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Oslo and Utoya attacks: Why we all thought it was al Qaeda

July 23, 2011

Morten Holm, AP via The Washington Post

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.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. papicek permalink
    July 23, 2011 7:44 pm

    Either people are focused enough on their own specialties to miss some fairly obvious points:

    1) Mounting overseas attacks is difficult, expensive, time consuming and hugely risky. Doing so makes such attacks suicide attacks, and if these are considered, then AQ needs to accept wasting people with some fairly valuable qualifications.

    2) AQ may have some other priorities at the moment other than mounting in attack in Oslo: like keeping al Zawahiri safe and like restoring, maintaining and securing lines of communication and funding.

    3) Mounting an overseas attack in revenge attack for bin Laden’s death (which I expect remains AQ’s paramount goal) takes time and planning. My gut tells me that it’s way too soon for such an attack, and Norway wasn’t involved with that operation in any case.

    4) The attack occurred around 3:30 PM on a Friday, when a lot of those offices were bound to be empty. AQ would have tried to maximize the death toll at the bomb site.

    5) AQ isn’t stupid. With the thunder in MENA directing sentiment to protesters, such an attack as Oslo is probably more counterproductive than not as far as they’re concerned.

    To me, AQ just felt wrong from the start. The timing and target just never added up.

    • July 23, 2011 10:08 pm

      Hi Papicek,

      Valid points. But this could have been “homegrown” like the Fort Hood incident (http://reut.rs/pXi18q). Independent, but inspired by al Qaeda which would address 1) 2) and 5). On 3) there was little reference in the early stories that it was a revenge attack for killing OSL. On 4), agreed, I remember making the same point to my husband last night. But as a terrorist, maybe the goal was to destroy the PM’s office as a symbolic gesture. And an attack on a Friday of a holiday weekend would have made it easier to do so.

      I agree that there were early clues- if you were looking for them- that this was not an al Qaeda story. And for those who follow al Qaeda attacks, maybe it would have been clear that it didn’t fit the pattern. But I think there was an important lesson to be learned here for the media, the blogosphere, and twitterers alike. This was a story built on a mix of fact and fiction. And it wasn’t always clear which was which.

      • papicek permalink
        July 23, 2011 11:40 pm

        I hate the word “terrorist” which implies someone completely around the bend, when any thoughtful person realizes that these acts operate politically both domestically and internationally. It is also a response to demonstrated and repeated failure in battle—a military reaction they may feel as valid as we hold, say, the French Resistance.

        “Al Qaeda” has the same demonic connotations.

        All of which means that I don’t believe jihadis are dumb, and the biggest reason I can think of for AQ restraint right now is that the West supports the Arab Spring protesters. An attack anywhere in the West right now by AQ risks a major backlash from a population base vital to its success. (What percentage of jihadists did Marc Sageman point out were college educated? I’m assuming they’re astute enough to realize this.)

        Anyways, I think there are some good reasons, right from the start, to discount the question (which I considered as well, just like everyone else, but discounted) about AQ’s participation. Oslo felt wrong from the start. It took me a day’s thought for me to be able to articulate these, but then, I’m just an anonymous blogger. AQ was put on the table (just asking the question is all it takes) by professional journalists who should have known better, or at least did as I did and weighed the pros and cons first.

  2. Isobelj permalink
    July 23, 2011 8:29 pm

    The first report I heard, about half an hour after the explosion, seeing the scale of it and at that point it was reported there were thought to be two bombs, I thought al Qaeda was likely to be responsible. Norway seemed unlikely but people pointed out they had threatened Norway some years ago. Simultaneous multiple attacks obviously fit their usual pattern. However what was unusual was it being a public holiday; they usually target busy areas not buildings that are semi-deserted. Someone also made the point at that time, it was late in the day for an al Qaeda attack, usually they are in the morning. When reports of the tragic shooting started to appear, I thought that can’t be al Qaeda, they’ve never launched an attack involving a bombing followed by shooting (except obviously in combat zones). I think some news reports/journalists were too quick to jump to the conclusion it must be international terrorism in the form of Islamic extremism; the Norwegian police seemed wise in not wishing to commit themselves to an opinion before further investigation. One of the results of the inevitable assumption that it was al Qaeda was mosques being targettd for hate crimes in retribution. Although individuals could have assumed al Qaeda to be responsible, the number of news reports and journalistic opinions encouraging that view probably did not help with the kind of people who are prone to throwing things through the windows of mosques. It’s probably also wise to remember that while certainly we do face an ongoing threat in various parts of the world from al Qaeda, that does not mean there are no other threats.

    • July 23, 2011 10:38 pm

      Hi Isobel J,
      I agree that the pieces didn’t quite seem to fit and that, after a while, it was like the media were trying to put a square peg in a round hole. But your points about the al Qaeda pattern suggests a uniformity to al Qaeda attacks as well as some degree of quality control. This list (http://bit.ly/pe4bnI) suggests themes, but also quite a bit of variation. And this list didn’t even include the Fort Hood shooting (http://abcn.ws/q493vX) which was arguably an al-Qaeda-inspired attack.

      You can always find evidence that confirms your opinion. The point is that while events are still in progress, we need to clearly distinguish between fact and speculation. And this is where I could not agree with you more- the PM and the Norwegian police were very cautious in their tone- for exactly the reasons you outlined. There is fallout from speculating, especially when it turns out to be wrong, and the speculators do not suffer the consequences of opinions formed in haste. The development of this story is a lesson for all of us.

  3. July 24, 2011 10:03 pm

    It s, really ever so nice that you are able to get AQ updates and hit lists just like your morning coffee, isn’t it? Bullet-pointed, and all that.

    Oh yes, Cheng, we do live in ‘dangerous times’, the ominous closer that all the apocalyptic show-ponies at Fox stare hard into the camera uttering. But let’s not be disingenious, here – you mean dangerous times for Westerners – not including Muslims living in the West and now constantly and consistently harassed and demonized by the SIOA, EDL, Atlas Shrugs, Cameron/Republican/Far-right Eurogovernments’ cozy axis – and not for anyone else.

    Just shrug and admit that you colour Western life with an entirely different shade of worth. Really you don’t and cannot be expected to care for the lives of Pakistanis killed by American drone bombings, or the many, many thousands killed in Iraq and Afghanistan by the wonderful Allies with no remorse about it. Sure, you’ll make little harrumphs when the perps are AQ – or claimed to be – but that means not that you care any more about the victims. You, do not.

    And then of course you have such luminaries as this McCants and papicek imbecile. Much like – and probably themselves among – those white men who are forever screaming for the ‘freedom’ of confused Muslim women while never deigning to actually talk to them, these white men are little different. Closed sources, offhand claims about adeptness at arabic and knowledge about AQ, or Muslims, or AQ vs Muslims, etc and et al.

    Not that your should be surprised at yourself as a young, female CBC swallowing whole these neo-orientalist waffles and their blustering. As the hateful behaviour of Chinese and Korean Americans/Canadians during the War towards their Japanese neighbours displayed, minorities have little reason or precedent for identifying with and protecting other minority groups. You’re just another shameful example.

  4. July 25, 2011 1:30 am

    Ame – all opinions are expressed through a lens. You accuse Christine and others of broad-stroking yet you toss around gems like :

    “Just shrug and admit that you colour Western life with an entirely different shade of worth.”

    “Really you don’t and cannot be expected to care for the lives of Pakistanis…”

    “Sure, you’ll make little harrumphs when the perps are AQ – or claimed to be – but that means not that you care any more about the victims. You, do not.”

    “those white men who are forever screaming for the ‘freedom’ of confused Muslim women while never deigning to actually talk to them…”

    “as a young, female CBC swallowing whole these neo-orientalist waffles and their blustering.”

    “minorities have little reason or precedent for identifying with and protecting other minority groups. ”

    I’m assuming you were active in raising awareness and charity for all manner of global human suffering be they rooted in acts of nature or politics. Or ‘you don’t and cannot be expected to care for the lives of (insert suffering group here)’.

    • December 13, 2011 7:40 am

      Waffling and empty response. I fell asleep in July reading it, and am nodding off again now. Wake me up when you have anything of substance to say. None of my statements are broad strokes – all are characteristic of what Cheng has to say. If you think quoting and paraphrasing are response, they are decidedly not. It’s waffling, empty waffling, and nothing but or more.

  5. July 25, 2011 8:21 am

    The kind of thing that will get Canada attacked is its Islamophobia, which people like you are responsible for fomenting and spreading. Without any factual basis you expressed these opinions. There is a simple word for this: prejudice. You repeated the claims of a so-called ‘expert’ without double-checking his claims. You had a choice to shut your mouth or open it. Where I come from there is a saying: ‘Keep your mouth shut and everybody thinks you are a fool. Open it and everybody knows you are.’ Thoughtless, ignorant, prejudiced people like you are the theory. Anders Breivik is the practice. You’re enjoying dinner while Norway bleeds their blood is on the hands of people like you.

  6. Elefant permalink
    May 29, 2012 7:04 pm

    the year 2001 should not be repeated

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  1. C L O S E R » Blog Archive » Belief and Violence: Anders Breivik and Wilders’ Freedom Party

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