Norway Attacks: The Worrying Rise of the Lone-Wolf Terrorist

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A picture of Anders Behring Breivik taken from a book downloaded from a link posted on the Norwegian discussion website

As investigators dig deeper into Anders Behring Breivik's twisted world, they are coming to the conclusion that the Norwegian right-wing extremist most likely acted alone. To many, it may come as a relief that Breivik's claims of being just one of several killer cells in some wider conspiracy for global domination turns out to be nothing but a web of deception spun by a brutal killer. But investigators and counterterrorism officials are not relieved. They fear that Breivik represents a new, potentially deadly paradigm shift in the world of extremist violence.

Over the past year or so, counterterrorism officials have been warning of a new trend, the so-called solo terrorist, a fighter trained by organizations like al-Qaeda but then sent off to act on his own, with little or no further correspondence with the group. This tactic reduces the amount of "chatter" — discussions on cell phones and over the Internet — that counterterrorism officials routinely pick up when a terrorist plot is in the offing. But Breivik is no solo terrorist. He has taken the concept a step further and appears to have no real connection to any organized group, say investigators. "Breivik represents a new paradigm," says Janne Kristiansen, head of Norway's domestic intelligence, the Police Security Service. "He's not a solo terrorist. He's a lone wolf who has been very intent on staying under the radar of the security services by leading a lawful life."

Kristiansen, whose organization operates about 26 field offices charged with the task of keeping tabs on extremist activities in Norway, is not willing yet to categorically rule out a possible conspiracy that resulted in the July 22 Oslo bomb blast and mass shootings on Utoya island. But evidence so far indicates that Breivik acted alone and is using claims of a wider network as a tool to manipulate the media and keep himself in the headlines. "At this moment in time we do not have any indication that he had any help from accomplices or other cells," she says. "He is manipulating us all in the sense that he is keeping us all uncertain."

Right now, Norwegian investigators are combing through Breivik's 1,500-word manifesto for leads, putting his claims to the test of rigorous investigation to separate fact from fantasy and deception. The Norwegians have requested the assistance of Europol, and senior Norwegian intelligence officials were in Brussels on July 27 to discuss the investigation with European Union officials. Norway is not a member of the E.U., but European officials are particularly concerned about Breivik's claims to have links with cells outside Norway and are investigating any potential contacts he may have had with right-wing extremists in other European countries. Breivik claims to have had extensive contact with the English Defence League (EDL), for example. Kristiansen declined to comment in detail on the EDL but confirmed that the U.K.-based organization does have a connection to its Norwegian counterpart, the Norwegian Defense League (NDL). The NDL, however, has been a nonstarter in Norway, unable to garner any broad support. It is also unclear if Breivik had any contact with the NDL.

Norwegian officials attribute the weakness of Norway's extreme-right scene to a dearth of charismatic leaders and Norway's tradition of antifascism. Norway was occupied by the Nazis during World War II, sparking a massive resistance movement. In fact, even Breivik uses the Norwegian resistance to Hitler as an argument for why he is not a neo-Nazi.

Norway has also been proactive in keeping neo-Nazi groups in check. In 2004 the country's domestic intelligence moved in on a right-wing extremist group called Vigrid, whose leader, Tore Tvedt, had built up a network of about 200 people and drew them in with a mix of neo-Nazi teachings, Odinism and ideas borrowed from Timothy McVeigh, the 1995 Okalahoma City bomber, according to an intelligence official who asked to remain anonymous. Fearing Vigrid could evolve into a terrorist network, the agency launched a campaign to disrupt the group by sending agents to visit everyone involved except its top leaders. One day in 2004, agents from all 26 field offices paid personal visits to each of Vigrid's members, many of whom were teenagers living with their parents. The investigators continued this tactic for several months, until about 60% of Vigrid quit the group voluntarily.

Despite Breivik's atrocities, Kristiansen still believes that Islamic terrorism poses a greater threat to security in Norway than the right wing. "The most dangerous groups are the Islamic extremists. That hasn't changed in the 10 years since 9/11," she says. And now adding to that threat is the rise of the lone wolf, the disconnected terrorist. "It is one of our biggest worries," she says. "You can't track down terrorists if they don't talk to each other on the Internet."