For a country that hands out the Nobel Peace Prize and spends more on foreign aid per capita than any other nation, it might seem surprising that Norway would be a target for terrorists.
As of yet there has been no claim of responsibility as to who might have carried out today’s bomb blast, but suspicions will inevitably fall on Islamist militants.
Jihadist networks have long singled out Norway as a legitimate – if low priority – target. As early as 2003 al-Qa’ida’s then number two and now leader Ayman al-Zawahiri specifically called on militants to attack the country in an audiotape condemning the invasion of Iraq. Norway also continues to have a small contingent of troops in northern Afghanistan.
“Norway is part of Nato’s mission in Afghanistan and as far as jihadists are concerned, any country involved in what they see as an illegal occupation of Muslim territory is a legitimate target,” explains James Brandon, an expert on Isalmist militancy at the Quilliam Foundation.
In the worldview of Islamist militants, Norway is a minor member of the international “Jewish-Crusader” alliance spearheading the invasion and subjugation of Muslim lands. But although it was on al-Qa’ida’s hit list it was never viewed as a high priority target.
That gradually began to change in 2005 following the publication of the Danish cartoons picturing the Prophet Mohammed and the widespread protests that they provoked. Militant networks seized on the propaganda coup and began to call for attacks on Scandinavian countries fuelled by the belief that Denmark, Norway and Sweden are one and the same.
When crowds went on the rampage in Damascus following the cartoon controversy it was no coincidence that the Norwegian embassy was burned alongside the Danish one.
After a handful of newspapers reprinted the cartoons, Abu Yahya al-Libbi, one of al-Qa’ida’s most influential Islamic scholars, released a videotape calling for reprisal attacks specifically naming Norway, Denmark and France.
At the epicentre of the controversy, it is the Danes who have had to confront the bulk of militant attacks with police claiming to have foiled numerous bomb and murder plots since 2005.
But Sweden and Norway have also found themselves inextricably drawn into the global Islamist conflict partly because they are regarded as softer targets than high priority countries like Britain, the United States and France.
Last summer Norwegian police arrested an Uzbek, Uighur and a Kurdish Iraqi on terror charges. Prosecutors said the men were linked to East Turkistan Islamic Movement and the Islamic Jihad Union, an Uighur and Uzbek militant group respectively which both have close links to Al Qa’ida central in Pakistan.
In November Sweden’s police raised the country’s terrorist threat level citing a “shift in activities” among jihadi networks inside the country. The following month Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, an Iraqi born Swedish citizen, blew himself up in the centre of Stockholm. Fortunately only one of the six pipe bombs he had strapped to his chest exploded. Al-Abdaly was the only fatality.
But the bombing nonetheless marked the first time a violent Islamist had managed to detonate a device on Scandinavian soil. If jihadis did carry out today’s attack they have passed a new milestone – the first civilians deaths from an Islamist explosion in Scandinavian history.
Houriya Ahmed, a terrorism expert at the henry jackson Society, remarked: “No-one should be surprised if this bombing turns out to be a jihadist attack as Norway has been in the past been threatened by terror networks. What is particularly concerning about this attack is that whoever is responsible has managed to manufacture and successfully detonate a massive bomb. That is something al-Qa’ida linked groups have had difficulty doing in Europe since the July since 7 attacks in London.”