OSLO (Reuters) - The Norwegian anti-Islamic zealot who killed 76 people claims he worked with others, but finding far-right groups in their mainly online haunts will be tough for police who for years gave Islamist militants top priority.
Police and experts point to the Internet’s role in spreading the racist material that shaped killer Anders Behring Breivik’s extreme views, but also highlight the difficulty in policing dynamic online forums without undermining civil liberties.
“Individuals who belong to anti-Islamic groups in Norway are first and foremost found on various social media ... Increased activism among Norwegian anti-Islamic organizations can however also increase the use of violence,” Norway’s PST police security service said in a January report.
Such an assessment may now appear prescient, but the report led on the threat from Islamist militants, concluding that far-right groups pose no “serious threat” to Norway.
Meanwhile a home-grown anti-Islamic zealot went on to plan the worst massacre in recent Norwegian history, on Friday bombing an Oslo government building and shooting scores of mainly teenagers dead at a holiday island.
“It’s a fact that Islamic extremism has been our priority number one since 9/11, in our service, for the past 10 years. Which is easy to understand, when you look at 9/11, Madrid, London and several other attempts and actual incidents,” PST spokesman Trond Hugubakken told Reuters.
Experts say there was little police could have done to detect 32-year-old Breivik, at least going by the views he expressed online.
Norwegian broadcaster NRK said Breivik had been on a PST list of buyers of chemicals from a Polish business, but that he was checked and no reason was found to follow up. Breivik’s ownership of a farm could have been cover for the purchase of chemicals used in bomb-making.
Breivik railed against immigrants and Islam online, but the January police report points out that such views have increasingly moved into the mainstream, making pinpointing a particular individual for surveillance more difficult.
Several Nordic political parties have grown strong in recent years by campaigning against immigration and Islamic culture.
“It’s almost impossible to discover a person like Breivik. If you see his blogs, he sounds quite normal. He’s anti-multi-culturalism, anti-Islam, but strange to say it, ... I’ve seen much crueler words and slogans on the Internet than his blogs,” said Harald Stanghelle, political editor of Norway’s conservative Aftenposten newspaper.
At the time of Breivik’s arrest, police said there was little to indicate Breivik worked with others, but on Monday Breivik told a court in Oslo “there are two more cells in our organization.”
Before the attacks, Breivik published online a 1,500-page anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant manifesto, itself containing sections culled from online sources.
Tore Bjorgo, a terrorism expert at the Norwegian Police University College, said far-right groups had increasingly moved online, but even with greater Internet surveillance Breivik’s online comments would not have raised red flags.
“What happened during the past decade is that these groups moved away from the streets and into the Internet. They have never succeeded nor very much tried to meet physically,” Bjorgo said, adding that monitoring all individuals with such views would have implications for civil liberties.
“It’s always a question of how much surveillance we want to have in our society. Even with almost total surveillance of these fora, Breivik would not have been detected.”
Hugubakken said it was “too early to say” whether Breivik’s rampage would shift police focus further from Islamists and more toward far-right groups, and insisted that Norway’s security services have long kept a close eye on right-wing groups.
“We focus on right-wing extremism, even if it’s low ... The reason why we can say their activity has been low is because we’ve had quite good control of right-wing groups,” he said.
In nearby Denmark, where far-right elements are also active, police are also on the defensive, insisting they already closely monitor the extreme right.
“Detentions have continuously been made, most recently in January 2011 when a man linked to right-wing extremist circles was detained and where a search discovered chemicals that could have been used in bomb manufacturing,” Danish intelligence and security chief Jakob Scharf said in a weekend statement.
Magnus Ranstorp, research director at Sweden’s Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies, said while police may have a grasp on some traditional extremist activity, the online world posed more of a challenge.
“Assessments are that it (far-right extremism) is at a steady level and authorities have pretty good control over it,” he said.
“Where they don’t have great control is meeting on the Internet and the Internet’s central role in all of this.”
Additional reporting by Patrick Lannin in Oslo and John Acher in Copenhagen: Editing by Peter Millership