Norwegian politicians and community leaders are launching new efforts to fend off extremism, especially among young Muslims. They’re also calling on Norwegians to resist fear after twin attacks in Copenhagen over the weekend, while police want to remain armed permanently.
Norwegian police were given permission just before the weekend to continue carrying arms, but only for another eight weeks. Current instructions for arming, approved by the Justice Ministry, also were updated with a new clarification that the state police directorate can allow or order police officers to carry a pistol daily for up to three months at a time, with eight-week extensions as deemed necessary.
The rising threat of terrorist attacks in Norway cleared the way for regular, if temporary, arming of the police last year. In a country where police have been unarmed for decades, however, the new instructions and the sight of police carrying weapons have spurred debate. Top politicians in the Socialist Left and Labour parties have accused the conservative minority government of “sneaking in” new measures that overturn a traditional political ban on police carrying guns. “We are very critical of the practice we now see, without any debate in Parliament,” Bård Vegar Solhjell, a former government minister and Member of Parliament for the Socialist Left party, told news bureau NTB on Friday.
‘Arming saved lives in Copenhagen’
On Saturday, a 22-year-old Muslim born in Denmark who’d been convicted of violent behaviour tried to shoot his way into a conference on freedom of expression in Copenhagen and killed a participant. He then gunned down a Jewish security guard outside a synagogue. He was later tracked down by armed Danish police who returned fire and killed him after he tried to shoot them first.
The attacks in nearby Denmark shocked Norwegians and bring the terror threat ever closer. On Monday, Norway’s police union (Politiets Fellesforbund) claimed that the arming of Danish police prevented others from being killed on Saturday and early Sunday. They believe it’s time for Norwegian police to be armed on a permanent basis.
“Our main argument has to do with response time,” Sivge Bolstand, leader of the police organization, told newspaper Adresseavisen. “Extreme episodes and events seldom occur with any warning. The situation in Denmark wouldn’t have allowed police time to arm themselves in time.”
Police leaders disagree, however, and counter, as do politicians like Solhjell, that police “seldom need to shoot from the hip” and generally do have time to arm themselves in extreme situations. “There’s also a danger that arming of the police can lead to more criminals arming themselves as well,” said the leader of Norges politilederforbund.
Police initially were allowed to arm themselves on a regular basis after a new terror threat evaluation by the Norwegian police intelligence agency PST concluded that the threat had risen and that unformed military and police were targets of Islamic extremists. Both state and local government leaders, meanwhile, have launched new efforts to fight radicalization, extremism and prosecute hate crimes.
In Oslo, the city government has won state support to introduce a new educational program about radicalization and extremism in the schools. Its goal is to counter recruitment efforts by radical Islamic groups and prevent vulnerable teenagers from joining them.
“The classroom is the only place where we can reach everyone,” city government leader Stian Berger Røsland told newspaper Dagsavisen. “It’s therefore a unique arena to work against dangerous radicalization of our youth.”
Røsland spoke recently at a meeting of mayors, police leaders and anti-terror experts that was led by Prime Minister Erna Solberg. PST now believes that 70-80 young Muslims have traveled from Norway to the Middle East and joined extreme Islamic terrorist groups. Solberg’s government has also launched various efforts to fend off extremism, not least through cooperation with local Muslim leaders and imams who are being called on to discourage young followers from becoming radical.
‘Concrete measures,’ also against hate crimes
Many of those joining radical groups have a history of gang membership and criminal violence. “What we’ve needed are concrete measures to work with,” Røsland said. The new courses are designed to engage young students in discussions of extremism, why and how it can surface and the brutality resulting from it. The city of Moss is already set to offer the course to raise teenagers’ awareness of extremism and, politicians hope, help them resist extremists’ recruiting efforts.
Calls were also going out on Monday for tougher prosecution of hate crimes and those advocating violence against, for example, Norway’s small Jewish population. Police in Oslo set up a new “hate-crime group” last September that is now set to prosecute its first case. “It’s against a blogger charged with publishing several hundred pages with very hateful expressions and degrading descriptions of Jews,” Monica Lillebakken of the Manglerud police station told Dagsavisen. Nearly 70 complaints about hate crimes were filed in Oslo last year alone. The anti-Semitic blogger can face fines, prison or both.