Large explosions rattled the Norwegian capital of Oslo on Friday afternoon, killing at least seven people and wounding 15, according to Norwegian media reports. Shortly after the explosions, which seemed to be part of a coordinated bombing attack, a gunman dressed as a police officer opened fire on a day camp for young members of Norway’s governing Labor Party, killing as many as 80 people in a harrowing spray of gunfire. The shooting occurred on the island of Utoeya about 25 miles from Oslo, and intelligence analysts said senior Norwegian officials, including possibly the prime minister himself, had been scheduled to visit the site in the coming days.
The Oslo blasts occurred at about 3:20 p.m. Norwegian time in the government quarter of central Oslo, where Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg’s office is located. Both the prime minister’s office and the office of Norway’s oil and energy minister were seriously damaged by the bombings. Stoltenberg was not in his office at the time of the explosion and was unharmed by the blast, a spokeswoman told Norwegian television.
In a phone interview conducted from a secure location, Stoltenberg told Norwegian broadcaster TV2 that he had been in touch with every member of his cabinet and that none of them had been injured in the blasts. “This is a time where the Norwegian people must stand together and show solidarity,” Stoltenberg said. “We must also think of the injured and their relatives in this terrible situation.”
A 32-year-old Norwegian man was arrested on suspicion of coordinating the bombings and then, dressed as a police offer, moving to the day camp in Utoya. The Norwegian media identified the man, Anders Behring Breivik, as a right-wing extremist, citing past Internet postings. That claim corroborated earlier reports that the suspect in the shooting was “a local Norwegian, blonde and blue-eyed,” according to Fred Burton, an intelligence analyst with the research firm Stratfor and a former special counter-terrorism agent with the U.S. State Department.
An initial claim of responsibility for the bombings made by a shadowy Jihadist group known as Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, has since been retracted, according to the terrorism analyst who translated the message. Abu Sulayman al-Nasi, a member of the terrorist group, initially posted a statement on the Jihadist forum Shamikh connecting the attacks to Norway’s military presence in Afghanistan, as part of the NATO alliance there. “We have warned since the Stockholm raid of more operations and we have demanded that the countries of Europe withdraw from the land of Afghanistan and end their war on Islam and Muslims,” the statement said, referring to a 2010 suicide bombing in Sweden.
Will McCants, a terrorism analyst with the research firm C.N.A., wrote on his website late Friday that the group had since recanted that statement. “Abu Sulayman has now issued a retraction, stating clearly that ‘Helpers’ was not involved in the operation and that his statement was not an official statement. He says those who carried out the attacks ‘must surely be known to all,’” McCants wrote, translating the message from Arabic on the Shamikh forum.
Burton told Need to Know that he regarded the attacks as highly sophisticated, requiring considerable technical knowledge and skill. “If you look at just the sheer blast effect of the bomb that book place, that’s a high degree of subject matter expertise,” Burton said. “That’s a learned skill, that’s one that takes years of practice to actually develop a functional device.”
Burton also said there had been initial reports that senior government officials had visited the island where the shooting took place, and that more were scheduled to visit in the coming days, including the prime minister. The fact that the shooting coincided with those meetings suggested at least a minimal amount of intelligence-gathering on the part of the perpetrators. “There are reports through our channels that there were several senior Norwegian officials that had just visited that location where the shooting took place, and there were additional visits that were scheduled over the next several days,” Burton said.
Burton also said he was skeptical of the initial claim of responsibility for the attacks by Jihadist groups. Reports have indicated that the gunman in Utoya, who has since been apprehended by Norwegian authorities, was a “tall and blonde” Norwegian. Those reports have been corroborated by Stratfor’s intelligence sources, Burton said. “There’s some indications that he’s a local Norwegian, blonde and blue-eyed,” Burton said.
He added that, in addition to Jihadi groups, there might also be far-right extremist organizations in Norway, or even state sponsors abroad, who could conceivably be responsible for the attack. The situation is too unclear to know for sure, Burton said. “Historically, whenever you have these attacks every group is going to come out of the woodwork and claim responsibility whether they had anything to do with it or not,” Burton said.
Norwegian citizens and officials, meanwhile, were stunned by the attacks, the first of their kind in Norway in recent memory. At an impromptu press briefing at the police station in Groenland roughly two hours after the blasts, police officer Ejnar Aas said he could not rule out terrorism as a cause for the explosions, and said only that the situation remains “unclarified and confused.” He added that authorities did not expect any additional bombings.
Claus Soneberg, an eyewitness who was in Oslo when the blast occurred, told Danish TV2 News, “I think all Norwegians are in a state of shock and sitting at home, following the news. Personally, I’m very angry and I think things will never be the same in Norway, or in the rest of Scandinavia.”
Burton, a career terrorism expert who helped arrest the mastermind behind the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, said Oslo may have been chosen as a target simply because it would be easier to attack than a more populous Western city protected by more sophisticated surveillance. “There could be some very detailed operational surveillance that has taken place behind the scenes that has caused that bomb to be detonated there instead of London,” Burton said. “Because of the time of day and the location, the Norwegians are very, very lucky that the body count is not higher.”
Published by Need to Know on PBS, 22 July 2011