The Oslo attacks should prompt a rethink of the terrorist threat and how we approach it. For the bloody mayhem produced by a single Norwegian has no resemblance to the threat perception that has launched a thousand reports, military action across three continents and the massive invasions/occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. Nor is it in any way related to the hundreds of billions of dollars invested in the West’s intelligence machinery.
The strenuous efforts at counter terrorism since 9/11 have all been predicated on the fundamental and unquestioned assumption that the great danger took the form of a clandestine, tightly organized group of fanatical Islamist jihadis dedicated to lethal assaults on the United States and Western Europe. That is what has driven the ‘war on terror’ in all its manifestations. There has been no serious questioning of this core premise during the 9/11 decade despite that paucity of major terrorist attacks and none since the London Underground bombings that caused significant casualties.
Let’s review the many ways in which the Oslo affairs deviates from the prevailing terrorist paradigm. It was the act of one man unconnected to any group or movement; he is a native Christian Norwegian; he had no criminal record; his motivations ? such as we know them ? had to do with local political matters; he easily obtained the raw materials to build powerful explosive devices; he easily gained access to the locations where they were planted. This profile should cause shudders among our counter terror planners and warriors. None of the steps taken since 9/11 had any bearing on his chances of his success ? nor could they. An introspective freelancer indigenous to the locale where he is operating passes undetected through the diverse radar screens in place.
A moment’s reflection illuminates the uncomfortable truth that a handful of willful individuals, however motivated, with more sophisticated skills could wreak havoc on a much greater scale. They need not even be natives so long as they are familiar with the local scene, perhaps through intermittent residency They need not be religious fanatics but rather persons harboring deep feelings of hurt who are moved to exact vengeance for acts that harmed those with whom they are closely related and/or identify. As I suggested, time for a rethink.
Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.