UPDATED: “We are now in a situation where there is a specific terror threat against Norway,” said Justice and Public Security Minister Anders Anundsen as he opened an emergency press conference with the Police Security Service (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste, PST) on Thursday morning. PST chief Benedicte Bjørnland said the service had received information from abroad, indicating that people affiliated with a group in Syria were planning a terrorist attack on Norway within a few days.
“Measures have been taken to meet this threat,” Anundsen told reporters. It was believed the group posing the threat had taken part in fighting in the Syrian conflict. It was not clear whether any Norwegian citizens were connected to the group, or if any person living in Norway or on their way into the country was involved.
Openness as a deterrent
“The information we have received indicates that this is a limited threat,” said Bjørnland, but was unclear on how many days she expected the heightened threat level to remain in place. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that PST had put the case at the highest threat level, and officers had been recalled from their summer breaks to deal with the situation. Bjørnland said PST had gone public with the information in the hopes that greater transparency would act as a deterrent.
Acting police chief Vidar Refvik said officers were working to verify the information and get more details. He said that while the threat was credible, no particular target had been identified, so it was difficult to advise Norwegians to take any specific measures at this stage.
Anundsen did, however, ask Norwegians to be more wary in the coming days. “As citizens, one must be a little more vigilant than usual,” he said. “At the same time it’s important that we do not condemn individual groups in society.”
Targets unclear, Norway Cup looms
Anundsen described the threat assessment as firm. “Travelers will notice this in the form of strengthened police presence at train stations, airports, at border crossings, main roads and many other places. The police they see will be armed.”
Norway’s defense forces (Forsvaret) were on a heightened level of alert, preparing their helicopters so they could be deployed from Rygge airport in 15 minutes, rather than the standard two hours.
Neither the minister, PST nor police would speculate on whether the international Norway Cup football tournament in Oslo that starts this weekend could be a potential target. Tens of thousands of children and spectators from all over the world are expected at the tournament, which starts on Sunday at Ekebergsletta.
Radicalization in Syria
Both PST and Norway’s military intelligence service (Etterretningstjenesten, or E-tjenesten) warned earlier this year the biggest threat to Norway’s security came from Muslim extremists. About 50 Norwegians so far were believed to have traveled to fight with rebels in the Syrian civil war, before returning to Norway more radicalized with combat training and weapons knowledge.
Bjørnland said PST did receive tips from time to time about specific threats against Norway, but investigations had always quickly revealed they lacked credibility. She said this time, that was not the case.
“It is very seldom that PST goes out with such specific warnings about a possible terrorist attack,” police academy researcher Cato Hemmingby told NTB. “That suggests they are taking the threat very seriously.” He said terrorists tended to attack symbolic targets, like government buildings, airports, train stations and other places where crowds gathered: “Attacks against civilian targets in a public space have large potential for damage and are difficult to handle.”
“In countries including England they’ve seen attacks planned by people who have come home from the Syrian conflict, or attacks which are planned from Syria,” Hemmingby added. “This shows that the Syrian conflict also now affects us at home. It is not surprising. Countries like England and France have been feeling this for some time.”
Threat can be cancelled
Hemmingby said as a rule, terror threats were usually cancelled. Even though the current threat was serious, it was important not to get carried away.
Terror researcher and security studies lecturer Atle Mesøy told NRK it was unlikely a large international terrorist group like Al-Qaida or ISIL would threaten Norway. “It is closer to imagine a small group with connections to Norway, which has fought together with a larger group,” he said.
“We have long been aware that people from Norway and other Western countries have connected with groups with ties to Al-Qaida, and particularly ISIL,” said journalist and Norwegian Jihad author Lars Akerhaug. “It is unfortunately not surprising that Norway can also be a target.”
NRK reported a condensed version of the story in English (external link).