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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Kongsberg tragedy challenges police

UPDATED: Police mounted a quick and massive response to this week’s deadly attacks in Kongsberg by a lone assailant, Espen Andersen Bråthen, who’s now widely viewed as being mentally ill. Questions are swirling, however, over why police and health care authorities couldn’t or didn’t act to head off the attacks, since there’d been multiple warnings about Bråthen over the past several years.

New Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre added to all the flowers and candles that have spontaneously been placed in downtown Kongsberg, following deadly attacks on Wednesday. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

New Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Justice Minister Emilie Enger Mehl visited Kongsberg, about a two-hour drive west of Oslo, on their first full day in office on Friday. The attacks that killed five people and seriously injured three others occurred on the night before Støre’s new left-center government officially took over, forcing them to immediately handle a crisis that initially had all the characteristics of a terrorist attack.

Støre and Mehl met with the mayor of Kongsberg, representatives of the emergency services that responded to the attacks and leaders of various religious congregations before laying down flowers and lighting candles Friday afternoon at the site of an ever-growing memorial to the victims of the attacks.

“On behalf of the government and everyone who lives in the country,” Støre said at the site, “the justice minister and I have come to express our sympathy and recognize how the Kongsberg community has stood together when something so horrible has rammed this fine city.” He also paid tribute to those who lost their lives in such “meaningless” attacks.

Støre and his new Labour Party-led government are no strangers to terror. Two of his new young ministers, along with several new state secretaries, are survivors of the terrorist attacks against Labour and the government in Oslo and on the island of Utøya in July 2011. Støre himself had made a point on Thursday out of noting that the “Utøya generation,” attacked by a right-wing extremist, is now represented in government.

“That means that several of those now steering the country have personal experience with how gruesome the consequences of extremism, radicalization and terror are,” political commentator Hege Ulstein wrote in newspaper Dagsavisen on Friday. Støre is clearly proud of the terror survivors in his cabinet and glad they stayed in politics. “Democracy won,” Støre claimed after one of several speeches during the course of a long day on Thursday.

Police have some explaining to do
Both he and Justice Minister Mehl, however, will now be responsible for following up with police over how the Kongsberg attacks happened, or could have been prevented. A series of warnings about the 37-year-old Bråthen’s behaviour had been sent to police by childhood friends worried about him as long as four years ago. Questions involve how or even whether the warnings were followed up, and how he’d been allowed to acquire a cross-bow and arrows since he had a criminal record.

Several of his old friends were alarmed when he posted a video on social media in 2017 in which he claimed to be a “messenger” with a vague “warning” that it was time to redeem themselves for some unclear offense. He also claimed “I am a Muslim,” even though his friends didn’t take that seriously. He claimed to have converted to Islam and visited a local mosque in Kongsberg a few times several years ago, but officials at the mosque have told Norwegian media that he seemed poorly informed about Islam and didn’t return. Old friends also discounted any real attachment to the faith.

Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) was the first to publish this photo of the Kongsberg attacker, Espen Andersen Bråthen, taken off an alarming video he’d posted on social media several years ago that was later sent to police. Newspaper Aftenposten and several other media outlets have also published it since. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

An old friend of Bråthen, who’s a Danish citizen but has lived in Kongsberg most of his life, told newspaper Aftenposten on Friday that he viewed the video as a call for help. He and others alerted police, with a link to the video and a message that they hoped police would follow up on the case. Police have said they did follow up, but Bråthen was not taken into custody.

“It’s frustrating to think that I and several others have known that he was a ticking time-bomb, that there was no help to get,” the friend who asked to remain unidentified told Aftenposten. State broadcaster NRK has carried similar reports from old friends, one of whom claimed his personality changed in his late teens and he became “unstable, pushed people away” and seemed to prefer to be alone: “I don’t think he has gone around and planned to injure anyone, but that he was so troubled that something had to happen.”

Police in Kongsberg and at the regional southeastern police district in Tønsberg claim the warnings were passed on to those who handle such tips. Neighbours told Aftenposten that police did visit Bråthen at his home on several occasions. Several patrols arrived one day last summer at his home in the same downtown area of Kongsberg where he went on his rampage with not only the bow and arrows but also a knife. Police were spotted wearing helmets in his garden, where Bråthen had been training in martial arts, sometimes with “a club or baton,” according to one neighbour.

PST defends an earlier evaluation of Bråthen
He apparently was not restrained, but according to police intelligence agency PST, the warnings were followed up and Bråthen was offered help. PST held a press conference Thursday, at which it was revealed that Bråthen had been “in and out” of public health services. PST was also aware of complaints against Bråthen but PST boss Hans Sverre Sjøvold told NRK that the agency has a list of “several hundred” names of people against whom warnings have been received. Sjøvold said it was “difficult” to evaluate which people should be followed up. It’s a challenge, he said, to predict who may turn words into action.

PST officials later told NRK on Friday that they received the first warnings about Bråthen in 2015 and evaluated at the time that Bråthen was capable of carrying out “a low-scale attack, with simple weapons.” Arne Christian Haugstøyl, counter-terrorism chief at PST, told NRK that the first tips involved warnings that “a vulnerable person was perhaps in the process of becoming radicalized. He had converted to Islam.” Haugstøyl said PST “knew that his history from other areas (earlier arrests) indicated he had a low threshold for violence, but he didn’t have any history that it was politically or ideologically motivated.”

Arne Christian Haugstøyl, counter-terrorism chief at Norway’s police intelligence agency PST, defended the agency’s evaluation of the assailant in 2018, which concluded that Bråthen was mentally ill and could be dangerous. He conceded, however, that Bråthen “managed to carry out more violence” than they had expected. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

PST then turned his case back over to local police. They later “had a conversation” with Bråthen just days after he’d published his video in 2017. It was subsequently concluded that Bråthen’s video did not constitute a threat that violated any laws. Haugstøyl told NRK that police then alerted health authorities about Bråthen around New Year 2018. PST determined that he wasn’t driven by religion or ideology “but was seriously mentally ill.” That’s what prompted PST’s comments Thursday that Bråthen was then “in and out of health services” and that was “relevant” to PST’s conclusion that he did not pose a terrorist threat.

“It’s unfortunately very tragic what he has managed to do,” Haugstøyl said on NRK’s national radio news program Dagsnytt 18 on Friday, “but he used simple means and has not cooperated with others.” That, according to Haugstøyl, confirms PST’s initial conclusion that he could carry out a “low-scale attack.” A “large-scale attack” would have involved advanced weapons several assailants, explosives or other other means, he said.

Asked whether the deaths of five people doesn’t equate to a “large scale attack,” Haugstøyl replied: “Based on the number he managed to kill, he has managed more than we thought. He has managed to carry out more violence before he was stopped than we expected in 2018.”

There’s no question Bråthen terrorized his neighbourhood on Wednesday evening, as he randomly shot arrows at people and police arriving at the scene, broke into some homes and killed their residents, and stabbed a woman on a sidewalk. All his victims were aged 50 to 70, and unable to defend themselves.

Questions were also flying after police reported that they believe the victims were killed after the first police officers arriving at the scene initially spotted him in a Coop Extra grocery store, where he’d also aimed his crossbow at scared shoppers. It took police around half-an-hour to finally track him down. He surrendered to police only after they fired warning shots.

Police inspector Per Thomas Omholt, at another police press conference following the attacks in Kongsberg this week. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Now he’s in police custody but has been turned over to health care authorites for a psychiatric evaluation. Police Inspector Per Thomas Omholt of the Sør-Øst Police District said they have searched for a wide range of motives for his attacks: “anger, revenge, impulse, jihad, illness and provocation.”

Their hypothesis as of a press conference Friday afternoon was that “illness” was emerging as the strongest motive. Police haven’t been able so far to find any evidence of long-term planning behind the attacks. Bråthens has admitted to carrying out the attacks, in detail, but has not admitted to criminal liability. That can also suggest mental illness.

He’ll now be kept under observation and evaluated as to whether he’s fit to stand trial. Omholt said Bråthen used three different weapons, but wouldn’t confirm the nature of the other two. Questioning has been suspended pending the defendant’s “health situation.” Bråthen has been transferred from police custody in Drammen to a locked psychiatric institution, according to Omholt.

Police are also probing Bråthen’s electronic correspondence, have ransacked his home, gathered evidence from the multiple crime scenes where victims were killed or injured and have also questioned more than 50 other witnesses to the attacks . Omholt urged anyone who had contact with the defendant in the days leading up to the attacks to report to police. “We need to know what he’s been doing for the past 10 years,” Omholt said.

Omholt refused, as have other police officials, to answer further questions about how the warnings about Bråthen were handled. They’re concentrating on the actual criminal investigation now underway, several officials have said, and then will examine what led up to the attacks. The charges against Bråthen have so far not been expanded to include terrorism and now may not be. The identities of his five victims had still not been made public heading into the weekend.

The local police are receiving assistance from special national crime units and Prime Minister Støre claimed they’ll get all the help they’ll need. Then he and Mehl are likely to have questions and requests of their own, as to how such tragedies may be averted. Støre’s new health minister, Ingvild Kjerkol said on Dagsnytt 18 Friday evening that Norway’s psychiatric health care services “aren’t good enough” at evaluating whether seriously ill people can be dangerous. She has contacted Mehl to evaluate how cooperation between police and the health care services can be improved.

News service NTB reported that Crown Prince Haakon and Crown Princess Mette-Marit will visit Kongsberg on Sunday and take part in a memorial church service after the attacks. The small city, one of Norway’s oldest with a population of around 30,000, remains in sorrow and shock but was getting lots of support. As King Harald V put it in a message of condolence on Thursday, “Norway is a small country. When Kongsberg has been hit so hard as a community, the rest of the nation stands with you.”

There were a few other positive things emerging from the tragedy: Norway’s emergency preparedness that was woefully lacking ahead of the terrorist attacks in 2011 proved to have been greatly improved. “Resources found one another and cooperation among the various emergency services functioned well,” editorialized Dagsavisen on Friday.

Police also sent out a firm and well-received message asking Norwegians to stop publishing “rumours and photos” from the murder scenes on social media, calling the practice “unwise and disrespectful.”

And Støre quickly acknowledged that “we have great challenges” in the area of mental health, lamenting the fact that many people are turned away for lack of resources, despite referrals from a doctor. He will support Kjerkol’s efforts to improve the situation.

His own triumphant rise to government power was overshadowed by the tragedy, spoiling what should have been a festive day on Thursday, but he shrugged that off, telling NRK: “Such is life. There will probably be more crises ahead. Our job is to deal with them.” Berglund



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