Oslo and Utoya attacks: Why we all thought it was al Qaeda
I originally wrote this post late last night [Friday] as the story was breaking based on the assumption that the Oslo/Utoya attacks were linked to al Qaeda. But then I took it down as more information came out and it became clear that the gunman-bomber was Anders Behring Breivik, a white conservative Christian Norwegian. His Facebook profile is here. And info on his manifesto here. The information was no longer relevant and even seemed irresponsible.
But upon reading today’s [Saturday's] take on the Oslo/Utoya media coverage, I’ve decided to re-post it for two reasons: 1) It provides a not unreasonable rationale for why people jumped to the conclusion that it was an al Qaeda attack, and 2) I think Will McCants has been treated unfairly for the role that he played. More here. Many of those who were, I would argue, more responsible, have already melted away into the background.
[Added on Monday July 25] For some thoughts on jumping to conclusions, I wrote a subsequent post that contextualizes this one. The two of them should be read together, but I think it is the other post, not this one, that is more important.
I had a suspicion that when I put this up that I would be opening myself up to criticism (though I didn’t realize how much). But I also think that it’s important that we learn from our mistakes and to think carefully about why we think the way we do. There should be some room for a constructive dialogue about the media coverage without being publicly attacked. If we can’t admit to being wrong once in a while and reflecting back on it, then how do we learn?
For a taste of the Norway coverage from Western media outlets and a sharp commentary on who is and is not a terrorist, see Glen Greenwald’s article in Salon as well as Maz Hussain’s blog post. In my case, I don’t think it was racism or Islamophobia that drove me to these conclusions, but al Qaeda was my default perpetrator. It was also the default perpetrator for for Al Jazeera (English) which was on my twitter feed on Friday night- jihadists were also their prime suspects as well- with no mention of other possibilities in the early coverage. You can check out their live coverage of the story. Go right right back to the very beginning, and in particular, watch the news clips and pay attention to the language.
This clip by security analyst Justin Crump was also shown on al Jazeera as the story was breaking. If al Jazeera was reporting that it’s a jihadist plot, it suggests to me that the reason why the story developed as it did could not be due purely to Islamophobia in the media. (I’m leaving that issue aside entirely.)
If there is one thing that I should be accused of, it’s “terrorist profiling”. Based on a pattern of similar events in the past and limited knowledge on Saturday evning/night (GMT), I drew certain conclusions. What I failed to consider is that every terrorist event should be treated as unique until proven otherwise.
Consider racial profiling. Based on certain superficial similarities and limited knowledge about an individual, we draw certain assumptions based on our existing ideas and frameworks- these are mental heuristics. This is normal. But when these heuristics are used in law enforcement, then we get racial profiling. Whether or not racial profiling leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy is another interesting question. In the US, racial profiling helps explain why someone like Amadou Diallo was shot by the New York Police Department. In the UK, this kind of stereotyping explains why someone yelled “Chee-chee chong-chong” at me on the street yesterday.
In this instance, I jumped to a conclusion about al Qaeda doing something that it did not do. Without sarcasm, I offer my apologies to al Qaeda. They may have done many horrible atrocious things around the world, but they were not responsible for this one.
Sat 23 July. [BEFORE knowing anything about the suspect.]
Why would al Qaeda attack Norway? Current commentary (Robert Zeliger in Foreign Policy, James Dorsey in al Arabiya, Thomas Hegghammer and Dominic Tierney in The Atlantic last year, David Crawford’s piece in the Wall Street Journal) suggests the most likely reasons are: 1) anger for re-publishing the Danish cartoons 2) participation in the conflict in Afghanistan and Libya 3) Iraqi Kurdish Islamist Mulla Krekar 4) Norway is a soft target relative to US, UK.
The cartoon thesis and the Afghanistan thesis seemed to get some early support from an early statement issued by the terrorist organization, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami (Helpers of the Global Jihad), which originally claimed responsibility for the attack. But later, they retracted this claim and said that the world needs to wait for the official claim. For those who read Arabic, this claim was re-posted by Will McCants, an expert on terrorism at CNA.
These attacks led me to wonder about my own country, Canada, and whether we would be the next successful target. I remembered that Canada had been named as one of al Qaeda’s of target countries. And many of the news articles referred to the fact that Norway “was one of several countries named by Ayman al-Zawahiri, the leader of Al Qaeda, as potential targets for attack.” I had a vague memory of hearing about this list when it came out in 2006, but I had to search pretty hard for it. For those who are looking for it, Free Republic provides a summary of a purported (but not verified) al Zawahiri interview:
AQ / OBL 03/04/06 A recording believed to be Al-Qaeda’s deputy leader has urged Muslims to attack the West over the cartoon row. Ayman al-Zawahri called for strikes similar to attacks in recent years on New York, Washington, Madrid and London, according to an audio tape posted on the Internet. The speaker on a the tape, who sounded like Zawahri also urged Muslims to boycott Denmark, Norway, France and Germany over cartoons deemed offensive to Prophet Muhammad, referring to cartoons first published in a Danish newspaper. – snip – The tape said: “(Muslims have to) inflict losses on the crusader West, especially to its economic infrastructure with strikes that would make it bleed for years. “We have to prevent the crusader West from stealing the Muslims’ oil which is being drained in the biggest robbery in history,” he added.
It turns out that Ayman al-Zawahiri also conducted a public Q & A that was helpfully translated and reposted here by the Nine Eleven Finding Answers Foundation (NEFA) [Emphasis added]:
Q.) “In 2004, you threatened Norway and other countries because of their aid to America in her war against you, and because of their forces being present in Afghanistan and fighting against you. Don’t you think that these kinds of threats against Norway and Europe will only increase the pressure on Muslims living here, most of who came seeking a peaceful life and to flee the autocracy of the majority of regimes in the Middle East? Furthermore, why are the Scandinavian countries, such as Norway and Denmark, considered as targets by Al-Qaida Organization?”
A.) “We have threatened Norway and every other country that participated in the war against the Muslims as part of the defense of our ideology, nation, ourselves, and our sacred rites. Denmark has done her utmost to demonstrate her hostility towards the Muslims by repeatedly dishonoring our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him salvation. I admonish and incite every Muslim who is able to do so to cause damage to Denmark in order to show your support for our Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him salvation, and to defend his esteemed honor. We prefer to live underground [i.e. dead] rather than accepting the limited response of boycotting Danish dairy products and goods. Denmark keeps on dishonoring the Prophet, may Allah bless him and grant him salvation, even though these criminals are unable to attack the Jews or raise any doubts about the Nazi Holocaust, even though it was the result of a Christian war… As for Muslims living in the West, they are forbidden to live permanently under the laws of the infidels unless it is a necessity. They ought to participate in the individual duty [of jihad] in order to defend the lands of Islam against those who are assaulting them.”
Bear in mind that in 2008, a couple of years after al Zawahri was interviewed, the Danish Embassy in Islamabad was hit by a suicide bomber. And Jyllands-Posten, the Danish paper that first published the cartoons, was targeted in a failed plot, and the cartoonists themselves have also been targeted.
While I was glad to see that Canada wasn’t mentioned here, I subsequently found a 2006 piece entitled Canadian Targets On al-Qaeda Hit List on National Terror Alert. And it reminded me that, oh yes, we were on the al Qaeda hit list too and that the question was likely When, not If:
Canadian targets — either at home or abroad — are particularly attractive because the country has not been hit yet by a terrorist attack, Mr. McDonell [then-head of the RCMP’s national-security branch] told CTV’s Question Period. “I believe that the fact we have not been hit makes the attack upon Canada a symbolic attack” that would be a highly prized achievement for al-Qaeda terrorists, he said.
Mr. McDonell noted that Canada alone of the five countries cited as enemies by the al-Qaeda leadership has not yet been attacked by the terrorist group. The other four countries mentioned by al-Qaeda were the United States, Britain, Spain and Australia.
We live in dangerous times.