Norway’s police intelligence agency PST is reporting a rise in reports of far-right radicalization among young Norwegian men and even teenagers. The heightened concern comes just as a memorial was held this week, 10 years after right-wing terror in Norway and two years after another young white Norwegian man killed his Chinese-born step-sister and then tried to massacre Muslims at a mosque outside Oslo.
“During the past year we’ve received between 400 and 500 reports of concern or tips about people that PST has chosen to follow up,” Annet Aamodt of PST (Politiets sikkerhetstjeneste) told newspaper Aftenposten. The total number of tips or warnings about potential radicalization is much higher, she said.
The tips are evenly divided between concern over radical right-wing extremists and Islamic extremism. They are sent to PST via email, the agency’s own tips portal or via police and cooperating organizations.
Those receiving and evaluating the tips about potential extremists say they increasingly involve minors, “but the majority still involve young adults,” Aamodt said, aged 18 to 35. The tips followed up are often so serious that PST logs them in an effort to clarify whether those involved have the intention and capacity to carry out a violent act of terrorism.
More conscious of the right-wing threat
The number of tips and amount of information attached to them has grown in recent years, “both in terms of those from private people and the police” Aamodt said. Norwegians, PST believes, have become far more conscious of the terrorist threat, especially from right-wing extremists following the bombing of Oslo’s government headquarters and massacre of young Labour Party members on the island of Utøya 10 years ago. Both deadly attacks were carried out by a young white Norwegian, Anders Behring Breivik, and followed eight years later by another deadly attack by a young white Norwegian man, Philip Manshaus.
This week marked two years since Manshaus shot his 17-year-old step-sister Johanne Zhangjia Ihle-Hansen at the family home in Oslo’s affluent suburb of Bærum, simply because she was ethnically Chinese. Then Manshaus drove to Bærum’s only mosque, Al-Noor at Skui, and started shooting there, too, but miscalculated prayer hours. The mosque was mostly empty and two elderly men were able to subdue Manshaus and hold him until police arrived.
The attacks continue to raise fears of violent extremism among Norwegians, to which PST is responding. It has earlier evaluated the threat of violent attacks from right-wing extremists as equal to or even higher than that from Islamic extremists in Norway. In its last terrorist treat evaluation, PST stated that it had seen “an increase in the number of Norwegians who express understanding and support for right-wing extreme terror” during the past year.
Challenged by freedom of expression
Norwegian police have been criticized for failing to follow up on tips about Manshaus, and for a lack of preparedness in connection with Breivik’s attacks on July 22, 2011. Freedom of expression is high in Norway, and PST officials claim they can’t function as a unit that polices opinion. “An important part of our work is preventive action,” Aamodt told Aftenposten. “We have a low threshold for visiting people we’re concerned about.”
The public can play an important role, with tips “essential” for identifying potential threats. Families are often aware of radicalization, Aamodt said, but were only involved in 10 percent of cases involving potential attacks that were averted.
Tore Bjørgo, a professor and leader of the center for research on extremism at the University of Oslo, said it’s important to remember that people who become radicalized don’t “automatically” become terrorists. The vast majority “never do anything,” he told Aftenposten, but they do present a risk.
Several government ministers, members of Manshaus’ family and other officials gathered on Tuesday at the site of Manshaus’ attempted massacre at the Al-Noor mosque on August 10, 2019. There was a minute of silence to remember Johanne along with speeches that centered on the importance of recognizing extremism and preventing violence.
Manshaus’ attempted attack has sparked fear among many Muslims, with Imam Syed Muhammed Ashraf stressing that “knowledge and unity are the best answers to hatred.” Calls continue for higher security at mosques in Norway.
Manshaus, meanwhile, is now serving Norway’s harshest prison term, 21 years with a special custody clause that may keep him confined for life. He has never expressed any regret for his acts and did not appeal his conviction or sentence.