UPDATED: Norwegian authorities believe a group with extreme Islamist links is behind the “non-specific but credible” terror threat against Norway, and it emerged on Friday that the period covered by the threat includes significant Muslim holy days such as the “Night of Power.” The head of Norway’s police intelligence unit PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) said vulnerable Norwegians should have been stopped from leaving the country to participate in the Syrian civil war, but local Muslim communities said PST’s statements will just increase fear and hatred towards them.
On Thursday, government and police authorities took the unusual step of publicly announcing that a terror threat had been leveled at Norway. PST chief Benedicte Bjørnland said it was a “non-specific but credible threat.” All they could say was that a group was behind the threat, probably extreme Islamists with war experience from Syria, who planned to direct an attack against an unknown target in an unknown place in Norway, sometime in the coming days.
Security was tightened at airports, train stations, ports, border crossings, landmarks that could be “symbolic targets” and large events across Norway. Some embassies sent out warnings to their citizens.
The Muslim feast day “Night of Power” was widely interpreted to fall on Friday this year. US intelligence services have warned the day could be especially auspicious for carrying out terrorist acts, when extremists believed the gates of heaven were open to those who waged jihad in defense of Islam, reported Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK).
In Arabic the day is called “Laylat al-Qadr” and commemorates the prophet Mohammed’s initial revelation, when the first verses of the Koran were revealed by Allah. While there’s no fixed date it is thought to be one of the last 10 days of Ramadan, usually the 27th day, although some interpretations place it on another day. It is usually marked by gathering in mosques for prayer.
Symbolic days have often been chosen by terrorists to carry out actions, said Atle Mesøy, a terror expert and security studies lecturer at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. “Religious symbol days seem to be very important for such groups,” he said. “They relate to a symbolic universe, and the more they can strengthen the symbolic value the better it is.” He said it was interesting the day fell within the threat period PST had identified.
“Now it’s the end of the fasting month of Ramadan,” said Lars Akerhaug, journalist and author of Norwegian Jihad. “Previously we’ve seen that terrorist organizations have planned actions in connection with the end of the fasting month.”
“It is an important day in Ramadan, but I have never heard that it should be used in a terrorist context,” Knut Vikør, a Middle Eastern studies professor at the University of Bergen, told NRK. He said it was the day when Allah forgave sins, and involved other religious matters relating to the revelation of the Quran. “But that it should be connected to jihad takes a lot,” he said.
Mesøy also said another reason for the timing was simply that preparedness would be seen as low during the quiet summer holiday period, when services operated with a skeleton staff.
US weighs in
The link between the holy day and terror threat was much-hyped in the US last year, which sent a warning to citizens worldwide and temporarily closed several of its Middle Eastern embassies.
US officials told American broadcaster ABC News that the threat against Norway over the next few days was credible, but would not give any details as to why.
The threat was based on information gathered in both Norway and abroad, but Bjørnland would not be drawn on whether US intelligence services were involved. “PST has a partnership with 60 countries, but never confirms which ones they are,” she said.
Bjørnland did say that more action should have been taken to stop Norwegians at risk of radicalization who were leaving to fight in the Syrian civil war. Security authorities have said for some time that the greatest risk to Norway’s safety was from growing local extremism, especially from those who had gone to fight in the Syrian conflict and returned with fueled ideologies, weapons training and combat experience. In March, PST estimated about 50 Norwegians had traveled to the war zone.
“That is because we have seen that some of them who travel from Norway connect with ISIL or Jabhat al-Nusra,” she said, reported news bureau NTB. “It is well-documented that these groups engage purely in terrorist activities. We are concerned that people with Norwegian associations connect themselves to such groups.”
Bjørnland said some of the groups had visions of global jihad and world domination, and she was concerned Norwegians may be sent home “with assignments.” She said PST needed greater powers in dealing with potential foreign fighters.
Muslim communities react
On Thursday police in Oslo began checking specific people in radical circles. Newspaper VG reported no one had been charged and the people were not necessarily directly connected to the terror plans, but may have important information.
NRK spoke to locals on the streets of Oslo’s multicultural Grønland district. Motzfeldts gate, a usually vibrant and lively street, was unusually quiet on Thursday evening. Several of those interviewed said they did not have confidence in PST’s data, and feared the terror alarm would fuel anti-Muslim prejudice and hatred.
“PST does not say who the terrorists are, where they come from or who or what is the target,” said Hassan, who did not want to give his last name out of fear of reprisal. “The only thing we know is that the terrorists may be radical Muslims. The vague information helps to make the entire Muslim population into a target. It means that we are disdained and taken to be possible terrorists.”
‘Atmosphere of fear’
He said visible armed police had created an atmosphere of fear in Grønland throughout Thursday, when the terror threat was announced. While he stressed the overwhelming majority of Muslims were peaceful and against atrocities in the name of religion, he was tired of having to say that, and PST should have been clearer in emphasizing the threat did not apply to most Muslims. “If not, then that can lead to stigmatization of Muslims and create distance between PST and the Muslim community in Norway,” Hassan said.
“This news has really affected the atmosphere here,” Somali-Norwegian Rage Ahmed Hassan told NRK. “We were shocked when we heard about the threat, and detest the people who are the reason for the fear and shock. We all have families and children, and are committed to taking good care of a peaceful country.”
“People must not think that all Muslims are the same,” added Hassan Said M. “There are crazy people everywhere, but they don’t represent us. They are not part of us. We find it is both difficult and offensive to explain this and must reject extremism and violence.”
Turkish Norwegian Ibrahim Kaya said the threat announcement was aimed at giving Muslims a bad name, making it easier for authorities to introduce new laws which affected the community. “Such things have happened before, and every time Muslims are in the spotlight,” he told NRK. “I no longer think that it’s random. I believe that PST and the authorities are deliberately trying to defame Muslims and create a poor impression of them.”
On Friday, PST’s head of strategic analysis Jon Fitje Hoffmann attempted to downplay the focus on religion. “This is violent crime and in this sense it has nothing to do with Islam in the grand scheme,” he said.