By Brigitte L. Nacos
What unfolded yesterday in Oslo and on the nearby island of Utoya was eerily reminiscent of the catastrophic Oklahoma City Bombing. Sixteen years ago, when the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City was destroyed, the mainstream media and terrorism experts immediately blamed Arabs, Middle Easterners, or Muslims for the attack. Yesterday, media and experts were just as hasty in pointing their fingers at Islamic terrorists, most likely associated with Al Qaeda or like-minded groups they said. In both cases, it did not take long for the police to arrest the perpetrators: in Oklahoma City Timothy McVeigh, a right-wing extremist with ties to a Christian Identity group; in Norway Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing, self-described conservative Christian and admirer of Geert Wilders, whose Dutch Party fights multiculturalism and the “Islamisation” of the Netherlands and the West.
As Karen Armstrong has noted, “every culture has extremists and fundamentalists who in no way represent the mainstream.” To be sure, in our time, extremists in the Muslim world and the Western diaspora have been responsible for the by far largest number of terrorist attacks. But as the Norwegian case demonstrates anew, it is at Western countries’ own peril if they ignore the threat of violence from extremists in their midst who are not and have nothing in common with Muslims.
But that's a fact that conservatives in Washington and elsewhere do not want to acknowledge. Soon after Barack Obama became president, the Department of Homeland Security released a report about a potential threat of terrorism from right-wing extremists inside the U.S., including some soldiers and veterans. There was a storm of protests against the analysis (which was mostly compiled during the Bush administration) because, as conservatives claimed, it was an insult to all patriotic members of the military and veterans. The report was no such thing but raised justified questions about the make-up and recruiting grounds of the right-extremist milieu. A number of foiled terror plots by right-wing extremists in the last two years or so have shown that the report's warnings were justified. Yet, while Republicans in Congress are very interested in staging hearings on radicalization in Muslim American communities, they show no interest in right-wing extremism.
To return to the similarities between the 27-year old Oklahoma City bomber McVeigh and the 32-year old Norwegian terrorist Breivik, both masterminded and executed the attacks. It is possible that Breivik, like McVeigh, had an accomplice or accomplices. Like McVeigh, the Norwegian acquired tons of fertilizer to build a devastating car bomb. I would not be surprised to learn that Breivik took a page or two from McVeigh’s widely reported terror script. Unlike the typical perpetrators of school shootings and similar massacres who tend to kill themselves after their killing sprees, Breivik followed McVeigh’s example and seemed content with being arrested by police. This way, he has a chance to talk about his motives—just as Timothy did at great length during his time in prison.
But that is not how certain terrorism experts see it; they simply cannot let go of some kind of Al Qaeda connection or lessons learned from those Islamists. Even if there was no involvement of Islamists in this case, they have suggested, the attacks in Oslo and on Utoya demonstrated that other extremists learn how to mimic the Islamists.
According to the New York Times, one American terrorism expert said, ““If it does turn out to be someone with more political motivations, it shows these groups are learning from what they see from Al Qaeda.” This statement ignores in the first place that terrorism is by definition political violence. And it is surely no secret that Al Qaeda and like-minded groups have political motives. As for the mimicking theory, terrorists at all times have adopted seemingly successful terrorist methods so that we have had waves of hijackings, kidnappings, suicide bombings, and shooting sprees. But bombings have been in the past and are today by far the number one mode of attack--certainly long before Al Qaeda and its affiliates existed. And not every lone gunman that kills scores of people mimics Al Qaeda or Taliban actions.
What all terrorists have in common, McVeigh and now the Norwegian Breivik included, is their burning desire to get world-wide publicity by staging terrorist spectaculars or media events. They all achieve this goal. The anarchists of the 19th century were right, when they characterized terrorism as “propaganda of the deed.” Terrorists, whether or not they strike in the name of their religion or not, want and get attention for their causes.
Nothing has changed in this respect--except that in today’s global media and communication landscape the news travels instantly into literally all parts of the world.