There was much consternation when many international media outlets assumed the Norway terrorist attacks this weekend were perpetrated by al-Qa’eda, lone wolf “Muslim” terrorists or the like. Most considered this a reasonable possibility give the structure of the attack in the city of Oslo. Of course it was soon clear: the Norway attacks were carried out by a conservative, anti-Muslim, self-described Knight of Templar who happened to be a native Norwegian pumped up on anabolic steroids. The Islamist angle then became: a horrible idea.
Jumping to conclusions is a terrible idea, as Michael Bolton and Samir tell their colleague Tom about his “really great idea” to sell a “Jumping to Conclusions Mat” which he believes will help make him as rich as the inventor of the Pet Rock. Perhaps if he thought out his options more carefully and with more time Tom might come up with a truly great idea to make him rich and solve his problems.
Some rushed to heap blame this failure on “terrorism experts,” somewhat unfairly. Others took it as an opportunity to make comments about the macro-discourse on terrorism in western media or the important lack of attention paid to extreme right-wing groups and the rise in Islamophobia in Europe and America. There were careless failures and failures that came from a lack of information, the poort quality of the information immediately available, snap analysis and narrative traps. It is important to draw the line between cynical, prejudiced hack assessments typed up without any particular knowledge and those done basically in good faith, based on what little specific information was available at the time and clearly qualified by its authors. In the first section you have Jennifer Rubin, whose writing is almost never mentioned on this blog because it is so often off in outer space and in service of parochial interests. In the second category you have Will McCants, the author of the Jihadica blog who was quoted irresponsibly by the New York Times (he has written on the Noway attack since), which then helped promote the myth of a jihadist attack in Norway (and seemed at first reluctant to call, well, non-Muslims terrorists). Given recent events regarding Norway it was not unreasonable to suspect that al-Qa’eda or some domestic Islamist set might be responsible for the Norway attacks, but it would have been just as reasonable to suspect far right groups, a separatist group from outside Norway or some other tendency. Early on a responsible response would have qualified any estimate and provided multiple alternatives (recognizing how difficult this can be in a newspaper format); Startfor, for example wrote:
The significance of the events in Norway for the rest of Europe will depend largely on who is responsible, and the identity of the culprits is still unclear. However, STRATFOR can extrapolate the possible consequences of the attacks based on several scenarios.
It then listed the possibilities:
- “grassroots Islamist militants based in Norway”; if this were the case it would “reinforce the current European political trend that favors the far right. That said, some far-right parties, particularly in Northern Europe, could get a popularity boost sufficient to push them into the political mainstream, and possibly into government.”
- “an individual, grassroots or organized domestic group with far-right or neo-Nazi leanings perpetrated the attack, the significance for the rest of Europe will not be large. It could lead to a temporary loss of popularity for the far right, but long-term repercussions for the far right are unlikely since these parties have begun tempering their platforms in order to attract a wider constituency.”
- “a skilled but disturbed individual with grievances against the Labor Party. This possibility would have few long-ranging repercussions “
- “an international group which may have entered the country some time ago. ” This would have the heaviest impact, according to Stratfor, possibly threatening the viability of the Schengen agreement and bolster the far right, etc.
- “the attack is linked to Norway’s involvement in the campaign in Libya. If the Libyan government is somehow connected to the bombing and/or shooting, the rest of Europe will rally behind Norway and increase their efforts in Libya. This scenario would essentially close off the opening in negotiations prompted by a recent move by Paris and other European governments saying they would be open to Moammar Gadhafi’s remaining in Libya.”
In any case, very few people got it right. Since so few anticipated that the attacker might have been a right-wing anti-Muslim extremist (Stratfor actually did include the far right in its list of likely perpetrators), what is to be done? Paul Pillar offers some analytical solutions for future incidents. His lessons are reproduced in full below:
1. Don’t jump to quick conclusions about responsibility for an attack, let alone spin out instant analysis based on such conclusions. Such jumping has long been a feature of the immediate aftermath of terrorist incidents, with fingers quickly pointed at whoever are the bogeymen of the day. After the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, there were many comments to the effect that Serbs must have done it. Nowadays, of course, Muslim jihadists play that role. The hasty attributions of responsibility are partly a function of the pressure of the press to explain everything quickly, or to get comments from people who purport to be able to explain everything instantly. They also are partly the result of commentators pursing agendas, whether they concern defense budgets or anything else.
2. The threat that gets the most attention is not the only threat. Especially in the decade since 9/11, Americans have mistakenly tended to equate terrorism with the jihadist variety, or even more narrowly with a single jihadist group. This tendency has been taken so far that even ten years after 9/11, the White House can put out a document that it calls a counterterrorism strategy but is really a war on al-Qaeda strategy. The next significant terrorist attack to hit the United States might be a jihadist one, or it might be associated with right-wing ideologies having something in common with the accused terrorist in Norway, or it might be something else entirely. The Norway incident has resurrected the issue of how Rep. Peter King (R-NY) has chosen to focus his current series of hearings of the House Homeland Security Committee exclusively on Muslim extremism. King suggested that his committee should focus on Muslim terrorism and the Judiciary Committee was the better one to look at non-Muslim terrorism. Interesting division of responsibility—I didn’t realize committee jurisdictions were split up that way.
3. Individual incidents are not necessarily indicative of larger trends. They might be, but not necessarily, because they depend on the happenstance of luck and of the initiative of very small numbers of individuals. What appears so far to be the case about the attacks in Norway is that they were the work either of Anders Behring Breivik alone or of Breivik aided by a couple of unnamed cells. (Remember: don’t jump to conclusions about responsibility; the investigators still have work to do.) The infrequent, sporadic nature of individual attacks makes them very imperfect barometers of larger trends and phenomena, even if they are rooted in such phenomena. Right-wing extremism may very well be on the rise in Europe and pose a threat of more violence, but that would be the case whether or not Breivik existed and whether or not he carried out his attack.
4. Open societies are inherently vulnerable to terrorist attack and ultimately unprotectable. The United States is essentially the same as Norway in this respect, only larger. Security measures can raise the difficulties and lower the odds for terrorists hoping to hit certain especially attractive targets, but alternative targets are innumerable.
5. That a previously unknown individual (possibly with some help) could inflict so many casualties (more even than the 7/7 transit bombings in London) should put into perspective the limits of detection and prevention. It will be interesting to see what kind of finger-pointing ensues in Norway about failures to connect dots or respond to warning signs or whatever. My guess is that the Norwegians will take a more mature and realistic approach to assessing this incident than would Americans, who tend to think that if their government institutions are functioning properly they should be entirely incident-free.