Guest Article: 10 Years on From Norway’s Worst Extremist Attack, What Have We Learned?

Above: a temporary memorial site for the victims of the far-right attack on Utoeya island, northwest of Oslo, July 26, 2011. (Credit REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch)

Author: Bjørn Ihler
Chair, Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism's Independent Advisory Committee

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14 June 2021

As I’m writing this, half the internet seems to be down. A massive digital service provider is experiencing an outage impacting websites and thus critical infrastructure around the globe. It’s an apt illustration of how the unexpected, by affecting a single point of failure, can have dramatic consequences and impact far beyond what we are prepared for.

While the outage this time seems not to have been caused by anyone with malicious intent it underlines the fragility of the infrastructure we have come to rely on, and the truly global impact singular events can have.

In the fall of 2016, we founded the Khalifa Ihler Institute with the objective of building more resilient communities both on-, and off-line.

Having lived through the 2011 terrorist attack on Utøya Island in Norway, I knew how the unexpected, even in what on the surface looked like a peaceful, resilient community, could have a dramatic impact. Through the loss of 77 lives to the terror of Anders Behring Breivik, we learnt the painful lesson of how resilience never could be taken for granted - even at a summer camp in the peaceful Norwegian countryside.

Resilience against terrorism and violent extremism through diversity is not only a matter of developing critical infrastructure and emergency response to avoid single points of failure, it is also about understanding the fundamental roots of violent extremism.

In 2012 I signed up with the Against Violent Extremism (AVE) network and began my journey of working with former extremists. My goal was to better understand what had driven Breivik to attack us, so that we could learn and prevent others from having to go through the kind of trauma we had experienced the year before, and that Norway might never fully recover from.

As I was learning about the various ideological aspects of it all, one thing became apparent to me: ideology itself was rarely the root cause of extremism... What stood out however was a clear pattern in the belief system of all violent extremists: violent extremism is the violent denial of diversity.

Travelling the globe, I met with former extremists of every creed. I met with scholars, experts and practitioners. As I was learning about the various ideological aspects of it all, one thing became apparent to me: ideology itself was rarely the root cause of extremism.

While the paths into extremism had commonalities, they were also typically unique to the individual. What stood out however was a clear pattern in the belief system of all violent extremists: violent extremism is the violent denial of diversity.

Whether Islamists or far-right extremists, the unifying factor among all extremist belief systems was the fact that they desired conformity and would enforce it through violence against those who differed from them or those supporting such diversity. Breivik wanted to attack us not only because we were different from him, but because we stood for and promoted the idea of diverse, inclusive communities in Norway.

While we tend to be blinded by ideology, the real issue we’re trying to resolve is therefore not only one that is applicable to counter-extremism, but that also applies to how our communities in general need to become better at embracing and celebrating the diversity that is inherent to them, understanding that it doesn’t pose a threat but rather an opportunity for growth. By increasing the appreciation for diversity, the strength it gives our communities and the value it adds to our lives, we build resilience against terror, radicalisation and violent extremism.

This is the model we at the Khalifa Ihler Institute build on as we try to build resilience across the globe through research, advocacy and action in partnership with municipalities, private sector companies and international organisations. Unfortunately, our own data shows that we still have a long way to go. Over the past year we have noted a marked increase in attacks on communities that represent diversity. This is documented and illustrated by our Hate Map, a public resource which records incidents of violent denial of diversity rooted in white supremacy.

Unfortunately, several attacks, including in Christchurch, in the US, Germany, and again in Norway, follow a pattern that is far too recognisable to me as someone who lived through the Breivik attack 10 years ago. These attacks may be increasing in frequency, but so are l hate crimes, protests, and attacks on protestors promoting diversity.The same is true of the irresponsible spread of hatred and misinformation through conventional politics and media, leading to events such as the storming of the US Capitol on 6 January this year.

"By increasing the appreciation for diversity, the strength it gives our communities and the value it adds to our lives, we build resilience against terror, radicalisation and violent extremism."

These events, while often presented without context, nevertheless form part of a larger, transnational pattern constituting what can only be described as international terrorism. Fortunately the world has become more alert to this over the past decade and global actors are now picking up the pace in pushing back against those who seek to harm and radicalise others. Efforts such as the Christchurch Call to Action in which countries, international organisations and the private sector came together to push back against extremism are a great example of what can be achieved. Some of these efforts are even led by the private sector and the tech sector such as through the Global Internet Forum to Counter Terrorism (GIFCT), for which I have the honour of chairing the Independent Advisory Committee.

In order to truly be successful in our mission to fight terrorism and violent extremism, however, we need to step it up. The challenges we try to tackle all have local roots in communities and municipalities around the globe. We need collaborative networks such as the Strong Cities Network, not only to learn from each other, develop strategies and evolve, but also to build inherent resilience in the process.

By growing a network of cities, we have the foundations for an approach to P/CVE in which communities and all who engage in them, from civil society organisations, to businesses, to government, become central stakeholders and acknowledge the role they all have to play in this work. By embracing this diversity of actors we can build structures with greater reach and without any single points of failure, where we can ensure the prolonged efforts and sustained impact of this work and build together towards a safer future for all.

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