After a series of explosions rippled through central Oslo on Friday, damaging key government buildings including the office of the prime minister, Need to Know spoke with a former U.S. State Department counter-terrorism special agent, Fred Burton, about an alleged claim of responsibility for the attacks that had been made by a shadowy Jihadist group. Burton urged caution, citing his experience with the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, when many officials and media outlets initially suspected Islamic militants like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who had helped plan and finance the World Trade Center bombing two years earlier.
“Historically, whenever you have these attacks every group is going to come out of the woodwork and claim responsibility whether they had anything to do with it or not,” Burton said. He pointed to the existence of right-wing extremist groups in Norway and cited unconfirmed reports from intelligence sources in the country that suggested the gunman who unleashed a hail of gunfire at a nearby day camp just after the blasts, killing more than 90 people, was “a local Norwegian, blonde and blue-eyed.”
In fact, it now appears that the suspect in custody is indeed a tall, blonde 32-year-old Norwegian man named Anders Behring Breivik, who officials described as a “right-winger with anti-Muslim views” based on previous Internet postings. According to the Associated Press, Breivik has admitted to police that he fired weapons on the island where the massacre took place. Screen captures of his Facebook profile, which has since been disabled, suggest that he was a self-identified Christian with “conservative” political views and interests in “freemasonry,” hunting and “political analysis.”
Breivik’s list of favorite books reads like a catalog of introductory philosophy texts, including “On Liberty” by John Stuart Mill, “Leviathan” by Thomas Hobbes and “The Prince” by Niccolo Machiavelli. He also seemed to enjoy mainstream American police procedurals, including the serial killer drama “Dexter,” fitness and bodybuilding and video games such as “Modern Warfare.” And he had apparently founded his own organic farm, where he reportedly stored and produced the fertilizer he would later use in his improvised explosive device in Oslo.
Breivik even had a Twitter account, which he posted to only once, on July 17, writing: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests.”
All of this would now seem to contradict earlier reports in the immediate aftermath of the attacks that a Jihadist group called Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, was responsible. A member of that group, Abu Sulayman al-Nasi, had posted a message on Shmukh, an Internet forum popular with Islamic militants, that made reference to a 2010 suicide bombing in Sweden and seemed to claim responsibility for the attacks in Norway. The message was partially translated from Arabic by Will McCants, a terrorism researcher with the firm C.N.A., on his Twitter feed, and soon appeared in The New York Times:
We have warned since the Stockholm raid of more operations and we have demanded that the countries of Europe withdraw from the land of Afghanistan and end their war on Islam and Muslims. What you see is only the beginning and there is more to come.
However, McCants almost immediately began issuing caveats and warned readers to take the claim with some skepticism. Soon the message had been locked and deleted, and the Jihadist who posted it recanted his statement. McCants wrote in an update on his website: “Abu Sulayman has now issued a retraction, stating clearly that ‘Helpers’ was not involved in the operation and that his statement was not an official statement. He says those who carried out the attacks ‘must surely be known to all.’” Later, McCants added: “‘Surely known to all’ apparently means a right-wing Norwegian extremist who likes World of Warcraft and Dexter.”
By then, however, the claim had already spread through other credible media outlets, reinforced by speculation from intelligence analysts and terrorism experts. The Daily Telegraph, Britain’s highest-selling broadsheet, cited Norway’s military presence in Afghanistan, writing, “There is precedent for jihadist targeting of Norway, with public spaces, government offices and media targets most at risk. One possible culprit is the Pakistan-based core al-Qaeda group, which has previously shown interest in attacking Norway.” Here in the U.S., The Weekly Standard, a conservative magazine, wrote: “We don’t know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today’s events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra.”
It’s not unreasonable, of course, for news organizations to report credible claims of responsibility made by known Jihadist groups and translated by well-known terrorism experts in the early aftermath of a bombing. Especially in the haze of confusion that follows a major terrorist attack, empirical evidence is scarce and information is constantly evolving.
To some, however, what’s less forgivable is the fervor with which some commentators and editorial writers seized on the now-debunked Jihadist link to connect the attacks in Oslo to the broader “war on terror,” or to proposed cuts to defense spending here in the U.S. Citing the initial report in The Weekly Standard — which has since acknowledged the arrest of Breivik in Norway — Washington Post conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that “there is a specific Jihadist connection here.” She noted proposals by lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, including Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss, to cut defense spending: “This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists.” And she added:
Obama would have us believe that al-Qaeda is almost caput and that we can wrap up things in Afghanistan. All of these are rationalizations for doing something very rash, namely curbing our ability to defend the United States and our allies in a very dangerous world.
Steve Clemons, editor-at-large of The Atlantic, criticized Rubin for, as he put it, deciding “to exploit this tragedy to bash those in Congress, including Senator Saxby Chambliss (R-GA), for supporting budget cuts across the nation’s spending portfolio — including in defense.” His colleague, national correspondent James Fallows, has requested an apology from Rubin and The Washington Post. As of Saturday afternoon, Rubin had neither retracted the post nor written an update acknowledging the new information about the Oslo suspect.
The Wall Street Journal, meanwhile, amended an editorial posted Friday that attributed the attacks to Jihadists’ hostility toward Norway’s “Western norms.” The editorial cited the arrest of “an ethnic Norwegian with no previously known ties to Islamist groups” in connection with the attacks, but added: “If this does prove to be the work of Islamists, it will be noted that neither Norway’s opposition to the war in Iraq nor its considerable financial and political support for the Palestinians spared it from attack.”