat to Norwegian society in 2011”.

However, it added: “We have seen an increase in the level of activity within some of these groups during 2010, and some factors may increase this further.”

It highlighted far-right and anti-Islamic groups as having the greatest potential to become a threat, particularly if they formed a bond with foreign far-right groups. However, it concluded that the lack of strong leaders had so far kept far-right activity at low levels in Norway.

Terrorism experts said it would be surprising if a lone individual had pulled off a double attack on the scale of Friday’s atrocity. There were reports that unexploded bombs had been discovered buried on the island near Oslo where the alleged gunman shot dead several young people at a summer camp, suggesting significant prior planning.

Earlier, the attack had appeared to be the latest – and by far the most serious – in a series of threats and attacks by Islamic extremists in the Nordic region, which has a growing Muslim population.

“Instinctively, I linked it with the involvement in Libya,” said Thomas Hegghammer, a terrorism expert at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, a think-tank linked to Norway’s armed forces.

But the shooting at Utøya – where the Labour party’s youth movement was holding its annual summer camp – “points in a different direction”, added Mr Hegghammer, who commented before details of alleged shooter emerged. “The person must have been willing to sacrifice his life” – suggesting, Mr Hegghammer implied, a radical Islamist group.

Last December, an Iraqi-born Swedish immigrant, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, killed himself in a botched suicide attack on a busy shopping street in central Stockholm. He detonated an explosive belt at his waist as well as a separate bomb in his nearby parked car. The devices failed to explode properly and no one else was seriously injured.

In Denmark, a Somali man was recently sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempting to kill a Danish cartoonist whose 2005 drawing of the Prophet Mohammed stimulated Muslim anger against the Nordic region.

His cartoon – and others like it – were subsequently published in Norway and Sweden, citing the importance of protecting freedom of expression.

Three Norwegian citizens were arrested in Norway and Germany in July 2010 in connection with an alleged terror plot against the first Danish newspaper to publish the cartoons.

Somali-born Muhudiin Mohamed Geele broke into the home of Kurt Westergaard, the cartoonist, with an axe on New Year’s day 2010 – but his target escaped. The 29-year old was sentenced to nine years imprisonment in February after he was found guilty of attempted terrorism, manslaughter and violence against a police officer. The sentence was increased in June.

But other experts put more store by the Libyan explanation. “This is such a well co-ordinated operation that it is natural to look elsewhere” than small jihadi groups, said Ms Hellestveit. “These look like attacks on the political leadership [of Norway].”

The bomb exploded in the government quarter and the shooting targeted “the young ideologues of Utøya”, Ms Hellestveit said.

That reflects a different symbolism than previous actions related to the cartoons.

The attack is likely to inspire fresh debate in Norway and its neighbours about the increase in immigration from Muslim-majority countries in recent years.

The populist Progress party, which takes a hardline stance towards immigration is already one of the biggest opposition parties in Norway.

More radical rightwing anti-immigrant parties have become more popular in Sweden and Denmark. The far-right Sweden Democrats party won its first seats in the Swedish parliament last year.

Shortly after the Stockholm attack, the Swedish intelligence service issued a report claiming that more than 20 Islamic extremists were known to have travelled from Sweden to the Middle East to attend terrorist training camps. The study estimated there are about 200 radicalised Muslims in Sweden, most of them connected with each other by a loose network committed to supporting violent extremism.

Last December’s Stockholm incident was the latest in a series of botched attacks by Islamic extremists in western countries, including a failed car bomb in New York’s Times Square last May and a similar incident at Glasgow airport in Scotland in 2007. But the Oslo attack appears to have been on a bigger scale.

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