Norway attacks: the latest terror strikes in Western Europe

Details are still sketchy on who carried out the Oslo bombing, but Norwegian police are also connecting it to a gunmen who attacked a political youth camp shortly after.

Fartein Rudjord/AP
Debris covers the street outside buildings in the center of Oslo Friday following an explosion that tore open several buildings including the prime minister's office, shattering windows and covering the street with documents.

The Oslo car bomb attack on the offices of Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg (he wasn't there at the time and is unharmed) today, and the rampage of a gunman at a Labor Party youth camp on an island outside Oslo soon after, have stunned Norway. Norwegians have been changing their Facebook statuses to maps of their homeland, flags, and "I love Oslo" logos.

The safe and prosperous country appears to be in a state of collective shock. At least seven were killed in the Oslo attack. The shootings appear to have killed at least nine, but there are unconfirmed reports of many more casualties from the small island where they took place.

On social media, comments like "this is our 9/11" have been common. Who is responsible is still unknown. Norwegians are saying this is the single most violent day in the country since the end of World War II, when the Nazis occupied the country. The timing of the incidents, and the connection of both to Mr. Stoltengberg (he was scheduled to visit the Labor Party youth gathering on Utoya Island today), have the local police saying they're tangentially related.

But that connection isn't confirmed. Who could have done it?

Well, Al Qaeda and other violent Islamist groups have issued threats against Norway dating back to 2003. Those threats intensified after Denmark's Jylland's Posten newspaper published cartoons depicting the prophet Muhammad in 2005 (one of the cartoonists was Norwegian and a Norwegian paper reprinted some of the cartoons). Threats have also been issued repeatedly because of the small military force Norway has working with NATO in Afghanistan.

Last summer, Norway arrested three men for planning terrorist attacks. Two of the men, an Iraqi Kurd and a Chinese Uighur, both with legal Norwegian residency, confessed to planning attacks. One said the plan was to attack Jylland's Posten, while the other said the target was the Chinese Embassy in Oslo. The country also hosts Mullah Krekar, the leader of the Iraqi Kurdish Ansar al-Islam. That group was Al Qaeda's earliest ally in Iraq, and was blamed for a number of terror-style attacks in the early years of the conflict, including the murder of about 60 Kurdish politicians in the city of Arbil in 2004.

Mullah Krekar has legal Norwegian residency and a number of his family members are Norwegian citizens. He fled Saddam Hussein's Iraq for Norway in 1991. Last week, he was arrested for allegedly threatening Norwegian politicians with retaliation if they ever decided to deport him (Iraq, particularly Kurdish authorities, has wanted to put him on trial since 2003; Norway has been concerned about insufficient evidence of guilt in any crimes and about Iraq's use of the death penalty). Could supporters of Krekar have done it? Well, since the threat of violence was meant to forestall his deportation, that doesn't make much sense – if evidence ties this attack to his supporters, it's hard to see him regaining his freedom.

But it isn't necessarily Ansar al-Islam, Al Qaeda, or other Islamist militant groups. There is also a theoretically dangerous Norwegian far right, opposed to the polices of Stoltenberg's Labor Party and angry about the country's relatively lax immigration rules. Early reports from Norwegian media like TV2 say the gunman on Utoya was a blonde native Norwegian speaker in a police uniform who is currently in custody. While that doesn't rule out the possibility he was working with an Islamist group, it at least opens up the door to Norwegian ultra-nationalists being responsible. Expect another day of speculation, at least, before the data hardens.

Whoever is responsible, Norway has joined the growing list of country's that have experienced terrorist attacks in the last few years. Below are some of the notable attacks.

Stockholm, Sweden, last December

A suicide bomber planted a car bomb in the Swedish capital last September and blew himself up with a crude pipe bomb strapped to his chest. The suicide bomber was Taimour Abdulwahab, a Swedish national of Iraqi dissent. Iraq claimed that Mr. Abdulwahab had received training in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul after falling in with militant circles while studying in Luton in the United Kingdom. Whatever his training, his car bomb was poorly made (gas canisters designed to accelerate the explosion failed) and the attempt at mass casualties during the Swedish Christmas shopping rush was thwarted.

Northern Ireland, 2010- 2011

Though the Irish Republican Army says it has laid down its arms, dissident IRA groups were active in Northern Ireland last year, with at least eight improvised explosive devices found either attached to cars or hidden near roads. The bombs, which were mostly targeted at police officials, did not claim any lives although there were injuries. In one case in Lurgan, Northern Ireland last August, three children received minor injuries from an explosion. This year, there have been at least two attacks, with one in April claiming the life of a member of the police service in Omagh.

Spain, 2009

Spain experienced a number of attacks that have been blamed on the Basque separatist group ETA in 2009. A bomb at a TV station in Hernani in January claimed no casualties, nor did a car bomb in Madrid the following month. There were at least five more bombings throughout the year without any deaths. However, a car bomb in July killed two policemen on the holiday island of Majorca at a time when the Spanish royal family was due for a visit.

London, July 7, 2005

The attack on the London transit system, referred to as 7/7 in the UK, claimed 56 lives (including the four attackers). Three suicide bombers attacked trains in the London tube, while a fourth hit a crowded double-decker bus. All four were Muslims and British nationals. In martyrdom videos left behind by two of the men, they said their attacks were in retaliation for "atrocities" carried out by the UK against Muslims, and one of them described Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri (the Al Qaeda leader who succeeded bin Laden after his death earlier this year) as "heroes."

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