Ten years ago, Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Brevik killed 77 people, many of them teenagers, in a bomb attack and gun rampage. The July 22 attacks left Norway, a small, close-knit Nordic country, stunned and grieving.
Just over a year later, Breivik was sentenced to 21 years in prison, the maximum possible term. And Norway, led by then-Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, came together in a show of unity in the wake of the deadliest violence seen there since World War II.
A decade on, the anniversary will be an occasion of great sadness for many in the country of just over 5 million people. Several commemorative events are taking place Thursday in the capital, Oslo, and on Utoya Island, where the attacks took place.
At a televised memorial concert, King Harald said lessons could be learned. “Certain dates are written into our country’s story as defining days. Days, which in different ways, have contributed to making us who we are today,” he said, according to Reuters.
“At the same time, we must acknowledge that we as a society have not done nearly enough to see, to help, to carry the burden together - and to counteract the dark forces,” he added.
But it has also prompted questions about the wider impact of Breivik’s radical views on far-right extremism – circulated in a 1,500-page “manifesto” shortly before the attacks – and some soul-searching about how Norway deals with his legacy.
In a national memorial address at Oslo Cathedral just two days after the attacks, Stoltenberg called for “more democracy, more openness, and more humanity.”
Speaking with CNN’s “Amanpour” show in an interview to mark the anniversary, Stoltenberg – now NATO secretary-general – repeated that message and applauded the way Norwegians had responded. But, he warned, the “hatred is still out there.”
Last month, the University of Oslo’s Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) published a series of analyses looking at Breivik’s long-term influence.
The author of one of the reports, Dr. Jacob Aasland Ravndal, told CNN it appeared more limited than media coverage would suggest. “There was of course a lot of concern after the attacks that they would generate copycat attacks,” he said. But “somewhat surprisingly,” he said, there haven’t been many clear-cut cases of direct inspiration from Breivik.
One of the more apparent links is to the shooting attack in Munich, Germany on July 22, 2016, in which an 18-year-old German-Iranian man killed nine people. The rampage was carried out on the fifth anniversary of the Norway attacks and the attacker had been “talking a lot about Breivik,” Ravndal said. “But he was also deeply inspired by many other figures,” Ravndal said, some of them school-shooters.
The other obvious case is that of Brenton Tarrant, the Australian far-right terrorist who live-streamed an attack in which he killed 51 Muslim worshipers at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, in March 2019.
But although Tarrant claimed to have been inspired by Breivik, investigators found that he had started his planning some time before he read Breivik’s manifesto. “So even there, you can question how much of an impact Breivik had,” Ravndal said. Tarrant’s own manifesto is very different from Breivik’s, including in its politics, he added.
US Coast Guard officer Christopher Hasson, who was sentenced to 13 years in prison last year on weapons and drugs charges, consulted Breivik’s manifesto for tips on amassing weapons, according to another of the papers published by C-REX. Prosecutors alleged that he was a White nationalist who was plotting an attack.
The Counter Extremism Project (CEP), an NGO that combats extremist groups, said in a statement Thursday that survivors of Breivik’s attacks had voiced concern regarding his “status as an inspirational figure among far-right extremists.”
“[This status] underlines the need for greater action to target the dissemination of known extremist propaganda with clear links to violence on online platforms,” said David Ibsen, CEP executive director. “The continued presence of far-right views online, along with greater exposure to extremist content over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic, is of particular concern.”
According to Ravndal, research indicates that within Norway the far right has not gained much appeal overall since the attacks and has been unable to turn out supporters in any numbers on the streets.
“Of course in Norway, as everywhere else, online activity has grown over these 10 years,” he said. “But whether that reflects a substantial increase of far-right activity or simply mirrors the growth of social media on the internet, that’s very difficult to say.”
On that quiet summer day in 2011, Breivik drove a van packed with a homemade fertilizer bomb into Oslo and parked it outside a government office. A few minutes later, it exploded, killing eight people, injuring many more and damaging several buildings.
Breivik, meanwhile, had set off by car on the 25-mile trip to Utoya Island, where a Labour Party summer youth camp was taking place. Posing as a police officer who was checking on security following the Oslo attack, he caught a ferry to the island and carried out a shooting spree in which 69 people died – most of them teenagers. Many others were seriously wounded.
During his trial, Breivik boasted of being an ultranationalist who killed his victims to fight multiculturalism in Norway, saying he acted out of “necessity” to prevent the “Islamization” of the country under the ruling center-left Labour Party.
A court ruling meant his testimony was not televised, denying him a chance to broadcast his views to a wide audience. But Breivik believed his writings would inspire right-wing terrorists to follow in his footsteps.
While parts of his three-book manifesto were lifted from other sources, such as the writings of “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski in the United States, Breivik also detailed his meticulous, years-long planning and gave strategic and operational advice.
According to Professor Matthew Feldman, director of the UK-based Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR), Breivik’s document can still “easily” be found in the darker reaches of the internet despite efforts to remove it.
That manifesto was “paradigmatic,” Feldman said, “not just because it showed what one individual can do in terms of the horrific loss of life” but also in its targeting of Muslims and what Breivik called “cultural Marxism.”
Even more importantly, Feldman said, Breivik’s case showed the dangers posed by lone-wolf actors who self-radicalize online through networks of like-minded individuals and carry out their preparations for violent attacks online, making them very hard to detect.
At the same time, Feldman said, there has been the “slow rise, some would call it mainstreaming, of right-wing extremism,” helped in part by exposure on right-wing media platforms. “For some it was laid bare on January 6 in the United States [in the assault on the Capitol] but it’s something that’s been gathering pace slowly but steadily in recent decades,” he said.
Despite this backdrop, Breivik’s actions and manifesto have gained limited traction, according to Ravndal.
His analysis for C-REX indicates that “in the beginning the far-right across the board rejected him,” said Ravndal. An online support network that was established for Breivik later collapsed. It was only with the emergence of online forums like 4chan and 8chan that Breivik once again started to get positive mentions, Ravndal said.
“The main finding, all in all, both when it comes to tactics but also for political, ideological support, is that it’s been surprisingly little,” he said. “It’s been possible to find support, but fortunately less than one might have worried about initially considering the high death toll and all the attention these attacks got globally.”
Today, the debate has shifted in parts of Norwegian society to broader ideological questions, Ravndal said.
Some – particularly in the youth wing of the Labour Party – feel that there has not been a reckoning with the country’s far-right movement, the biggest player in which is the populist, right-wing Progress Party, he said.
Breivik had been a member of the Progress Party when he was younger but the party distanced itself from him after the attack.
In a joint statement published on the party’s website earlier this month, party leader Sylvi Listhaug and deputy leaders Ketil Solvik-Olsen and Terje Søviknes pushed back against any suggestion that the Progress Party was not united with other Norwegians in rejecting Breivik’s attitudes and actions.
“We must all stand together against violent extremism – regardless of whether it comes from the ‘far right’, ‘far left’ or extreme interpretations of religion,” the statement said. “Only the extremists will win if we exclude each other from the grief after July 22 and weaken the unity around the struggle for democracy, freedom of expression and equality.”
Labour has promised that if it wins power in elections this September, it will set up a new commission to look at radicalization.
There is also debate about whether the attack should be interpreted as an attack on Norwegian society as a whole, or as an attack on the Labour Party specifically, Ravndal said. “Today, some within the Labour Party perhaps feel that that part of the story has been neglected a bit.”
Feldman considers that Norway’s response was shaped by the sense that the perpetrator was “one of their own,” as were the victims, without a sense of “otherness” to force a more multicultural response.
“Norway essentially asked itself this question, and it’s a very valid one … ‘How did Norwegian society produce such a monster?’” he said. “It’s a very inward-looking question.”
By contrast, he said, New Zealand took a much more global approach as it looked at what led up to the Christchurch attacks. This was in part because Tarrant, an Australian, had targeted worshipers at mosques, many of whom were foreign-born.
At the same time, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern’s response, including wearing a hijab to meet survivors and relatives of those killed, was central in bringing all New Zealanders together in support of the victims as fellow citizens, he said.
Just weeks later, New Zealand collaborated with France to produce the “Christchurch Call” – a commitment by governments and tech companies to eliminate terrorist and violent extremist content online – and subsequently worked with the United States and United Nations to keep the issue on the agenda, Feldman said.
He hopes to win further commitments to counter extremist content online at an event he is involved with in Bergen, Norway, next month.
Breivik’s ideology ‘is still out there’
Speaking to CNN earlier this month, Stoltenberg spoke of the shock he felt as he realized the scale of the horrors perpetrated by Breivik – and the personal sadness it brought, since he knew many of the victims.
He also stood by the message he delivered to the nation as it was still reeling from the July 22 attacks.
“I still believe that our answer was the right one,” Stoltenberg told CNN. “[Breivik] wanted to attack our free, open democratic societies. So the best response is more openness, more democracy, because then we prove that he is not winning, we are winning.
“He demonstrated hatred. The best response to hatred is love. So … I really welcomed the strong message from the people of Norway, as (we) have seen also in many other countries that have been attacked, that we stand up for our values.”
That notwithstanding, Stoltenberg does not believe that Breivik has been entirely defeated.
“He is convicted, he is in prison. But his ideology, that is still out there. And therefore we need to continue – I think we never will be in the position where we can say that we have won the fight, we can close the chapter fighting against extremism.”
Since 2011, Norway has implemented measures to protect – as far as possible – against such attacks in the future, Stoltenberg said. And, he added, Brevik – whose 21-year sentence could be extended in the future if he still poses a threat – has lost in one key respect.
“We have to understand that the purpose of this attack was to change Norway fundamentally. And … yes, of course, this will be part of Norway’s history,” he said. “It will be part of who we are as long as we exist. But fundamentally, it has not changed who we are.”
CNN’s Frederik Pleitgen contributed to this report.