What Norway can teach the U.S. about the deadly price of right-wing extremism


UTØYA, Norway—When he first heard the sharp popping sounds coming from the other side of his summer camp, Bjørn Ihler thought they were fireworks.

Then he saw a man in dark clothes walk over a hill and start shooting people in the chest.

In an instant, the tranquil camp on the island of Utøya turned into a war zone. Ihler ran as fast as he could, sprinting through the dense forest, through the rain and the mud. He grabbed two kids, eight and nine years old, pulling them with him as far from the gunshots and screams as possible.

“At one point we had to get off the path because it was covered in a pile of corpses, dead bodies of friends who had been executed,” he told me recently. “I remember a cell phone ringing in that pile, and I realized its owner would never pick it up.”

They hid for a while, Ihler holding one of the kid’s mouths shut to keep him from crying out. When they heard helicopters, they hurried to the coast of the island, thinking they were saved. Ihler called his parents to tell them he was OK.

Just as his father answered the phone, the shooter walked out from behind the bushes. Ihler pushed the boys into the water of the fjord below and dived after them, ripping off his heavy woolen sweater as it dragged him down.

As Ihler stood up in the shallow water, he turned back and watched the shooter aim at him. The two made eye contact for a split second. Ihler realized he was about to die. And then the man fired.

Five years ago last month, on July 22, 2011, a right-wing extremist named Anders Behring Breivik killed eight people when he set off a bomb at a government building in Oslo and then gunned down 69 more—most of them teenagers—at a summer camp on Utøya. The massacre was likely the deadliest mass shooting in world history perpetrated by a single shooter, and is among the deadliest right-wing terror attacks ever.

Ihler was one of the survivors. Breivik narrowly missed him when he fired, and Ihler and the two boys hid and were rescued by police officers. Breivik was arrested a few minutes later.

Breivik was motivated by a deadly mixture of anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric. As he wrote in a 1,500-page manifesto posted online just before the attacks, he specifically targeted the youth camp run by the country’s Labour Party because of its support of diversity and immigration. He believed his actions would start a race war and create a new society based on racial homogeneity.

Terrorism perpetrated by supporters of radical Islam has captured the attention of the media and politicians since 9/11. But Breivik’s rampage in Norway should remind us of the real and persistent danger that right-wing extremism still holds.

In many European countries, far-right political parties are gaining power or are soaring in the polls, buoyed by discontent over immigration. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union was also fueled in large part by a fear of immigration. Just last month, a teenager in Germany who was apparently inspired by Breivik gunned down nine people at a Munich shopping mall in an attack timed to the fifth anniversary of the Utøya massacre. He seemed to target people of “Turkish or Arab origin,” officials said, and used a photo of Breivik as his profile picture on WhatsApp.

Even though Islamic extremism gets most of the headlines, American law enforcement officials are more worried about domestic anti-government or right-wing attacks—like the massacre by white supremacist Dylann Roof, who killed nine African-American churchgoers in Charleston last summer, or the Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh—than they are about Islamic extremist groups, one study last year showed. As of June 2015, right-wing and other non-Islamic extremists in the U.S. killed almost double the number of people that jihadists killed in the years since 9/11. And the xenophobic presidential campaign of Donald Trump is inspiring its own contingent of right-wing extremists. Studies suggest his rhetoric may be fueling hate crimes.

Anders Breivik took this kind of hatred to its most violent extremes. His attack and Norway’s response could offer the U.S. lessons in how to respond to the very real threats it faces from right-wing terror.

When reports first started coming in of the bombing in Oslo on July 22, many assumed that Islamic extremists had attacked Norway. But a few hours later, when the name of the suspect flashed across TV screens, Norwegians were shocked. He was—as the title of the most respected book on the attacks put it—”one of us.”

Breivik grew up in Oslo, the son of a diplomat who abandoned his family. As a teenager, he was especially interested in graffiti and tagging. He started several businesses in his twenties—including a company that printed fake diplomas—only to see them fail. He joined a political party and tried to run for office, but he wasn’t chosen as a candidate and stopped coming to meetings. He joined the Freemason society, but quickly lost interest.

Starting in 2006, Breivik began to isolate himself in a room in his mother’s small apartment in Oslo, playing hours and hours of World of Warcraft. Sometimes he would stay online all day, doing mission after mission without going outside. He also started posting on the message boards of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim websites, and reading articles written by Pamela Geller and other Islamophobic commentators from the U.S.

It’s not clear when exactly Breivik drifted from online rhetoric to planning a real-life attack. But over the next few years he composed a rambling manifesto on how Islam, immigration, and “political correctness” was destroying Norwegian society, plagiarizing swathes of text from other message board posters.

In the manifesto, he claimed to be a member of the “Knights Templar,” an organization that would take over Norwegian society, kill or deport Muslim immigrants, and execute the “traitor” politicians who supported diversity and allowed immigration. Breivik bought a remote farm in the south of the country, where, over the course of a year, he mixed chemicals to build a bomb based on techniques he learned in YouTube videos. He learned to shoot and acquired high-powered assault rifles, which he named after the weapons wielded by Norse gods.

In Utøya, Breivik chose a target with a long history in Norway’s labor movement and leftist politics. In the ‘30s, the island—about a 45-minute drive from Oslo—was owned by labor unions and used as a vacation colony for poor and working class people. Leon Trotsky, the Soviet communist leader, spent the summer of 1936 living on the island after fleeing Stalin and winning asylum in Norway. Starting in the ‘50s, the youth league of the Labour Party, the AUF, began holding summer camps on Utøya to train the next generation of the country’s political leaders.

Each summer, hundreds of young people from around the country would gather to discuss politics and learn campaigning. Prominent politicians from Labour—which governed Norway for most of its modern history—visited Utøya and faced tough questions from the politically savvy youth. But there was room for fun as well. “It’s labeled a political camp, but it’s also very much just a place to hang out with other kids,” said Ihler, who attended for several years. “There’s football games going on and girls to flirt with.” He remembers sitting in his friends’ tents on the day before the shooting, playing guitar into the night.

On the morning of July 22, Breivik drove a van packed full of homemade explosives to the main government building in downtown Oslo. As people were getting out of work that afternoon, he set the fuse and hurried away. The explosion nearly toppled the building and killed eight people.

While police were struggling to figure out what had happened, Breivik was already on his way to Utøya. He arrived dressed in a fake police uniform, telling officials at the camp that he was there to keep the kids safe. He took the five-minute ferry ride across the fjord, and campers helped him carry his bags up the hill. A few minutes later, Breivik started shooting.

By the time he was arrested, 72 minutes after he arrived on the island, Breivik had killed 69 more people and shaken Norwegian society to its core.

But Breivik’s attack didn’t happen in a vacuum. In the preceding years, it had become increasingly popular to blame Muslim immigrants for Norway’s woes. That was in part thanks to the Progress Party, a right-wing political party which briefly counted Breivik as a member. Just like Trump’s campaign is now doing across the Atlantic, the Progress Party embraced anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric and brought it into the political mainstream of the country. Some reports suggest that this kind of rhetoric can inspire extremists like Breivik to take deadly action.

The Progress Party started with an anti-tax, libertarian bent in the ’70s and grew in popularity after its bombastic leader, Carl Ivar Hagen, sounded the alarm over Muslims. At a political rally in 1987, Hagen read what he claimed was a letter from Mohammad Mustafa, a Muslim man living in Oslo. The letter vowed that the country would one day have more mosques than churches, said that Muslim immigrants “give birth to more children than you,” and promised that one day they would remove “the infidel cross” from Norway’s flag.

The letter was a fabrication, and Hagen was forced to retract his statement. Mustafa, who was a real Pakistani immigrant working as a pizza baker, and who had never written the letter, later won a settlement from Hagen. But that year, thanks in part to the party’s opposition to Muslim immigration, his party doubled its vote share in the local elections. Similarly, Trump has left his own trail of lies, like the total falsehood that immigrants are more likely to be criminals or rapists—stories designed to prey on deep-seated, racist fears about people of color.

“It’s clear beyond any doubt that anti-immigration policies have been absolutely central to [the Progress Party’s] support,” said Sindre Bangstad, a researcher who studies Islamophobia in Norway and wrote a book about Breivik’s attack. Like with Trump, the party’s supporters tend to be white, male, and less educated. “They attract a fair number of people who in the current political context feel marginalized,” Bangstad said.

Breivik was one of them. In his early twenties, he joined the Oslo youth group of the Progress Party, making friends with the other members even as he struck them as a little odd and standoffish. They bonded over beers, chatting about immigration. But when Breivik applied to run for office under the party’s ticket, he was passed over for other candidates. He stopped going to meetings after only a few months. (Breivik said in his manifesto that he abandoned the party once he decided “it would be impossible to change the system democratically.”)

Understandably, Progress Party officials aren’t proud of Breivik’s former membership. Jan Arild Ellingsen, a senior member of Parliament for the party, told me that he wasn’t surprised that Breivik quit. “His values and our values were not the same,” he said in an interview at the parliament building in Oslo. “He decided to leave because this was not the right place for him to be. I think that suited him and it definitely suited us.”

The Progress Party joined Norwegian government for the first time in 2013, as the junior member in a coalition with the Conservative Party. It still supports policies to restrict immigration and helped introduce one of the strictest asylum policies in Europe. Its current leader, Siv Jensen, has warned about the “stealth Islamization” of Norwegian society. More broadly, however, the party is seen to have moderated its rhetoric, encouraging its members to avoid demeaning immigrants. “Every political party moves from ideology and adapts to the future, adapts to changes in society,” Ellingsen said. “To say that we haven’t changed would be a lie.”

Scholars are divided on how right-wing political parties influence violent extremists like Breivik. On the one hand, there’s an argument that a strong political party that expresses skepticism of immigration but is dedicated to participating in the democratic system can sap the support from more extreme groups, like neo-Nazis. The most talented and organized people who hold those views would be more likely to go into politics than planning attacks.

Others say groups like the Progress Party bring anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant rhetoric previously on the fringe of society into the political mainstream. Like Trump, Hagen and others made it more socially acceptable to openly express Islamophobic ideas. “When you as a politician, who controls the attention of a lot of people, make this hate seem perfectly acceptable and a normal state of affairs, then obviously you will encourage people who are willing to take this further,” Bangstad said.

In the U.S., we can already see the impact of Trump’s campaign at lower levels, like an increase in bullying and harassment of Muslim and immigrant students in public schools, and an upsurge in anti-Muslim hate crimes in the period since he began his campaign and since he started publicly demeaning these groups. Two weeks ago, his candidacy inspired former KKK leader David Duke to run for a Senate seat in Louisiana.

Trump—who accepted the nomination of the Republican party one day before the five-year-anniversary of the Norway attacks—has shown little willingness to change his tone. Even after winning the Republican primary, he’s continued to denigrate Muslims and vowed to deport immigrants.

Some of the complaints in Breivik’s 1,500-page manifesto (which was written in English) are troublingly similar to those raised by Trump and his most extreme supporters. Breivik ranted and raged about political correctness, feminism, multiculturalism, the news media, and especially, Muslim immigrants.

Here are some quotes from Breivik’s quotes manifesto, compared with things Trump has said during the campaign:

BREIVIK: “Thousands of Muslims [are] pouring in annually through our Asylum institution, or by family reunification… The situation is just chaotic. These suicidal traitors must be stopped.”

TRUMP: “They’re pouring in and we don’t know what we’re doing… Each year the United States permanently admits 100,000 immigrants from the Middle East and many more from Muslim countries outside of the Middle East. Our government has been admitting ever-growing numbers, year after year, without any effective plan for our own security.”

BREIVIK: “Upholding national borders has become more important in the age of globalisation, terrorism and mass-migration, not less… No nation regardless of political system can survive the loss of its territorial integrity… a country that does not control its territory will eventually die. It’s inevitable.”

TRUMP: “A nation WITHOUT BORDERS is not a nation at all.”

BREIVIK: “A large proportion of the silent majority are individuals living in fear, reluctant to say anything as they know protesting on the street would involve certain beatings and harassment, with their face plastered in the newspapers the next day labelled as Nazis…”

TRUMP: “The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take the country back.”

BREIVIK: “In my view, the best way to deal with the Islamic world is to have as little to do with it as possible. We should ban Muslim immigration.”

TRUMP: “Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on…”

In the aftermath of the attacks, Norway was praised for how it responded. Political leaders from across the spectrum came together to support the victims. Instead of cracking down on civil liberties, they focused on giving Breivik due process and a fair trial, one that resulted in the country’s maximum prison sentence: just 21 years (although that can be renewed by a parole board and many believe he is unlikely to ever be released). “He was treated like any other criminal,” Ellingsen said. “If we limited our democracy, then he wins.”

Breivik is currently living in Skien prison in a suite of three cells, including a private bathroom, his own computer and PlayStation, and a treadmill. He has been kept in near-solitary confinement, and a Norwegian court this year mandated that he be given more human contact, calling his isolation “inhuman.” (Breivik’s lawyer did not respond to an interview request.) While some Norwegians were outraged with that decision, Ihler and several other survivors of the attack heralded it as a reason to be proud about their country. “Even though he did this and what he did was inhumane, he’s still a human being,” Ihler told me.

At the same time, however, many people who I talked to said they still felt a reluctance in Norway to talk about Breivik and the ideology that fueled his attack. Ihler said that especially in the first weeks after it happened, some of his friends and family refused to say Breivik’s name, treating him “like Voldemort.”

Five years after he made eye contact with Breivik and a bullet soared past his head, Bjørn Ihler is far from Norway. He now lives in Istanbul, where he studies extremism and meets with former extremists, both Islamic and far-right. He’s traveled across the world to talk to audiences about his experience.

He’s also watched as far-right political parties have grown in Europe and the U.S. “All these politicians are gaining their power by playing on this fear of immigration and other people,” he said. “We have to be more comfortable to know that our identities aren’t under threat just because someone else is different.”

A national commission produced a phonebook-sized report on the attacks, but most of its recommendations had to do with police coordination and a national emergency response procedure. Meanwhile, the majority of the media discussion of Breivik focused on his individual psychology, not his broader ideological bent.

So now, Ihler is working to start conversations about extremism. The importance of addressing radicalism head-on hit him, he said, when he visited court during Breivik’s trial. Sitting on a hard courtroom bench and watching his attacker a few feet in front of him, Ihler felt his own fear and revulsion fade. “When I saw him in court he was just a normal guy, he didn’t have any power to hurt me, he was just a man in chains,” Ihler said. “We can’t mystify him. We must understand him.”

For those who were friends with the young people who died on Utøya, one of the most effective ways to fight Breivik’s hateful ideology is simply to memorialize the dead—and make sure future generations never forget the tragic consequences of his hate.

That effort starts on Utøya island itself. On a cloudy morning last month, I jumped onto the tiny ferry M.S. Thorbjorn, the only boat that goes between Utøya and the mainland—the same boat Breivik took five years ago. The island is in the middle of a stunningly beautiful fjord, an expanse of calm water framed by two hills blanketed in forests. It has a few old barns and little red houses, but most of it is covered with trees and tranquil silence. You can easily walk around its circumference in about 15 minutes.

There was considerable debate over what to do with Utøya after the massacre. At first, the youth league decided to raze the several old buildings in an attempt to move on. But there was an uproar from the families.

So instead, the youth league constructed a new learning center, a sleek modern shell of wood and glass that covers several pieces of the bullet-riddled cafeteria, where 13 people died. The new building, which just opened two weeks ago, will be a center for schoolchildren from Norway and other countries to come and learn about the attacks and about Breivik’s hateful rhetoric. A short walk away, a small memorial rests in a quiet clearing overlooking the water: a steel circle with the names of the victims and their ages cut out of it, hanging from a group of pine trees. From some angles, it seems to hover in the air, a halo swaying slightly in the wind.

On the anniversary of the attacks, government leaders and family members of the victims gathered for ceremonies at the site of the bombing in Oslo and at Utøya. They walked the same path Breivik did, up the hill of the island, passing by the sites where friends were shot. One by one, they read the names of the dead.

But the island isn’t just a somber memorial. Last year, for the first time since the shooting, the labor youth league held a summer camp on Utøya again. More than 1,100 students took part, about double the turnout of previous years, and a similar number are expected for this year’s four-day camp. They spent time learning about the attacks and those who died, but also played football and lounged by the bay and stayed up late in tents.

Mani Hussaini, the leader of the youth league, a 28-year-old who came to Norway with his family as refugees from Syria, remembered the scene with a smile. Breivik might have thought that his massacre would end the camp, which welcomed immigrants like Hussaini. But they’ve just come back stronger, he said: “There was an inner motivation in all of our members not to let him win.”

Casey Tolan is a National News Reporter for Fusion based in New York City.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin