LONDON (Reuters) - Much remains unknown about what sparked Anders Behring Breivik’s killing spree in Norway on July 22, whether he acted alone or was part of a wider organization.
But one thing his writings make clear is his overall aim: to use mass murder to draw attention to his extremist agenda and redraw the boundaries of political debate.
In that, he was following a tried-and-true road already followed by many — including most spectacularly al Qaeda.
Just as Osama bin Laden hoped that grabbing global headlines with high body counts would wake disaffected Muslims to his rhetoric, Breivik seems to have hoped to draw attention to his 1,518-page manifesto in what he himself called a “marketing operation.”
“At the end of the day, we are all reading what he wrote and that was his aim,” said Richard English, a professor at the Center for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at St Andrews University in Scotland.
But as with Osama bin Laden, English said, there may be a drawback: “When people read it, they don’t really like what they see.”
While some of Breivik’s ideas and concerns over what he saw as the “Islamification of Europe” might have some resonance with those on the continent’s extreme right, others — not to mention his methods — would alienate even many radicals.
The ideas in the manifesto, posted on the Internet a few hours before Breivik launched the attacks that killed 76 people, include the deportation of Muslims from Europe, plans for a Russian-backed coup in Norway, anti-Islam alliances with Hindu and Buddhist nationalists and investment suggestions for what he believed was a coming period of European crisis.
“I ask only one favor of you: I ask that you distribute this book to everyone you know,” he wrote in the opening pages. “Because within these... books lies the tools required to win the ongoing Western European cultural war.”
Several of the most recent Islamist attackers in Europe and the United States were, like Breivik, apparently lone operators radicalized and schooled in militant skills online, who hoped their actions would win them acclaim and inspire others.
U.S. army major Nidal Malik Hasan, the psychiatrist who killed 13 and wounded 29 in a 2009 shooting at Texas army base Fort Hood, for example, is believed to have been influenced by Al Qaeda-linked sites and online preachers without ever meeting them.
Breivik himself looks to have had at least some grudging respect for al Qaeda.
“Al Qaeda’s relatively unknown but most important achievement is the fact that they have made moderate Islamist organisations more approachable by expanded (sic) the radical political axis,” he wrote.
“This legitimized several Islamist groups and therefore changed the very definition of ‘extreme Islam’.”
James Brandon, director of research and indications for British think-tank the Quillam Foundation, said after a decade of focus on Al Qaeda, Breivik was bound to have been influenced by the group.
“If you look at his writings, he was in some ways admiring of Al Qaeda — and particularly of what he saw as their strong values, their sense of self-belief and the dramatic effect they had,” Brandon said.
Security experts say he may have borrowed practical tactics too: the use of near-simultaneous attacks to overwhelm the authorities, the highly effective use of car bombs and automatic weapons and the video and online claims of responsibility.
Al Qaeda too in part evolved from violent predecessors. Right-wing extremists of the 1990s and pamphleteers and radicals of the early 20th century often released written material in the aftermath of a violent act, hoping to win over converts to whatever their cause.
“Al Qaeda themselves learned from many different actors including Irish, European and other terrorists,” said Sara Silvestri, an expert in radicalization and extremism at London’s City University.
“It’s about grabbing media attention and the violence is just a tool.”
But what has expanded the reach of such activities and been effectively exploited by al Qaeda and its followers since September 11 is the Internet, which allows anyone to learn tactics, share views and feel a common purpose with others while sitting alone at a computer.
“Because the Internet is so all pervasive, it is possible for people to feel part of a community with an agenda without necessarily interfacing directly with them,” she said.
But seeking attention through violence can also prove a flawed tactic, experts say, pointing to examples such as Timothy McVeigh, who was widely seen as having tarnished his own cause of fomenting a revolution against the American government when he bombed a federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, killing 168 people.
While Breivik’s manifesto might be passed around the radical fringes in the same way that some right-wingers still read Adolf Hitler’s “Mein Kampf,” his violence will inevitably alarm many who might otherwise have found his views appealing.
Already his actions appear to have united much of Norwegian society around the very values he vowed to defeat.
“Often when these people come to trial, they expect that they will be able to make their case,” said Quillam’s Brandon. “But they end up looking rather pathetic.”
Additional reporting by Michael Holden in London and Sara Webb in Amsterdam, Editing by Simon Robinson and Sonya Hepinstall