The State Department has offered its deepest sympathies to the families of the victims of yesterday's attack in Norway.
I'd like to see us do a bit more, and fly the Norwegian flag at half-mast from the Department's headquarters building as a gesture of solidarity, just as we flew the UK flag after the London subway bombings of July 2005. So far as I can find out, we haven't done that yet. If anyone knows differently, I'll be happy to be corrected.
A few thoughts about the attack and the attacker.
The immediate assumption on the part of many commentators that the attack had Islamist origins was, it now appears, completely unwarranted. However, there was some justification for that knee-jerk reaction. Last year, Norwegian police arrested three men of Uighur, Uzbek and Iraqi-Kurdish descent on charges of making explosives and planning to conduct bombings. So there is a real threat from that sector.
The Norwegian authorities seem to have underestimated the threat from domestic extremists. According to their threat assessment for 2011:
As in previous years, the far-right and far-left extremist communities will not represent a serious threat to Norwegian society in 2011. There was an increase in the activity of far-right extremist groups in 2010, and this activity is expected to continue in 2011. An increased level of activity among some anti-Islamic groups could lead to increased polarisation and unease, especially during, and in connection with, commemorations and demonstrations.
The suspect under arrest, Anders Behring Breivik, is being described as "far-right" by most news media today, but I'm not sure that's accurate. Norwegian news reports say he had been an active member of the Progress Party as far back as 1999. That is the second-most popular party in Norway, holding 41 seats in Parliament, so it isn't out of the political mainstream. Also, it seems to be more what we would call libertarian than right-wing (see this clip).
Assuming Breivik is guilty as charged - and there are plenty of surviving eyewitnesses who can identify him, as well as what appears to be a photo of him walking among the victims on Utøya Island - there is a big reason why he was able to carry out two devastating attacks without being detected and intercepted. Unlike those three plotters who were arrested last year, Breivik acted alone.
Our experience with domestic terrorism in the United States, which probably holds true for other nations as well, has shown that "lone wolf" actors are about twice as likely as others to execute their plots:
More than 40% (35 cases) of terrorist plots from 1999 to 2009 were planned or carried out by single individuals, or “lone wolves” (individuals not directly under the command structure of a group or movement but who sympathize with a particular cause). “Lone wolves” have also been more successful in executing attacks; nearly 30% of plots by single actors reached execution, compared to a 16% average execution rate by small and large groups.
Why are individual terrorists so much more successful than those who work in groups? There are lots of reasons. They have no meaningful associations with suspects known to the police, they neither seek out nor respond to solicitation by undercover agents, they don't go to 'how-to' websites nor make phone calls to Pakistan for help with building bombs, and they don't engage in precursor criminal activity such as stealing explosives. Regarding that last point, Brievik owned a farm and could buy a large quantity of ammonium nitrate fertilizer without attracting any attention. In short, they don't do any of the things that foiled the would-be bomber from Denver, and the one from Portland, and the one from the DC Metro area, and all of their hapless jihobyist cohort.
Above all else, the most striking thing about the attack was the choice of a Labor Party youth camp as the main target. Most of the victims were between 14 and 19 years old. It was a choice calculated to cause the greatest possible shock, and one that even terrorist groups almost never commit. It was up there on a par with the Beslan and Maalot school massacres, almost off the scale.
As a witness quoted in the WaPo's story this morning said:
“Attacking the government is one thing, but attacking innocent youth at a political camp, that’s beyond horrible and ten thousand times worse than attacking government buildings, attacking defenseless children.”
"Beyond horrible" indeed.