September 7, 2021

IntelBrief: The Legacy of 9/11 in Norway and Northern Europe: An Evolving and More Multifaceted Landscape

(AP Photo/Fredrik Varfjell/NTB scanpix)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • In Norway and Nordic countries, global terrorism has become a more multifaceted challenge shaping domestic and international debates since 9/11. 
  • The attacks in Madrid and London in the early 2000s brought home the urgency of dealing with terrorism and violent extremism in Europe, impacting immigration and integration policies.
  • The question of ISIS-associated fighters and families, and returnees, poses critical challenges to European countries.
  • Northern Europe now confronts the phenomenon of radical Islamist groups and violent right-wing extremism, the latter highlighted by Breivik’s 2011 Norway attacks.

September 11, 2001, significantly impacted not only United States society, but continues to have profound geopolitical repercussions around the world. The Nordic countries’ contributions to the subsequent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria dominated the foreign policy debate in these countries and brought foreign policy into domestic discourse. Counterterrorism abroad became intertwined with domestic policy debates on immigration, integration, multiculturalism, and identity politics. On the eve of the 20 year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Afghanistan is once again on the top of the global policy agenda. Many questions linger as to what will happen to the country and the many Afghans who remain there, and the implications their fates may have for the future of global terrorism.

For the Nordic countries, global terrorism has become more multifaceted than it seemed at the beginning of the 21stcentury. While the 9/11 terrorist attacks were also considered an attack on NATO, invoking the principle of collective defense in Article 5 of the NATO doctrine, it was the al-Qaeda attacks in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 that seriously brought the discussion on counterterrorism and importantly, extremism and radicalization, home again to Europe. Europe has seen spells of both domestic and international terrorism over the past decades, yet the post-9/11 extremist phenomenon brought an entirely different dimension and sense of urgency. “Home-grown terrorism,” terrorism perpetrated by young Muslim men, many of whom were second-generation immigrants to Europe, has challenged Nordic societies in new ways. It challenged both immigration and integration policies. Importantly for the Nordic countries, it also led to the revisiting of the laws on terrorism and a reexamination of existing counterterrorism and prevention measures. Counter-violent extremism and radicalization policies began to involve local societies in more comprehensive ways, “begging” a whole-of-society approach, from cross government to grassroots policies.

While the first years after 2001 primarily saw an external dimension of counterterrorism, the Madrid bombings in 2004 marked the beginning of a more domestic debate across Europe and within individual European countries. A decade later, the radicalization discussion evolved to include the issue of foreign fighters, as European countries saw a wave of young people traveling from European cities to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq—the perceived new home of Islam, a so-called Caliphate, right in Europe’s backyard. The refugee crisis in 2015 further fueled the domestic debates as humanitarian imperatives were mixed with discussions on national security implications. The questions surrounding foreign fighters and their families also gave rise to a more political debate related to returnees and immigration laws.

Two decades after 9/11 there are several active Islamist networks in Europe who continue to radicalize new individuals. Former foreign fighters and Islamist extremists released from prisons have caused concern in several European countries with large extremist groups, and the message preached by ISIS and al-Qaeda—that the West is at war with Islam—continues to resonate and is still mobilizing supporters. It is yet to be seen how the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan will influence extremist groups around the world, but many analysts expect it to be a boon for the global jihadist movement writ large.

For the Nordic countries in particular, debates regarding religion and extremism have intertwined with discussions on freedom of speech and freedom of the press. These ideas have persisted along with the revival of the debate on the publication of satirical cartoons of the prophet Mohammed and the desire of violent extremists to seek revenge on the West for its military interventions in Muslim countries. These debates have been especially intense in both Norway and Denmark, with several rounds of heightened security over the last decade being implemented due to backlash to the publication of Mohammed cartoons and the subsequent attack on the Charlie Hebdo office in France. Terrorist organizations have been encouraging their supporters to mount “revenge-attacks” on Western targets, especially in Europe, but also on European interests in Muslim majority countries.

Undoubtedly, for the Nordic countries, particularly Sweden and Norway, the decade that followed the 9/11 attacks was accompanied by a new dimension of political violence from a new group of actors. In the 1990s, neo-Nazi groups were the greatest challenge for law enforcement agencies. This invoked a focus by law enforcement on countering criminal gangs and neo-Nazi groups, and led to the development of so-called exit programs designed to rehabilitate and reintegrate extremists. These were later to be useful experiences for drawing up of policies for the new wave of violent Salafi-jihadist extremism.

The focus on radical Islamist groups and radicalization amongst Muslim populations also brought with it a harsh public debate. For the Nordic countries, the violent far-right movements have been the deadliest, and the rise of anti-Islamist groups and individuals brings with it fears of additional violence. The far-right movements in Europe shifted from a predominance of neo-Nazis before the turn of the century (in the 1990s) to anti-Islamist groups and individuals afterwards. September 11, 2001, and the subsequent Global War on Terror, contributed to an increased stigmatization of Muslims, and in some instances, a generalizing and scornful anti-Muslim rhetoric—especially by far-right groups. Ensuing terrorist attacks in Europe (Madrid, London, Belgium, Copenhagen, and Paris) would further fuel this development.

On July 22, 2011, Anders Behring Breivik killed 77 people in two sequential domestic terrorist attacks in Norway. Breivik first detonated a bomb outside a Norwegian government building, before continuing to the island of Utøya, where he opened fire on attendees of a summer camp arranged by the youth branch of the governing Norwegian Labor Party. The decade following this attack has demonstrated that there are many people who gain inspiration from anti-Islamic groups’ xenophobic rhetoric, and who sympathize with and support such attitudes, and the number of individuals who encourage anti-Islamic rhetoric appears to be increasing. In 2019, Philip Manshaus, a 21-year-old right-wing extremist, attacked a mosque on the outskirts of Oslo, Norway. He also shot dead his 17-year-old stepsister, who was adopted from China. Manshaus was inspired by Breivik and Brenton Tarrant, the terrorist responsible for the 2019 Christchurch attacks in New Zealand.

The 2011 attacks had long-lasting and profound impacts on Norway as well as the transnational violent right-wing extremist and terrorist milieu. With the Breivik and Manshaus terror attacks in mind, the influence of anti-Islamist rhetoric is clear, and highlights the importance of identifying and tracking such rhetoric. These were not “lone wolves,” but rather inspired by, and in turn inspired, a flock of independent actors and the broader ecosystem of far-right extremism. It was the ideology of anti-Islamism that motivated both Breivik and Manshaus. The decade following the 2011 attacks has seen an increase in hate speech and hate crime. This may not only embolden and provoke violent extremism, it may also play different groups against each other, and in turn strengthen each faction, in a process known as reciprocal radicalization.

For the Nordic countries the challenges after 9/11 are therefore two-fold, and closely interlinked: radical Islamist groups and violent right-wing/anti-Islamist groups and individuals fuel each other, importantly also in response to government policies and political leaders’ narratives of the situation. It is also with this in mind that the current events in Afghanistan and how other groups react to the perceived new battleground will need to be carefully monitored.

For the Nordic countries, cooperation has been key to all counter-terrorism policy. Cooperation both on the domestic arena—developing localized and national level “whole-of-society” approaches both to understand the extremist phenomena developing and to come up with counter strategies, but also internationally, as the many violent extremist networks have become more transnational. One lesson from the last two decades is that as these networks inspire, compete with, and fuel each other, so must our societies cooperate more effectively in devising appropriate and properly scaled counter measures. For Northern Europe, this has meant important cooperation not only on law enforcement, intelligence services, and state levels, but also with a broad range of civil society actors and local communities, regardless of from where the terrorist threat is seen as most urgent or what form violent extremism takes.

Laila Bokhari. Former State Secretary with the Office of the Prime Minister and Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, Norway. Board Director of the Global Centre on Cooperative Security and member of the Hedayah International Advisory Board. Member of the 22 July Commission (the Breivik inquiry). Kistefos fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.