By Ellie B. Hearne
As we were chillingly reminded by Friday’s events in Oslo, violent extremism comes in many forms. The rush of so many to blame Islamist groups – and the instinct quietly felt by many of us that any bomb detonated in a Western city must surely have al Qaeda fingerprints – was soon disproved when the bomber-assassin was identified as Anders Behring Breivik. Harbouring extreme-right-wing views, Breivik channeled his years of radical rhetoric into twin attacks on his fellow Norwegians: a bomb in central Oslo, apparently targeting the immigration-friendly ruling political party, and a shooting spree at a youth retreat for politically-engaged youngsters.
No country is immune to terrorism, but some do more to counter it than others. Norway is one such country. In the Nordic state, policymakers have not only sought to secure their country’s borders, but have invested in “soft” counterterrorism measures worldwide. Indeed, many terrorist “de-radicalisation” programmes – which seek to rehabilitate or reform terrorists through measures such as education, religious dialogue, and socialisation – have their roots in the “Exit” schemes devised in Scandinavia to help white supremacists and other violent extremists disengage from violence and return to mainstream society. Norway’s embrace of multiculturalism and investment in research into long-term terrorism prevention make the dreadful attacks of Friday last seem that bit more cruel. Even when governments accommodate diverse communities, provide democratic freedoms for all, and do a great deal in practical terms to secure their populations, their counterterrorism strategies still require that key, elusive ingredient: luck.
However, in the wake of these chillingly well-planned murders, we may reflect on a number of assumptions about terrorism and how to counter it, and try to process the broader implications of this surprise attack.
It is easy to dismiss violent extremism as a refuge of the poor, the unemployed, the discontented youth. But increasingly, it is clear that those who engage in terrorism of many different stripes are often wealthy, well-employed, and middle class. Moreover, those who support terrorist causes, but don’t actually join groups or engage directly with members, are often also of a higher income bracket. To borrow a term popular in the Irish Republican Army’s heyday, the “sneaking regarders” are alive and well. (Those people who would confess, “I don’t support terrorism of course, but I’ve a sneaking regard for the lads in the IRA.”)
Writing recently in Foreign Affairs, a group of terrorism experts confirm what many involved in counterterrorism have known for a while: terrorism is a middle-class pursuit. Though suicide bombers and lower-level members of terrorist groups often do fall into poorer income brackets and are in many cases acting largely out of desperation, the violent causes’ supporters, masterminds, and recruiters are quite often of a different social class. Foreign Affairs surveyed a cross-section of Pakistani society on their attitudes to militant groups, and highlighted the finding that “Pakistanis nationwide disliked the militant groups about two times more than middle class Pakistanis, who were mildly positive toward the groups.”1 One possible reason for this is that the poorer areas of the country are disproportionately impacted by terrorist violence, and are therefore more hostile to it, whereas the richer strata of society are afforded the luxury of spectator seats. Of course, Breivik’s case bears only a few similarities to the type of militancy alluded to here, but the parallel can be drawn that he was certainly not acting out of the poverty or lack of employment that many cite as root causes of support for terrorism. Further, his brand of xenophobic rhetoric, if not his violent acts, enjoy support from a significant minority of the “middle classes” of Europe.
Breivik represents the new face of white supremacism and anti-Muslim hate groups – an uglier phenomenon than that which we have recently known. With the internet, the new far-right wing is able to operate largely undetected, and its lack of cohesion only adds to the growing counterterrorism problem it represents. The same may be said of supporters of most other hate groups or terrorist causes – the internet provides a haven for the more engaged of the sneaking regarders, be they supportive of Britain’s anti-Islamic English Defence League, the US-based hate groups that are rising in the wake of that country’s election of a mixed-race President, the Pakistani militants cited in the Foreign Affairs article, or indeed, the neo-Nazi/white supremacists in Scandinavia.
Of course, not all those who have a quiet respect for hate groups or violent extremists are logging on to internet chat-rooms and inciting violence – and not all brands of extremism are problematic (without “radicalism,” societies worldwide would lack civil rights, health care, and other modern rights and privileges that were once novel). But this type of support for terrorist rhetoric is a different, more dangerous animal; rhetorical support for terrorism can seep into financial or practical support without attracting much attention – the Norwegian killer was able to go undetected for just that reason (until last week, he had evinced extreme views, but little inclination towards violence). Moreover, the sneaking regarder often cannot be “de-radicalised” or rehabilitated in the way many common terrorists can be – simply finding them employment and arranging a dialogue with a respected religious figure won’t dissuade them in their extreme views, and such measures could never (and probably should never) be applied to those who do not actively engage with violent extremism. But awareness of the problem is key. Shifting attitudes of whole societies towards tolerance – and even the embrace – of diverse communities is a tall order, but one that many states recognise as vital to reducing hate crimes and terrorist attacks over the long term.
The many faces of terrorists, the underhand and calculated tactics they use, and the depth of their support combine to make violent extremism an extremely difficult force to reckon with. Overly harsh preventive measures – like widespread video surveillance and rigorous searches of the public – can curb the freedoms of the innocent masses and instill terror in the public, without terrorists’ ever having to fire a bullet. Overly harsh responsive measures – like the “war on terror,” and violent crackdowns on, and long detentions of, suspects – can be a gift to terrorists in their subsequent rounds of recruitment. Over-zealous counter-extremism measures can veer dangerously close to legislating how and what people think. But, despite the many challenges faced, each government must continue to try to strike a balance – to counter violent extremism in all its forms, without forgetting that it can be found in the most unexpected of quarters.
1. Graeme Blair, C. Christine Fair, Neil Malhotra, and Jacob N. Shapiro, “Pakistan’s Middle Class Extremists: Why Development Aid Won’t Solve Radicalisation,” Foreign Affairs, July 11, 2011, available at http://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/67976/graeme-blair-c-christine-fa… (accessed July 25, 2011).
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/TheNorwegianAttacksandthePrevalenceoftheSneakingRegarder_ebhearne_250711