22nd July 2021
By Milo Comerford, Jakob Guhl and Jacob Davey
It has been a decade since the 2011 Oslo terror attacks, considered by many to be a “turning point” in far-right extremist mobilisation. This Dispatch outlines the ways in which the ideas, tactics and dynamics underpinning the attack have come to shape one of the fastest growing terror threats we are seeing today.
The 22nd July 2011 marked one of the darkest days in recent Norwegian history. Following a long period of preparation, a 32-year-old Norwegian man conducted one of the most lethal far-right terrorist attacks in post-war Europe. Inspired by fringe ideas about the supposed threat of an ‘Islamisation’ of Europe, the terrorist detonated a bomb in Oslo’s government district and went on to commit a mass shooting on the small Island of Utøya, which at the time held the summer camp of the youth wing of the Norwegian Labour Party. Seventy-seven people were killed, many of them children.
The attack would provide a blueprint for right-wing extremism and terrorism over the coming decade, acting as a prototype for a number of key trends which are now persistent features of the contemporary extreme-right. It foreshadowed a wave of far-right terrorism, which has become one of the fastest growing terrorist threats in many Western countries. The modus operandi of the attacker has been replicated in a wave of far-right terrorism in recent years, and the ideas which he advanced are now common across the far-right political spectrum. The attacker has also come to be revered within some of the most extreme far-right communities, lauded as a ‘saint’ within an increasingly violent transnational movement.
The Propaganda of the Deed
The Oslo attacker produced a 1,500-page manifesto which was emailed to over a thousand addresses shortly before the attack. It drew heavily on online sources, presenting a worldview which saw Europe as being overrun by Muslims, enabled by politically correct ‘cultural Marxist’ allies. The document was transnational in its outlook, referencing a wide range of extremist groups and individuals from across the globe. It has come to be one of the most influential far-right documents of recent years.
While the publication of manifestos outlining ideological convictions was relatively rare during previous decades, since the Oslo attack such documents have become commonplace, and featured in attacks in Christchurch, Pittsburgh, El Paso, Poway and Halle. The Oslo manifesto helped to inspire some of these attackers, and was referenced in a number of their manifestos , highlighting how right-wing terrorists see themselves as part of a global movement, building on the violent actions of others.
Despite not being a native English-speaker, the Oslo attacker chose to write his manifesto in English, an attempt to communicate with and inspire a broader audience – once beyond the borders of his homeland. Subsequent far-right terrorists (such as the Halle attacker) took a similar approach, writing their manifestos in English and speaking in English in their live streams of the attack so as to reach and be understood by international audiences. The recurrence of this approach over the past decade has signified an extreme-right that has become increasingly transnational in outlook, largely enabled by coordination across social media. This is a trend ISD has documented in a number of recent reports, and one which has become a defining characteristic of the contemporary extreme-right’s world-view.
Mainstreaming of Extremism
One of the main messages of the Oslo attacker’s manifesto was the percieved idea that peaceful coexistence between Muslims and non-Muslims within European societies is neither possible nor desirable. Violent conflict between the two groups was portrayed as ultimately inevitable, a line of argument which is also mirrored in Islamist extremist propaganda. Groups like ISIS present Western societies as waging a ‘war on Islam’, in which Muslims have no choice but to take sides. Beyond such rhetorical interplay between far-right and Islamist extremism, the Oslo attacker was in awe of Islamist extremist groups like al-Qaeda – in particular, their ability to use violence to achieve their goal. He praised the group’s ‘cult of martyrdom’, an apt example of ‘cumulative extremism’ dynamics which have characterised recent radicalisation trends.
Looking back over the past decade, it becomes clear that the ideas espoused in the Oslo attacker’s manifesto have become increasingly prominent in extremist circles. Repackaged by the New Right and Identitarian movements in concepts such as the ‘Great Replacement’ theory, these ideas were central to the 2019 attack on two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, which left 51 people dead.
This being said, the Oslo attacker’s ideology is not contained to fringe extremist circles. It has gained traction in wider public discourse as well as institutional politics in the past decade, aided significantly by the rise of alternative media ecosystems and social media. ISD analysis has documented how related ideas have been consistently advanced by political actors in Europe in recent years. This is not fringe discussion, and the concept of ‘remigration’ (forced repatriation of people with non-European heritage) even became the official policy of Alternative fur Deutschland – the largest opposition party in Germany – in their 2019 European Parliament campaign.
Similarly, policies such as the so-called ‘Muslim ban’ implemented by then US-president Trump in January 2017 reinforced the sense that Muslims as a whole, rather than Islamist extremists, represented a threat to the West. Such mainstreaming dynamics highlight the presence of extremist talking points extending far beyond the machinations of a small vanguard of dedicated, violent supremacists.
A Change in Policy Paradigms
The 2011 attack demonstrated the profound limitations of counter-terrorism policy frameworks geared towards addressing an exclusively Islamist, ‘international’ (rather than domestic) and organisation-based threat. In the immediate aftermath of the Oslo attack, ISD and its partners worked to cement extreme right-wing terrorism on the international policy agenda, fighting back against a perception amongst governments that the 2011 attack was an isolated incident, rather than the tip of a much larger iceberg of potential extreme-right wing mobilisation.
This struggle towards creating an ideologically ambivalent counter extremism policy apparatus continues a decade on. It involves creating tailored responses that do not attempt to transplant the Islamist counter-terrorism paradigm onto to the far-right threat, which is very different in nature. For example, many of the challenges related to far-right extremism are not characterised by specific hierarchical group structures, as one would see with ISIS or Al Qaeda, but rather much broader spheres of international extremist influence, facilitated by online platforms.
Crucially, the extreme right-wing landscape is not static. Just as the Oslo attack presaged the shape of contemporary extreme right-wing activity, the wave of extreme right-wing attacks that have occurred since 2018 will likely shape the paradigm of extremism in the years to come. The persistent presence of a ‘post-organisational’ dynamic, in which lone actors who are inspired by a diverse transnational extremist ideology, represents a pressing threat – an intractable, dynamic threat which has been seen to materialise time and time again, only aided by the growth of fringe social media.
Milo Comerford is the Head of Policy & Research, Counter Extremism at ISD, leading ISD’s work developing innovative research approaches and policy responses to extremism. Milo regularly briefs senior decision makers around the world on the challenge posed by extremist ideologies, and advises governments and international agencies on building effective strategies for countering extremism.
Jakob Guhl is a Manager at ISD, where he works within the Digital Research Unit and ISD Germany. His research focuses on the far-right, Islamist extremism, hate speech, disinformation and conspiracy theories. He is a frequent commentator on German radio and broadcast, including Deutschlandfunk, Tagesthemen and Radio Eins.
Jacob Davey is the Head of Research & Policy of Far-right and Hate Movements at ISD. His research focuses on the role of digital communications in inter-communal conflict, internet culture, online hate speech and the international far-right. You can find him tweeting at @jacob_p_davey.