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Saturday, July 23, 2011

Norway Terrorism: Who, why and what does it mean?

A woman is carried by emergency workers at the scene after an explosion in Oslo, Norway. (File Photo)
A woman is carried by emergency workers at the scene after an explosion in Oslo, Norway. (File Photo)
With the death toll rising and no verified claim of responsibility, authorities and pundits are speculating who may be behind the bombing that shook central Oslo and why.

The speculation ranges from the absurd and uninformed to the logical and possible, from the publication by Norwegian papers of controversial Danish cartoons five years ago to Norway’s involvement in Libya and Afghanistan to its efforts to extradite a radical Muslim cleric.

A terror group, Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, issued a statement claiming responsibility for the attack, according to Will McCants, a terrorism analyst at C.N.A., a research institute that studies terrorism. The message said the attack was a response to Norwegian forces’ presence in Afghanistan and to unspecified insults to the Prophet Muhammad.
“We have warned since the Stockholm raid of more operations,” the group said, according to Mr. McCants’ translation, apparently referring to a bombing in Sweden in December 2010. “What you see is only the beginning, and there is more to come.” The claim could not be confirmed.

Whatever the motive turns out to be, the bombing of government offices, including that of the prime minister, Norway is more likely than not to have been a target of opportunity.

That is if a militant group like Al Qaeda turns out to be perpetrator. At least theoretically although unlikely, it could of course also have been the work of a skilled lone bomb maker as in the case of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

To be sure, Norway has no known domestic militant groups and despite a couple of references to the country in statements over the years by Al Qaeda leader Ayman al Zawahiri, the country hardly figures prominently on the group’s radar.

If indeed Al Qaeda or elements linked to it turns out to be the culprit, Norway is likely to have been primarily targeted because Norwegian nationals or immigrants with local knowledge were available to execute the attack. Those elements, if responsible, could also have acted on their own.

Three Norwegian residents, one of whom had received explosives training with al-Qaeda in Pakistan, were arrested a year ago on suspicion of plotting attacks against unspecified targets. One of them reportedly had attempted to construct a hydrogen peroxide-based bomb similar to that used in the July 7, 2005, attacks on London’s transport system and the foiled 2009 bombing of the New York subway. The three were an Uzbek, Uighur and a Kurdish Iraqi linked to the East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Jihad Union, an Uighur and Uzbek militant group associated with Al Qaeda.

If Al Qaeda or elements associated with it prove to be responsible, the bombing would highlight the group’s weakness rather than its resurgence two months after the US killing of the group’s leader, Osama Bin Laden.

A bombing by Norwegians or immigrants although trained by Al Qaeda but acting on their own hardly demonstrates cohesion or command or control. If anything it would reflect underestimated grievances and discontent among the country’s immigrant community. Think poorly trained Swedish citizen Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, who last December blew himself up on a Stockholm shopping street.

To be sure, Norway hosts a significant Somali exile community. Despite exhortations by Al Qaeda’s Yemeni affiliate that al Shabab, Somalia’s dominant jihadist militia, to be active globally, the group has so far shown little inclination to operate outside of Somalia, with the exception of Uganda, the backbone of the African peacekeeping force in the country.

Similarly, a bombing conceived by the Al Qaeda leadership whose execution depends on having coincidentally some assets available doesn’t speak to an organization that has strategically placed assets it can deploy at will and when needed.

It does however service Mr. Zawahiri’s need to establish himself as Mr. Bin Laden’s successor and probe that Al Qaeda is still alive and kicking. Like with many terrorist operations, terrorists often benefit from the fact that the psychological impact of their actions overshadows the reality of their capabilities.

Too much has happened stirring deep emotions since three Norwegian papers published controversial Danish cartoons portraying the Prophet Mohammed deemed blasphemous by many in the Muslim world. Granted, Danish police arrested early this year five men who allegedly were planning to attack the newspaper which first ran the Mohammad cartoons. But then, if the cartoon dispute still resonates anywhere, it would be Denmark.

Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi has threatened to strike back at those helping to enforce the United Nations-mandated no-fly zone in his country. But Mr. Qaddafi would seem to have his hands full fending off NATO-backs rebel attempts to break through to his stronghold in the capital Tripoli to bother about six Norwegian F-16 fighter jets participating in allied operations.

Similarly, 500 token Norwegian troops in Afghanistan are likely to figure prominently on the agenda of the Afghan Taliban, who don’t have a history of operating beyond the boundaries of their war-torn nation.

Finally, the bombing could have been sparked by the indictment this month of Iraqi Kurdish Islamist Najm al-Din Faraj Ahmad, better known as Mullah Krekar, the founder of Ansar al-Islam, a jihadist group suspected of suicide bombings in Iraq. Mr. Ahmad, who has been under arrest first and then house arrest in Norway for the past nine years, has threatened retaliation if Norway deports him to Iraq.

The long and short of this all is that at the time of this writing, we are tapping in the dark about who may be behind the Oslo attack and even once that has been established it still raises the question what that tells us.

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