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When the bomb exploded in central Oslo last Friday, transforming parts of the city into something resembling a war zone, many suspected that Islamists were to blame. I admit that I was one of them.
Others did more than suspect -- they indicted. Pamela Geller, an influential anti-Muslim blogger and activist in the United States, resorted to her customary form of sarcasm. “But remember, jihad is not the problem,” she wrote shortly after the attack. “New York's 9/11, London's 7/7, Madrid's 3/11, Bali, Mumbai, Beslan, Moscow ... is not the problem. ‘Islamophobia is the problem.’ Repeat after me as you bury the dead, ‘Islamophobia is the probem [sic], Islamophobia is the problem.’ ”
Geller’s readers joined in. “Europe has been infected with venomous parasitic vermin,” one wrote, pointing to a list of Islamist terrorist attacks. Mocking the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s concerns about right-wing extremists, another wrote: “You sure it wasn’t white males with hoods and sunglasses and back packs? DHS told me those were the people to worry about.”
Such jibes rang hollow when it emerged that the murderer was not far removed from that stereotype. Anders Behring Breivik, who has confessed to carrying out the attacks, is a blond, blue-eyed Norwegian man who loathes Islam, fears the “Islamization” of Europe, and fancies himself a “cultural conservative.” He sees himself as a hero of the future Europe, as a crusader of sorts, in a battle against the “cultural Marxists” and “suicidal humanists” in control of Norway and other European countries.
There was good reason to be surprised by the killer’s identity and motives. After all, it has been many years since right-wing extremism has been considered a major concern in Norway. Norwegian neo-Nazi groups are tiny and fragmented, owing largely to the government’s anti-Nazi campaign, carried out in the wake of the 2001 murder by a neo-Nazi gang of Benjamin Hermansen, a young Norwegian boy whose father was from Ghana. The campaign included preventive attempts to hinder recruiting, as well as efforts to provide neo-Nazis with an “exit” strategy, enabling them to abandon the sometimes cult-like groups.
Extreme right-wing parties have had no electoral success. In the most recent parliamentary elections, held in 2009, two parties with ties to neo-Nazi groups ran. They received a total of 362 votes. The populist, right-wing Progress Party supports highly restrictive immigration policies, but is hardly comparable to the extreme-right parties in other countries. The party’s founder, Anders Lange, was a staunch anti-communist who died in 1974. Although he did have strong sympathies with the apartheid regime of South Africa, his primary concern was fighting for lower taxes. Today, the party he founded is less extreme than, for example, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang (formerly the Vlaams Blok), which sprang out of the Flemish neo-fascist movement of the 1970s. The Progress Party is also distinctly less radical than the Swedish Sverigedemokraterna party, which is rooted in the xenophobic movement Bevara Sverige Svenskt (Keep Sweden Swedish).
The PST -- the Norwegian Police Security Force, somewhat comparable to the British MI5 -- concluded in its most recent publicly available risk analysis, published in February, that right-wing extremists posed “no serious threat.” Still, the PST did note “a higher level of activity of some anti-Islamic groups,” mostly on various social-media Web sites. They also worried about violence from these groups, and between these groups and other extremists, in connection with demonstrations.
Yet it appears that Breivik is not connected to any known Norwegian group. Rather, to judge from the 1,500-page manifesto he posted online prior to the attacks, Breivik seems to have drawn inspiration from so-called “counter-jihadist” thinkers, many of them in the United States, including Pamela Geller. Indeed, Geller is cited a number of times in the manifesto, for instance on describing drug trafficking as a “chemical jihad.” So is her close ally Robert Spencer, the director of Jihad Watch, a U.S. organization that aims to provoke “continuous and increasing outcry” over the dangers posed by Islam.
The counter-jihadist figure who looms largest in Breivik’s manifesto is the pseudonymous Norwegian blogger Fjordman, a central figure in the movement whom Breivik describes as his favorite author. Fjordman claims that liberal immigration policies and multiculturalism have led to the formation of an Islamized “Eurabia,” calling it “the biggest example of treason in world history” and accusing European leaders of conducting a “demographic and judicial warfare against the white majority population […] in order to break them down [and to set up] an authoritarian, post-democratic world order with themselves at the top.” He also has predicted that at least one western European country will experience a civil war within 20 years, as “common people” awaken to the alleged perfidy of their leaders. In one of the essays included in Breivik’s manifesto, Fjordman demands a halt to all Muslim immigration and the dismantling of the European Union. “We are being subject to a foreign invasion, and aiding and abetting a foreign invasion in any way constitutes Treason,” Fjordman writes. “If non-Europeans have the right to resist colonisation and desire self-determination then Europeans have that right, too. And we intend to exercise it,” he continues, warning that Europeans might one day be forced to “take the appropriate measures to protect our own security and ensure our national survival.”
In the wake of the attacks, Fjordman, Geller, and other prominent counter-jihadists have condemned Breivik’s actions and argued that they have never condoned violence. However, their dystopian fantasy world -- in which the white Christian martyrs of Eurabia are constantly subjected to rape and murder at the hands of bloodthirsty Muslims -- clearly provided what former CIA officer Marc Sageman has described in The New York Times as “the infrastructure from which Breivik emerged.”
Indeed, like many of the violent jihadists he so feared -- though, notably, did not directly target -- Breivik seems to have been radicalized via the Internet. In the past decade, an entire field of study has formed to study this phenomenon among young Muslims. It is a complex subject, hinging on the moral, ethical, and legal distinctions between words and actions, between hate speech and hate crime. It is now clear that academics and policymakers in Norway and elsewhere must address these distinctions in the context of right-wing extremism. It is crucial that law-enforcement authorities and intelligence agencies better understand the true relationship between the words and ideas of Internet-based counter-jihadists and the real-world violence they seem to have inspired.