Every update about the attacks that occurred yesterday in Oslo and a nearby island, Utoya, only seems more horrific. At least 85 people, mostly teenagers and many from political families, were shot while attending a youth camp for the ruling Labour party. The search for at least four victims is still going on, as many ran into the water and drowned while trying to flee from the gunman, who continued to fire at them in the water. Police are also still searching in central Oslo for victims in the wreckage of government and other buildings; at least 7 were killed when these were bombed on Friday afternoon.
As of Friday evening, police in Norway have charged a 32-year-old Norwegian man who is said to be a right-wing fundamentalist Christian. Norwegian media have given his name as as Anders Behring Breivik and he is described as a “religious, gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threat of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration to the cultural and patriotic values of his country,” according to the New York Times. It is not yet known if Breivik acted alone or if others were involved, say police who are currently questioning him under the country’s terrorism laws. Breivik is said to be cooperating with the investigation.
Police suspect that the bombing was a diversionary tactic. After it occurred, police put central Oslo on lockdown. Police said that there are still unexploded munitions in some downtown Oslo buildings and that they have also found undetonated explosives in a car found on Utoya. They are still searching to see if there are more explosives on the island.
[UPDATE, 9:15pm EST] The BBC reports that Breivik has admitted to the attacks and described his actions as “gruesome but necessary.” He is due to appear in court on Monday; according to his lawyer, Geir Lippestad, he had planned the attacks “for some while”:
Still pictures of him, wearing a wetsuit and carrying an automatic weapon, appeared in a 12-minute anti-Muslim video called Knights Templar 2083, which appeared briefly on YouTube.
A 1,500-page document written in English and said to be by Mr Breivik – posted under the pseudonym of Andrew Berwick -was also put online hours before the attacks, suggesting they had been years in the planning.
The document and the video repeatedly refer to the Knights Templar and to multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.
In the words of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Utoya was a “youth paradise” that has been transformed into a “hell.” Stoltenberg says that he had visited the island annually since 1974 and was scheduled to speak there a few hours after the attacks occurred. He and King Harald V and Queen Sonja visited Sundervoll, a town near Utoya, to meet with victims and families on Saturday. The attacks are the worst to happen on Norwegian soil since World War II and with them, says Stoltenberg, Norway has lost its innocence.
The Norwegian news site NRK contains frequent updates and photos about the twin attacks. The attack on Utoya went on for 90 minutes, with the gunman appearing dressed as a police around 5:30pm and summoning those on the island — some 700 — to him. Witnesses recount that those who walked towards him were shot and that the gunman shot those already on the ground a second time, to make sure they were dead. Police arrived on the island — there is no bridge between it and Oslo — after 40 minutes and Breivik surrendered when they called to him. A timeline of the twin attacks can be found on the Guardian.
Lisa Marie Husby from Orkdal was chased by the gunsman; she and several others found refuge in a cabin, where they stayed for 2 1/2 hours, during which Breivik, who had an automatic rifle and a handgun, attempted to enter and fired his gun, but eventually left. A 15-year-old, Elise, also gives a terrifying eyewitness account; she describes hiding behind the same rock Breivik stood on and being able to hear him breathing.
The Norwegian flag was being flown at half-staff in commemoration of those killed and many Norwegians changed their Facebook profile photos to a Norwegian flag.
Under Norway’s liberal criminal sentencing policies, the gunman could be sentenced to only 21 years, which is the maximum sentence a criminal in Norway can receive, says the Guardian. Questions will also be asked about the liberal gun policies in Norway, a country where “shooting and hunting are major pastimes… and guns are easy to obtain.”
Breivik was a member of Norway’s conservative Progress Party, which is the second-largest political party in Norway, with lower taxes and anti-immigration policies its main issues. A former “youth member,” Breivik had criticized the party for turning to embrace “multiculturalism” and “political correctness” and straying from its “idealistic stand.” He was described as “calm and quiet” by those who knew him in the Progress party. A self-described “Nationalist” and bodybuilder, hunter and Freemason, Breivik had criticized both immigrants and politicians who supported them frequently on online fora. He also boasted of links to the far right in the UK including the English Defence League and other anti-Islamic European organizations.
Breivik listed Kafka and George Orwell’s 1984 as among his favorite books on a Facebook page that was only set up on July 17 and listed no “friends.” According to the Guardian, while the pictures that have so far emerged of Breivik suggest a clean-shaven “young entrepreneur,” the reality was that his business ventures were failures. In 2009, Breivik established a farm business in Rena in eastern Norway through which, say authorities, he was able in May to order six tons of ammonium nitrate fertilizer, which can be used in making explosives.
On the BBC, journalist Liss Goril Anda says the attacks were “squarely aimed at the values Norwegians treasure most (…) openness, freedom of expression and feeling of safety.” Norwegians are asking if the country has been focusing too much on countering Islamist terrorists over and above native right-wing extremists and the anti-Islamist right. Says the New York Times:
“This is the Norwegian equivalent to Timothy McVeigh,” the right-wing American who blew up a government building in Oklahoma City in 1995, said Marcus Buck, a political scientist at the University of Tromso in northern Norway. “This is right-wing domestic terrorism, and the big question is to what extent Norwegian agencies have diverted their attention from what they knew decades ago was the biggest threat” and instead focused on threats from militant Islamist groups.
The authorities recognized in terrorism reports as recently as March that threats could come from tiny right-wing groups that numbered no more than 50 people, Mr. Buck said. But the unclassified versions of the last three reports assessing the threats to the country by the Norwegian Police Security Service, the national security and counter terrorism organization under the Ministry of Justice, all played down the threat posed by right-wing and nationalist extremists.
Instead, the reports emphasized the dangers of radical Islam, groups opposed to Norway’s participation in NATO operations in Afghanistan and now Libya, economic espionage against the country’s resources and technology assets and potential threats to Norwegian dignitaries.
As Knut Olav Åmås, culture and op-ed editor at Aftenposten, Norway’s leading newspaper, writes in the Guardian:
The events of this weekend have given many Norwegians a sense of alienation towards their country. We have lost that feeling of safe and secure normality that Norwegians are so predisposed to take for granted. As the prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, remarked in a speech yesterday, the island – which he had visited every summer since 1974, hosting the summer camps – had suddenly changed from paradise to hell. And so many of us are afraid that the events of Friday could change Norway forever, characterised as it is by a high degree of openness and egalitarianism.
It is not unusual to meet cabinet ministers accidentally on the street, or our foremost celebrities in grocery stores. A sort of charming naivety has been our hallmark, combined with a considerable degree of homogeneity.
The terrorist loner (if he was acting alone) has shown Norway the immense costs of being a touchingly open society. The Labour party’s youth organisation has already decided to return to the island and win back the future that a terrorist intended to turn into past.
But I can’t get rid of the sense that the cracking of machine-gun fire that ended almost 100 young and political lives was also the sound of fundamental change.
As a resident of New Jersey — and with the tenth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 in a few months — I understand what Åmås means.
We will continue to post updates about the twin attacks in Norway and we send all thoughts to those who died and their families.
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Photo by L.C.Nøttaasen