A powerful bomb explosion rocked the Norwegian capital Oslo, damaging several government buildings and killing at least seven people. Shortly after the bombing, a gunman dressed in police uniform killed nine others at a youth political conference near the capital. Norwegian authorities say the events are related.
There have been conflicting reports on who was behind the attacks. The New York Times reports that Ansar al-Jihad al-Alami, or the Helpers of the Global Jihad, has claimed responsibility, saying it was revenge for Norway’s involvement in Afghanistan and insults to Islam. Several other al Qaeda-linked jihadists have also claimed credit for the attacks. “Norway was targeted today to be a lesson and an example to the other countries of Europe,” wrote Abu Suleiman al Nasser, an al Qaeda-linked terrorist described by the SITE Intelligence Group as a “prominent jihadist.” It is not known yet if al Qaeda’s central leadership was directly involved, but there is a strong likelihood that one of its affiliates was involved.
There are several reasons al Qaeda would target Norway.
Al Qaeda and its affiliates have repeatedly threatened Norway with terrorist attacks because of the country’s involvement in Afghanistan. As a member of NATO, Norway’s Special Forces have helped the U.S.-led fight against the Taliban and al Qaeda for many years. Al Qaeda’s leader Ayman al-Zawahiri twice named Norway as a potential target in 2003 and 2007. Last December, two suicide bombings hit the capital of Sweden, Norway’s eastern neighbor, and one bomber had in a pre-taped video described Sweden’s role in Afghanistan as his motivation for the bombing. Norway is also part of NATO’s air campaign in Libya. On July 1, Libya’s leader Moammar Gaddafi threatened Europe with suicide bombings in retaliation for NATO’s air strikes. But it appears unlikely that today’s events were the handiwork of Gaddafi.
The attack could also be a revenge for the 2005 Danish cartoons of Prophet Muhammad. In 2006, several Norwegian embassies were attacked after the country’s newspapers reprinted the cartoons that angered Muslims around the world and became a propaganda tool for al Qaeda.
Another possibility is the controversial case of Mullah Krekar, the founder of Ansar al Islam, an Iraqi group with al Qaeda ties. Originally from Iraq’s Kurdistan, Krekar was declared a national security threat in Norway in 2005 but still lives in the country. Recently, Norwegian authorities indicted Krekar after he made threats against government officials if he was deported. But it would be difficult for his group to stage an attack of this magnitude without foreign assistance.
There are no known terrorist groups in Norway, but the attackers may be connected to terror networks abroad. Last year, three Norwegians of foreign origin were prosecuted for planning an attack in Oslo. The detentions were coordinated with the arrest of Najibullah Zazi, an Afghan-American who was plotting to bomb New York City’s subways. Al Qaeda’s central leadership in Pakistan was believed to have been behind the plots.
Al Qaeda may have chosen Norway not because it is a high priority target but because the Scandinavian country is an easier target. As I wrote in an earlier piece, al Qaeda’s new leader Zawahiri would attempt high-profile attacks in the U.S. or Europe to consolidate his position within al Qaeda and avenge the group’s recent losses. During his first visit to Afghanistan last Saturday, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said al Qaeda’s defeat was “within reach,” and the group would soon be unable to strike the West. If the Oslo terror attack turns out to be the work of al Qaeda or its affiliates, it should alarm Washington that al Qaeda, despite losing its charismatic leader, is far from defeated and can plot attacks around the world.