What the Oslo Bombing May Reveal About the State of the Global Terrorist Threat

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The shattered windows of a government building are seen in Oslo, following Friday's bombing, July 23, 2011. (Photo: Vegard Grott / Reuters / Scanpix)

(Update July 23: This post was originally written hours after Friday’s blast, when police and media speculation — and jihadist web sites — were pointing at Islamist extremists as the likely perpetrators of the Oslo terror attacks. On Saturday, however, Norwegian police had charged a 32-year-old Norwegian who they said was a Christian fundamentalist with right wing connections in the twin attacks that left more than 92 people dead. So, rather than a diffuse al-Qaeda movement getting lucky, Oslo may instead turn out to be a reminder the latent danger of right-wing terrorism of the  sort perpetrated by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh in 1995.)

Friday’s bomb attack in Oslo that killed at least seven people — and what police say is a related shooting attack at a youth camp on an island outside the Norwegian capital that left an larger number dead — was widely assumed to be the first jihadist terror strike on Western soil since the death of Osama bin Laden. If that suspicion, based on recent events in Norway and its neighborhood, had been proven correct, it might have confirmed the increasingly diffuse and localized nature of al-Qaeda, and an inclination to use local assets — or even simply to inspire local sympathizers — to strike at less protected targets in the West. In the big-picture arc of the decade since 9/11, it’s a strategy of diminishing returns for the jihadists, but the grim tidings from Oslo on Friday would have been a reminder that even a scattered jihadist movement whose capabilities are massively degraded will still occasionally  get lucky. 

Just a year ago, three men were arrested in Norway and Germany, for allegedly plotting a terror attack on the Scandinavian country. Norway has long been in the crosshairs of al-Qaeda and those freelancers inspired by it, notes Norwegian analyst Thomas Hegghammer, as “a legitimate but low-priority target.” That’s because of its participation in the U.S.-led NATO mission in Afghanistan. One Norwegian paper also outraged local Muslims by republishing derogatory cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a pig. And, to the extent that Tip O’Neill’s maxim that “all politics is local” applies as well to jihadists, a further grievance could be the fact that Norwegian prosecutors last week moved to prosecute Mullah Krekar, leader of the Iraqi Kurdish Islamist group Ansar al-Islam, for allegedly threatening to kill a Norwegian politician if the government followed through with plans to deport him to Iraq.

(PHOTOS: Explosion Rocks Norway’s Capital)

The three men arrested in last year’s alleged plot had been immigrants to Norway, from Iraq, Uzbekistan and the Uighur community of western China. The Guardian reports that Norwegian intelligence earlier this year warned of a danger presented by a handful of individuals who had traveled for military training, and in some cases seen action, in Aghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen. And a number of plots have been broken up in neighboring Sweden and nearby Denmark.

But the July 2010 plot had been relatively unsophisticated, relying on homemade peroxide explosives and easily undone because of its use of email communications with militants in Pakistan. The success of Friday’s bombing, for which a group calling itself Helpers of the Global Jihad claimed responsibility, suggests a greater degree of sophistication. The blast appears to have been caused by a car bomb, the assembly of which would require a measure of expertise.

If the shooting at a Labor Party youth camp by a man in police uniform was related, as the Norwegian authorities who arrested a suspect have claimed,  that would also mark a variation on the signature al-Qaeda mass-casualty spectacular bombings.

As to why Norway would be targeted, it’s hard to imagine that the relatively secondary set of grievances represented in the jihadist mind by the Scandinavian country would have pushed it to the top of any global al-Qaeda priority target list. As Hegghamer observed in the wake of last year’s failed attack in Norway, “Frustrated by the difficulty of striking key adversaries like Britain and the United States, al-Qaeda seems to be moving down the food chain.”

(PHOTOS: Terror in the U.K.)

And the prime reason for that may simply be that the security measures in place in Norway aren’t nearly as strict as those in the U.S. and other Western countries previously targeted by terrorism. Ray Moseley notes that “Oslo, a city of 1.4 million population, is a relatively easy target for terrorists. Residents interviewed after the bombing on Friday said security is fairly light around government buildings that appeared to be the focus of the attack, with no restrictions on driving and parking cars in front of them.”

He adds that immigration has made it the fastest-growing city in Europe, with one in four residents born abroad.

So, if the Oslo bombing was, indeed, the work of some combination of local and international jihadists, it may simply have been chosen as a target of opportunity. It’s unlikely to be the last, but nor is it likely to mark any sharp uptick.