UPDATED: Wednesday night’s fatal and bizarre attacks on residents of the historic mining town of Kongsberg invoked painful memories of another young man’s attacks on Norway’s Labour Party and its government on July 22, 2011. Labour is now heading back into power, and faced with another immediate crisis.
The July 22 attacks left 77 people dead and scores injured, with the mass murderer claiming that he blamed Labour and the Norwegian government for allowing too many immigrants into the country.
Norway was woefully unprepared to handle such a national emergency at the time, but responded in force to Wednesday’s attacks. It didn’t take long before Kongsberg was all but cordoned off, with helicopters whirring overhead and heavily armed special forces on the streets. Justice Minister Monica Mæland also ordered Norway’s normally unarmed police to immediately start carrying weapons nationwide.
Police had the assailant, identified Thursday afternoon as Espen Andersen Bråthen, in custody within a half-hour, after a dramatic arrest and “confrontation” during which police fired warning shots. Early Thursday morning, his newly appointed defense attorney Fredrik Neumann could confirm that the suspect in custody is a 37-year-old man with a Danish mother who has been living in Kongsberg for many years. Neumann didn’t want to say anything about his background at the time and told reporters he was uncertain whether the man has lived in Denmark and, if so, for how long. He faced a custody hearing on Thursday.
The assailant “was cooperating with police and spoke in detail about the attacks,” Neumann told reporters. Asked by Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) about his mental state, Neumann replied that he was “clearly marked by the situation.” More sessions with the police were planned. Police confirmed early Thursday that Bråthen used other weapons in addition to a bow and arrows.
At a press conference later Thursday morning in Tønsberg, where the regional southeastern police district is based, reporters were told that Bråthen had been the subject of “several” warnings to police in recent years. He had reportedly converted to Islam and there were concerns he had become radicalized. NRK also reported that he has a record of convictions for theft, purchase of hash and for threatening family members, after which a local judge issued a restraining order against him.
“We followed up the reports that came in and have not received any more reports in 2021 around radicalization,” said Ole B Sæverud, chief of Sør-Øst Politidistrikt. He said that Norway’s police intelligence unit PST (Politiets Sikkerhetstjeneste) continued to investigate whether the attacks were an act of terrorism, with political motives.
“We’re carrying out an intelligence operation to be completely certain and confident that he was acting alone,” Sæverud said. Bråthen is now also likely to be subject to a psychiatric evaluation: “That’s a matter that the leader of the investigation must address, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that occurs.”
One person who has known Bråthen for years told NRK that the alleged conversion to Islam has little to do with the case: “This is all about a person who is seriously mentally ill and who dropped out of the mainstream as a teenager. This has plagued the lives of those who were close to him.” Another claimed Bråthen “never got the help he needed.” Warnings sent to police, they fear, were not taken seriously enough.
Sæverud also finally revealed more information about the five people killed during the attacks, during which police also were targets of the assailant’s arrows. The victims included four women and one man, Sæverud said, all of them aged 50 to 70. Their next-of-kin have now been notified.
Prosecutor Ann Irén Svane Mathiassen told NRK before the press conference that the defendant has been charged with murder and confirmed that he earlier had come to the attention of police. She confirmed that he cooperated with police while being questioned during the night. She wouldn’t say anything about his motives but said “he has given his account of what happened and how he experienced it.” She also said he had acknowledged the facts and admitted he carried out the attacks.
Police carried out criminal and technical examinations during the night of various crime scenes in downtown Kongsberg, where the defendant shot people with arrows from a crossbow. The man’s home was being ransacked and his computer equipment seized for examination of his data communication.
Kongsberg is a scenic and relatively quiet town, nestled in hills with a river running through it. It’s home to historic silver mines and Norway’s mint, full of royal and industrial history and, more recently, a large cluster of high-tech companies anchored by state-controlled defense contractor Kongsberg Gruppen. Civic boosters bill Kongsberg as the “City of Technology” but it has remained small with a population of around 30,000.
“I couldn’t believe something like this could happen, in little Kongsberg,” local resident Kari Smeby told NRK Wednesday night. She’d gone jogging that evening and heard that an alarm was ringing from the grocery store where the attacks began.
“A passerby told me that someone was running around with a bow and arrows,” Smeby said. “It sounded completely crazy.” When helicopters suddenly appeared overhead and there were “lots of blue lights everywhere,” she understand it was serious: “I think ‘unreal’ is the best word to describe it.”