In 2011, Sindre Lysø was 15 years old and it was the second time he attended the famous summer camp of the Norwegian Labour Party-affiliated Workers’ Youth League (AUF) on the island of Utoya. On 22 July, while at a briefing, the kids heard that there had been an explosion in Oslo. “I remember we were saying to each other that we were probably in the safest place on Earth,” he tells elDiario.es. “Minutes later, we started hearing gunshots.
“I was at the top of the tent area and survived by running with many others into the woods,” he recalls. They reached the shore and some jumped into the water, but Lysø hid in the bushes, from where he could see Anders Breivik committing the worst attack in Norway since World War II.
That day, Breivik disguised himself as a policeman, parked a van loaded with explosives outside Oslo’s main government building and drove away in a car he had parked nearby. Minutes later, the bomb exploded, killing eight people. Meanwhile, the bomber was already on his way to the island of Utoya, 40 kilometers away, where the youth organization was holding its annual camp. He said he had been sent by the authorities to protect the island and then began his massacre for one hour and 13 minutes. He killed everyone he came across. At that time there were 564 people on the island and he killed 69, 33 of them minors.
Ten years after that attack, Lysø is 25 years old and now secretary general of the AUF. He says what he went through on the island strengthened his commitment to politics. “It was not a random attack, but we were attacked because of our values. It was important to do politics before the attack, but after it is even more important because we will never let those forces win,” he says. “For many it was very difficult to go back to politics and they have suffered or are still suffering a lot to get their lives back, but for me personally it has been very good to have the AUF and to make this common journey with other colleagues.”
“Many people thought that in the wake of the 22 July attack we would learn how dangerous extremism is, but 10 years later, I don’t think we have learned that. In fact, what we see is that extremist environments are growing and getting stronger,” says Lysø, “I think the situation in terms of the far right has worsened compared to 10 years ago. It’s frightening. We tend to see Norway and Europe as functioning democracies, but now we have these groups willing to use violence to achieve political goals and it’s a big threat to democracy.”
The threat and far-right parties
“The threat of far-right terrorism has increased more than noticeably over the past decade and especially over the past few years,” says Fernando Reinares, director of the Program on Violent Radicalization and Global Terrorism at the Elcano Royal Institute. “Moreover, it is an increasingly internationalized and even globalized phenomenon, as individual and collective actors, even with marked national agendas, largely share the same ideology and have developed transnational networks”.
Matthew Feldman, director of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right, points out that the attack and the dissemination of the 1,521-page manifesto drawn up by its author have not provoked an entry of this radical ideology into the mainstream of society, but that this was already beginning to happen before the massacre. What has changed, he says, is that in these 10 years “the moral justification of terrorism has become much more common, as happened in the attack in New Zealand, El Paso or the Poway synagogue”, in which the attackers also published manifestos or some kind of statement about their motivations.
“Accessing jihadist terrorist propaganda is very complex if you’re not Muslim and don’t read Arabic. It’s material aimed at a very small group of people in non-Muslim countries. But it’s much easier to come across far-right ideas about cultural Marxism, Islamophobia and racism,” Feldman says. “The far right, unlike other types of extremism, sits alongside and borders on ‘mainstream’ ideas in white majority countries and that is a challenge that our societies will forever have to face.” Feldman is not convinced that there has been a rise in extremism, but rather an increase in its visibility, he says. “Social media has given the far right what they didn’t have before and has been a fundamental and transformative element.”
“It is important to differentiate the far-right radicals who are willing to use violence from the far-right political parties that are in many European parliaments,” says Lysø. “Ten years after the attack, I think the most important thing we need to do is to hold those far-right parties accountable for what they say and not to spread conspiracy theories. The best example we have seen is the assault on the US Congress, where we had a right-wing radical encouraging people without distancing himself from what they did. We’ve seen how dangerous it is to just use words without being aware of the influence they have on some communities.
Feldman notes that “it is essential to reveal the relationship [between far-right political formations and terrorism].” “That relationship exists even though it’s not explicit and that’s because of the way far-right parties operate. One way of thinking about it is that they have a visible part and a more hidden part. In the case of Vox in Spain, for example, they are not going to call for violence openly because it would make them lose support. However, there is a hidden part that is much harsher and more extremist. The dynamic between the visible part for general consumption and the hidden part for fascist revolutionaries is substantial and works with euphemism and insinuation”. In this sense, Feldam points out that depending on the country and society, this hidden part has more or less weight compared to the visible part, giving as an example the difference between Golden Dawn in Greece and the Progress Party in Norway.
Breivik, “a model for other terrorists”.
“At a time when concern about the terrorist threat in Western societies was focused on jihadism, the July 2011 attacks in Norway highlighted the latent potential of a violence coming from the extreme right that in a good number of countries had not disappeared,” explains Reinares.
“As the threat of far-right terrorism grew over the last decade, Anders Breivik became a role model for individuals of the same ideological orientation in Western societies, where far-right terrorism stands out for the attacks or attempted attacks carried out by lone actors,” he adds.
Breivik wanted to become a big figure in his circle and inspire other violent radicals like him. Before the attack, he published a manifesto, much of it plagiarised from other authors, and over a period of two years, he was able to publish his own manifesto.During his trial, he claimed that the massacre was only a strategy to promote him. In these 10 years, Breivik – who was sentenced to 21 years in prison, although it could be extended indefinitely – has served as inspiration to dozens of violent radicals, including Brenton Tarrant, the author of the attack in 2019 against two mosques in New Zealand that killed 51 people while he was broadcasting it on Facebook. Tarrant had Breivik’s name written on the rifle he used in the killing spree.
Three years before the Christchurch attack, just on the fifth anniversary of what happened in Utoya, an 18-year-old killed nine people at a shopping mall in Munich. Police said then that the link to Breivik was “obvious”. On the other hand, the person who killed British MP Jo Cox in 2016 while shouting “Britain First” was also attracted to the figure of the Norwegian terrorist.
Research by academics Graham Macklin and Tore Bjørgo has identified some 30 cases in which mention of Breivik appears. “All of these cases show that the attacker or would-be attacker had some level of inspiration from Breivik’s atrocity, but at the same time few of these attacks or plans were intended to emulate what happened in July 2011 in terms of scale or tactics,” the authors argue. The research concludes that the Christchurch attack – inspired by Breivik’s – had a greater impact in terms of imitation, with several attacks committed under its influence in the months following the massacre: El Paso, Texas (23 dead); the attack on a synagogue in Poway, California (one dead); and the attack on another Jewish temple in Halle, Germany (two dead).
The actions of the authorities in Norway have prevented Breivik from becoming the figure of reference he wanted to become after the attack. Breivik conceived his trial as a global platform. A propaganda speech had been prepared, but unlike the rest of the trial, that statement was not televised and was made behind closed doors.
In another clear example, by 2017, authorities reviewed about 4,000 letters received or sent by Breivik, censoring 600 of them, which prevented the Norwegian terrorist from communicating with potential acolytes, building networks or expanding his influence. In 2012, for example, Breivik wrote a letter to Beate Zschäpe of the ultra-German group National Socialist Underground. Zschäpe was accused of nine racist murders and in the letter Breivik advised her to use the trial to spread her ideas and declare herself a “militant nationalist”. The terrorist never received the letter and was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2018.