Rare openness wins rare praise

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The Norwegian Justice Ministry, police intelligence unit PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) and the Police Directorate were winning praise, also from opposition politicians, on Thursday for their communication and transparency surrounding a terror threat against Norway in the coming days. The authorities announced they’d received a credible threat to Norway’s safety and believed a group with links to extreme Islamists in Syria was behind it, but had no firm information on who could be responsible, what may be targeted, and when. Terror experts, however, remained divided over whether raising the alarm was the best approach.

From left, Justice Minister Anders Anundsen, PST chief Benedicte Bjørnland and acting Police Directorate chief Vidar Refvik at the press conference on Thursday morning. Politicians across the spectrum have praised the way the authorities have handled the threat, but terror experts were split over whether it was right to alarm the public. PHOTO: Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet screenshot/newsinenglish.no

From left, Justice Minister Anders Anundsen, PST chief Benedicte Bjørnland and acting Police Directorate chief Vidar Refvik at the press conference on Thursday morning. Politicians across the political spectrum praised the way the authorities handled the threat, but terror experts were split over whether it was right to alarm the public. PHOTO: Justis- og beredskapsdepartementet screenshot/newsinenglish.no

Security was heightened across the country following the authorities’ emergency press conference on Thursday morning. Places that could be seen as “symbolic targets” including Oslo’s City Hall, Parliament building and Royal Palace were closed to the public, security was tightened at borders, airports and harbours, and extra armed police were deployed on the streets and at transport hubs.

Prime Minister Erna Solberg was due to go on holiday with her family on Thursday, but cancelled her vacation plans when she was informed of the threat on Wednesday. “This is a terrorist threat against Norway which PST and the Military Intelligence Service considers credible,” Solberg of the Conservatives (Høyre) told news bureau NTB. “In line with the increased openness about such assessments, PST has chosen to make the threat assessment public.”

“I have confidence that the police are following the case and implementing necessary measures, and that PST and the Intelligence Service will cooperate well through the Joint Counter-terrorism Center,” she said. It was the center that discovered the terror threat, reported newspaper Bergens Tidende, after only being established this year following a recommendation of the commission that evaluated the response to two attacks on Norway on July 22, 2011.

Politicians composed
Security at the Parliament in Oslo was increased on Thursday, and politicians were briefed on the heightened risk. Political leaders remained composed amid the drama, and urged the public to do the same.

“I think the majority would probably react when they begin to see armed police,” the Parliamentary Justice Committee’s deputy, Conservative Anders Werp told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “I will answer as an ordinary citizen: My family and I will conduct ourselves while we do our daily activities as before, but be vigilant, and listen to and follow the advice from police.”

“I would also emphasize that it is positive that PST and the political leadership in the ministry go out and inform in this way, a balanced, unbiased and proper manner,” Werp said. “It is important that we keep calm at the same time as we meet the situation with the seriousness it deserves.”

The Socialist Left party (Sosialistisk Venstreparti, SV) leader, Audun Lysbakken, said it was important to keep the public informed when armed police were suddenly deployed at airports and border crossings. “We must take the information that has now come forward with the greatest seriousness,” he said. “We know that there are extreme Islamist groups that have used violence, and that might use violence again. When information then comes about a specific threat, I believe it is completely correct that the police and government react as they’re doing.”

The Labour Party’s (Arbeiderpartiet, Ap) Hadia Tajik and Hans Fredrik Grøvan of the Christian Democrats (Kristelig Folkeparti, Frp) both told NRK they also supported the government’s approach to dealing with the threat.

First major terror alarm since 1973
Thursday’s announcement was the first time the Norwegian government had publicly raised a terror alarm in 41 years, said researcher Tore Bjørgo. “During the oil crisis in 1973 they went out with an alarm message to the public, which warned about plans to strike an oil refinery,” he said. “And nothing happened. The terrorists probably left the country.”

He believed there were three reasons behind the public alert: To deter, protect vulnerable targets, and defuse. “This is about sending a message to the terrorists that Norway is prepared, and that an attempt is likely to fail,” he said.

However, Bjørgo noted research had shown deterrence only had a relatively small preventative effect, because for some terrorists, the goal itself was to be killed in action and become a martyr. “Nevertheless deterrence can have an indirect effect, because terrorists fear failure,” he said. “They don’t become martyrs by sitting in jail.”

Bjørgo said the heightened police presence would make it harder to carry out an attack, and the alarm would increase public vigilance so people would notice things they ordinarily wouldn’t pay much attention to.

Could force an attack
“The Ministry of Justice reduced the political risk by going out in this way, but it is a dilemma,” said Kjetil Stormark, a journalist and author specializing in intelligence, defense and security policy. “Such a public disclosure may expedite action if the terrorists have everything ready. The terrorists may also take cover and strike at a later point in time.”

Swedish terrorism expert and researcher Magnus Ranstorp said it was very unusual in the Scandinavian context to make such a warning, and it would be hard to tell whether the measures were necessary until the full picture is known.

“People are very concerned, but it’s about not taking risks, and at the same time being able to get tips in,” he said. “That they’re going out publicly indicates that they do not have full control. Security services like best to work in silence before they go into action and arrest and prosecute people.”

If nothing happens, he said people had a right to know exactly what intelligence the authorities had received. “Without a doubt they must clarify why they created this unrest and uncertainty,” Ranstorp said. “I understand that they have not given more information now, but in a week or two I hope they are more open over what this was based on.”

newsinenglish.no/Emily Woodgate