Has Norway given Breivik exactly what he wanted?

Norway's decision to try Anders Behring Breivik, the confessed killer behind the July 2011 terror attacks, is controversial because it gives him a very public platform from which to share his views.

Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix/Reuters
Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik smiles in court during his trial in Oslo on Friday, May 11.

Norwegian mass killer Anders Behring Breivik warned in his manifesto, released online shortly before last summer’s twin terror attacks, that he would use an eventual trial to spread his message.

“If you for some reason survive the operation you will be apprehended and arrested,” he ominously forebodes in "2083: A European Declaration of Independence." “This is the point where most heroic Knights would call it a day. However, this is not the case for a Justiciar Knight. Your arrest will mark the initiation of the propaganda phase.”

The possibility that his public trial could be used as a podium and inspire copycats, as well as consideration for victims and their families, prompted a ban on the broadcast of his testimony. However, his words have still been circulated by the hundreds of international journalists who have been covering the trial in Oslo nonstop since it began April 16.

Altogether Mr. Breivik killed 77 people, mostly teenagers, in a car bomb attack at the main government buildings in Oslo and in a shooting rampage at the Labour party youth camp on Utøya island. He blames the Labour Party for undermining Norwegian society by promoting multiculturalism with its lenient immigration policies, which he says have allowed mass immigration.

The question now is whether, after weeks of shocking testimony, Breivik has succeeded in disseminating his call to arms against the Islamic colonization of Europe. That possibility was one of several arguments made in the United States against trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks, in a civilian court, where his trial would be covered by the media. 

Support for his ideas? Yes. But for his tactics?

Terrorist experts in Norway say it is evident that, despite the violence of the July 22 attacks, Breivik does have followers, and his court appearance may be creating some admiration among some “respectable citizens,” says Helge Lurås, an Oslo-based terror expert. Mr. Lurås believes that Breivik’s core ideology – that immigration is threatening the nation – is one shared by quite a few Norwegians, as well as many throughout Europe, as evidenced by the growing popularity of right-wing parties. 

“His argument that this is a ‘war’ which justifies the most horrific acts does play home with some, especially since they find elements to agree with in his ideological justification,” Lurås says. “People have now got to know Breivik as a human being, with emotions, self-corrective behavior, etc. This causes some of them to have empathy with him, and I think a few are secretly cheering him on, hoping that he will not break down in court.”

That might be one of the reasons for the increase in support for the organization Stop the Islamization of Norway (SIAN). The group, which has more than 10,000 Facebook fans, claims that it has continued to receive monetary gifts and new members since the start of Breivik’s trial April 16, including an anonymous donation of 50,000 Norwegian kroner ($8,700) that week. 

“Not too long ago, we received a donation for double that amount,” Arne Tumyr, SIAN leader, told Norwegian newspaper Dagsavisen. “We are not a racist organization, and we take strong disassociation from Breivik’s actions. But many agree with his viewpoints.”

Breivik’s message also resonates abroad. Lars Gule, a postdoctoral research fellow at Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences specializing in Middle East studies and political Islam, says many thousands in Norway and hundreds of thousands worldwide share Breivik’s ideas, or at least his understanding of political and social realities.

“The focus is then on the notion of a conflict or war between the West and Islam/Muslims, the conspiracy theory Eurabia, implying that Western leaders are in cahoots with Arab-Muslim leaders in facilitating immigration from Arab countries, thus making these leaders traitors, and that multiculturalists of all kinds – politicians, journalists and academics – are destroying our countries by the treasonous acts of allowing and defending immigration and a multicultural society,” Mr. Gule says.

But few are like Breivik, willing to use violence in order to fight these policies.

One of the most recent examples of the power of Breivik’s message internationally is the revelation in April that he has a pen pal supporter in Massachusetts. Kevin Forts, a now-suspended 23-year-old student at Assumption College in Worcester, told Norwegian newspaper VG that he had contacted Breivik’s legal team in February to offer his support and has sent him encouraging letters for his “heroic” acts.

“I believe that Breivik is a rational man who committed atrocious but necessary acts,” Mr. Forts told VG TV last week. “I believe that what other people don’t realize is that now all you see is the shock and the gore at Utøya and Oslo, but you do not see the political ramifications that will come to in the future. And I believe at that point it will be impossible to hate Breivik, and you will see that he was acting in a manner of preemptive attack of war.”

Creating distance

Breivik’s actions may have gained him some sympathizers, but they have not necessarily helped his right-wing comrades. Many far-rightists – including the anti-Islam group the English Defense League and “Fjordman,” a Norwegian right-wing blogger believed to have inspired Breivik – quickly distanced themselves from Breivik's actions after the July 22 attacks. 

Tore Bjørgo, a professor of political science at the Norwegian Police University College, believes Breivik’s attacks have caused a number of people to leave the anti-jihad and anti-Islam movements and also halted recruitment, similar to what happened with the Benjamin Hermansen case in 2001, when a young Norwegian-Ghanaian boy was killed in Oslo by neo-Nazis. 

“This is a dilemma [for the Norwegian Defense League],” says Mr. Bjørgo, who has spent the past 13 years studying terrorism. “They know it gives a lot of possibilities for their cause … at the same time they know it is morally indefensible. Those that provide moral support are politically dead.”

The violent nature of his attacks have also divided the extremist community. Last week, Norwegian Defense League leader Ronny Alte was pressed by members to resign because he wanted to disassociate the group, which vows to fight Islamization through the democratic process, from Breivik's acts. The group would not allow it. “I cannot be a member in an organization that is associated with Breivik,” Mr. Alte told Norwegian TV2.

Alte is expected to testify in Breivik's trial as part of the defense’s strategy to show that there is a subculture that shares Breivik’s view that Muslims pose a threat to Western society. Breivik has insisted on his sanity, and Alte is being brought in partially to show that sane people share Breivik's ideology.

In the end, Breivik’s court performance may have lost him supporters. Sometimes he seems to be bluffing, and he has become more pompous, Bjørgo says – not a person to admire. But that does not mean his message has been rendered ineffective. It only has to resonate with one person to have consequences, Bjørgo warns.

“That’s always the problem with extremists,” he says. “Sometimes journalists believe that if you give these people a mic and let them talk then it will be so ugly and it will scare people. That is true with 99.9 percent. But they are not interested in the 99.9 percent. They are interested in the 0.1 percent.”

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