By Yousef Munayyer
Dozens of innocents were murdered by a terrorist act in Norway. But not all the casualties were human. Other casualties included some dangerous but commonly-held assumptions about terrorism.
Guesses about Islamist involvement came pouring in over the airwaves when news of the bombing broke. These were not seriously questioned by journalists but rather willfully accepted as fact. The bombing in Oslo, the experts said, featured “all the hallmarks” of an al Qaeda attack. Norway, we were told, was on al Qaeda’s hit list both because of its NATO involvement in Afghanistan, and because a Norwegian newspaper republished a controversial Islamophobic cartoon originally published in Denmark.
It turned out, of course, that the perpetrator was not an al Qaeda operative but rather a right-wing ethnic Norwegian terrorist who explicitly targeted what he termed “traitorous” European politicians that advocated less restrictive immigration policies. Breivik’s 1500+ page manifesto explains his ideology, which is heavily predicated on maintaining the purity of Europe by defending it from Muslim immigration.
Yet even after news reports began to emerge from eye-witnesses who said the attacker was a tall blonde with typical Norwegian looks, the mainstream media was more inclined to believe that some Islamist group was still behind it. In fact, the New York Times and other outlets kept the claim of an Islamist connection up on their homepages for hours after it became clear that the culprit was a Norwegian right-winger.
The initial claim of responsibility for the attacks was made on a so-called Jihadi website by a group that no one had ever heard of. Many in the mainstream media clung to this claim in their reporting, finding it more plausible to believe than the possibility that a Norwegian might have been behind the attacks.
The right-wing threat
In reality, domestic terrorism is far more common than transnational terrorism, even in the recent period. From 1998-2005, for example, terror attacks have claimed the lives of 26,445 people, of which only 6,447 were a result of transnational terror (3,000 of those casualties occurred on 9/11).
Has al Qaeda so convinced the West of its ubiquitous power that it is easier for observers to jump to irrational conclusions based on anonymous internet chatter? This seems to be the case.
This exaggeration, this Islamist boogeyman, contributes directly to the failure to conceptualise and imagine threats like Breivik and his ilk. With the discussions on terrorism in both the public and policy realm overly saturated with analysis on Islam and Islamists, it becomes very easy to miss this right-wing terror threat.
In 2009, the US Department of Homeland Security released an important report on the threat of right-wing extremism. The report would later be “withdrawn by the department after criticism from conservatives” and, according to the author of the report, who not surprisingly no longer works at DHS, “the number of analysts assigned to non-Islamic militancy of all kinds was reduced to two from six.”
After the report, the US witnessed a dramatic spike in Islamophobia and the growth of the “birther movement” and the Tea Party. The latter is identified by Breivik in his manifesto as “one of the first physical, political manifestations which indicate that there is a great storm coming.”
But with the floodgates of hate now opened on innocents in Norway and storm clouds gathering in the United States, will the counter-terrorism discussion continue to ignore this serious threat?
US Congressman Peter King, now chair of the House Homeland Security Committee, is continuing hearings on homegrown terrorism focused specifically on the radicalisation of Muslim Americans. The hearings completely ignore the possibility of another Timothy McVeigh, or Ted Kaczynski, or Lucas John Helder, or Jim Adkisson, or Andrew Joseph Stack, or Jared Lee Loughner – et cetera.
Representative King not only focuses exclusively on Muslims in America, he has also advocated racial profiling as part of the counter-terrorism effort. Just as Breivik destroyed assumptions about terrorism while committing these heinous acts, he also shattered the myth of effective racial profiling. Breivik looks more like someone you might see hopping into a bobsled at the Winter Olympics, not the type you expect to see getting a thorough screening at the airport.
There is irony, perhaps, in the fact that Breivik wasn’t only not working for al Qaeda, as many speculators thought might be the case when news of the bombing broke, but he was also virulently anti-Muslim and pro-Israel.
In his manifesto he states “let us fight together with Israel, with our Zionist brothers against all anti-Zionists” and speaks of “assisting Israel in deporting all Muslim Syrians (also referred to as ‘Palestinians’) from the Gaza strip, the West bank and Jerusalem” and “demolish[ing] the abomination known as the Al Aqsa mosque and the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple of Salomon [sic]”.
The Islamist boogeyman
Breivik’s hatred of Muslims was central to his ideology, and he based much of his thinking and writing on prominent American Islamophobes. Characters like Robert Spencer, whom Breivik identifies as a leading “intellectual”, along with others like Pamela Geller and outted fake Walid Shoebat, have been at the epicenter of the Islamophobic industry in the United States. They were some of the main leaders of the anti-Park 51 movement prior to the last congressional elections. They are also supporters of the birther movement, which believes that President Obama is secretly a Muslim. Breivik quotes extensively from the writings of these fear-peddlers, and has clearly been influenced by their arguments.
While these writers and bloggers are now franticly trying to distance themselves from Breivik by claiming that they never advocated violence, they contributed to the horrors that took place in Norway by dehumanising an entire religion and its followers and advancing a fear-inspiring, cataclysmic us-versus-them mentality. Sure, Breivik may have acted alone in pulling a trigger, but the Islamophobic industry gladly drew the bullseye.
The only thing worse than failing to anticipate right-wing terrorists like Breivik because of short-sighted assumptions is failing to do so again, now that we’ve witnessed what they are capable of. Western nations must take this opportunity to reflect on the attacks in Norway and ask what is being done to prevent this from happening again.
First, there needs to be a serious rethinking about the Islamist boogeyman and a reevaluation of the share of security and intelligence resources dedicated exclusively to it.
Second, Breivik’s attacks should put to rest the idea that complex networks or cells are necessary to pull off massive and devastating attacks.
Third, Breivik’s ethnic background and the fact that he knew it would help him “escape the scrutiny often reserved for young men of Arab descent” should put to rest any discussion about racial profiling as an effective or efficient security measure.
Fourth, serious attention must be paid to the radicalisers on the right and the Islamophobes who preach a dichotomous worldview. Explicit calls to violence are clearly not necessary to inspire violence against civilians, and thus right-wing chat forums should receive every bit as much scrutiny from terror analysts as so-called jihadi web sites.
The lives of the victims of the tragedy in Norway are lost forever, but we mustn’t let their blood be spilt in vain. Instead, we must adjust our assumptions and policies about terrorism and Islamophobia at this critical moment.
Breivik wanted to send a “wake-up” call. Let’s make sure we’re never asleep when Islamophobia or right-wing terrorism tries to shake our societies again.
Yousef Munayyer is Executive Director of the Palestine Center. The views in this brief are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of The Jerusalem Fund.
This article originally appeared in AlJazeera.net.