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Robert Lambert
Robert Lambert
Robert Lambert is the author of Countering al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership.
Nationalists pose bigger threat than al-Qaeda
Contrary to popular belief, most terrorist attacks in Europe are the work of extremist nationalists.
Last Modified: 24 Jul 2011 11:42

Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh chose to attack a federal government building for reasons that will make sense only to many violent nationalists, such as Anders Behring Breivik [GALLO/GETTY]

With the death toll nearing 100, Anders Behring Breivik has been arrested and charged with Norway's worst act of terrorism. His lawyer has indicated that Breivik had planned the attack for some time and would explain in court on Monday why he thought his act of terrorism was necessary.

After a predictable and revealing knee-jerk response by security experts interpreting the massacre at a Labour Party summer camp on Utoya island and a car bomb attack on a government building in Oslo as the work of Muslims inspired or directed by al-Qaeda, it transpires that the real culprit in the case was more likely to be motivated by anti-Muslim sentiment. 

Significantly, early reports reveal Breivik's admiration for bigoted groups such as the English Defence League and Stop the Islamification of Europe, which campaign against Muslims and the building of mosques. Similarly, Geert Wilders' Freedom Party in Holland appears to win Breivik's approval because it seeks to protect Western culture from a growing threat of so-called "Islamification". 

While we must await the outcome of police investigations and court proceedings before reaching any firm conclusions about Breivik's motivation, it will nevertheless be instructive to begin an analysis of a violent extremist nationalist milieu in Europe and the US, and its dramatic shift towards anti-Muslim and Islamophobic thought since 9/11. To be sure, this will certainly be more relevant than an analysis of al-Qaeda terrorism.

At the outset, however, Breivik may have to explain to outsiders why he did not choose to bomb a mosque instead. Surely, for the violent nationalist confluence he represents, that would have been a direct hit on the enemy. Instead, by choosing to attack a government building and a Labour Party summer school, Breivik is drawing attention to what many fringe nationalists see as the political failure of mainstream and left-wing politicians to confront the Muslim threat. So-called appeasers of the "Islamification of Europe" have become as hated as Muslim activists and therefore face the same kind of attacks. 

Terrorism is propaganda, not just violence

In addition, Breivik can claim to have followed a long tradition of terrorism target selection that is intended to send a strong message to politicians in an attempt to persuade them to change policy. As leading terrorism scholar Alex Schmid reminds us, terrorism is a form of communication that "cannot be understood only in terms of violence". Rather, he suggests, "it has to be understood primarily in terms of propaganda" in order to penetrate the terrorist's strategic purpose. 

Breivik appears to understand Schmid's analysis that terrorism is a combination of violence and propaganda. "By using violence against one victim," a terrorist "seeks to coerce and persuade others", Schmid explains. "The immediate victim is merely instrumental, the skin on a drum beaten to achieve a calculated impact on a wider audience." This is certainly the kind of rationalisation that perpetrators of political violence have adopted in many contexts in pursuit of diverse political causes for decades. 

Many extremist nationalists in Norway, the rest of Europe, and North America will be appalled by Breivik's resort to terrorism and in particular his target selection. However, Breivik is likely to argue that he has sent a powerful and coercive message to all politicians in the West that will help put the campaign against the "Islamification of Europe" at the top of their agenda.  

Crucial, therefore, for Breivik that he should explain his purpose as publicly as possible so that it is not misunderstood or misinterpreted. He is therefore very likely to want the widest possible audience to know why he has chosen to adopt the established tactic of terrorism so as to win an opportunity to deliver a political message. His innocent victims, he might think, are necessary collateral damage in a war that has to be won. 

Breivik may hope that others will take inspiration from his act and seek to emulate him. Terrorism may be repulsive to many who share Breivik's bigoted anti-Muslim views, but it is a tactic that only requires a small number of adherents to achieve its purpose, whatever the cause. So if even only a handful follow his route, Breivik will count that as a success. 

Whether he was acting alone or in concert with others, Breivik stands apart from a significant number of other violent nationalists in the West who share his hostility towards Muslims - but whose plans to commit acts of terrorism have so far failed to reach such deadly fruition. Breivik, by contrast, has demonstrated the skills that are necessary to plan and execute acts of terrorism of any kind, especially crucial when bombs and firearms are involved.

Nationalist terror plots in the UK

In the UK, for example, there have been important convictions in recent years of violent nationalists before they have been able to carry out terrorist attacks.

Robert Cottage, a former British National Party candidate, was jailed in July 2007 for possessing explosive chemicals in his home. The cache was "described by police at the time of his arrest as the largest amount of chemical explosive of its type ever found in this country".

Martyn Gilleard, a Nazi sympathiser, was jailed in June 2008 after police found nail bombs, bullets, swords, axes and knives in his apartment, as well as a note in which he had written: "I am so sick and tired of hearing nationalists talk of killing Muslims, of blowing up mosques, of fighting back ... the time has come to stop the talk and start to act."

Then there is Nathan Worrell, a "neo-Nazi described by police as a 'dangerous individual', who hoarded bomb-making materials in his home, and was found guilty in December 2008 of possessing material for terrorist purposes and for racially aggravated harassment".

And one Neil MacGregor pleaded guilty to "threatening to blow up Glasgow Central Mosque and behead a Muslim every week until every mosque in Scotland was closed".

As Mehdi Hasan, editor of the New Statesman, has pointed out, figures compiled by Europol, the European police agency, suggest that the threat of Islamist terrorism is minimal compared with "ethno-nationalist" and "separatist" terrorism. According to Europol, in 2006, one out of 498 documented terrorist attacks across Europe could be classed as "Islamist"; in 2007, the figure rose to just four out of 583 - less than one per cent of the total. By contrast, 517 attacks across the continent were claimed by - or attributed to - nationalist or separatist terrorist groups, such as ETA in Spain.

More recently, on January 15, 2010, Terence Gavan, a former soldier and British National Party member, was convicted of manufacturing nail bombs and a staggering array of explosives, firearms and weapons. It was, Mr Justice Calvert-Smith said, the largest find of its kind in the UK in modern history. The fact that David Copeland used nail bombs to deadly effect in London in 1999 makes this an especially disturbing case. Gavan had previously pleaded guilty to 22 charges at Woolwich Crown Court:

"Police discovered 12 firearms and 54 improvised explosive devices, which included nail bombs and a booby-trapped cigarette packet, at the home Gavan shared with his mother. He told detectives he had 'a fascination with things that go bang', the Old Bailey heard. After the case, head of the North East Counter Terrorism Unit David Buxton said Gavan posed a significant risk to public safety. 'Gavan was an extremely dangerous and unpredictable individual,' he said. 'The sheer volume of home-made firearms and grenades found in his bedroom exposed his obsession with weapons and explosives ... Gavan used his extensive knowledge to manufacture and accumulate devices capable of causing significant injury or harm."

Unlike Lewington, Gavan is reported as having specifically Muslim targets in mind. In particular, he is reported to have planned to "target an address he had seen on a television programme that he believed was linked to the July 7 bomb attacks in London". In one hand-written note he explained: "The patriot must always be ready to defend his country against enemies and their governments." Again, like Lewington, he would have posed a threat to Muslim communities throughout the UK, especially those areas such as Bradford and East London most popularly associated with large Muslim populations. 

Finally, it is only necessary to recall the circumstances of the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 to be reminded of extremist nationalists' bomb-making capacity and target selection. Timothy McVeigh was able to utilise skills and contacts he acquired in his US military service to build and detonate a bomb that killed 168 victims, injured 680 others, destroyed or damaged 324 buildings within a sixteen-block radius, destroyed or burned 86 cars, shattered glass in an additional 258 nearby buildings, and caused at least $652m worth of damage.

With minimal help, McVeigh was able to inflict more harm and damage with one bomb than four suicide bombers in London operating under an al-Qaeda flag in London ten years later.

Significantly, McVeigh attacked a federal government building for reasons that will make perfect sense to a number of violent extremist nationalists - most especially Anders Behring Breivik.

Dr Robert Lambert is Co-Director of the European Muslim Research Centre at the University of Exeter and Lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. He is co-author of Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: UK Case Studies and author of Countering al-Qaeda in London, which will be published by Hurst in September 2011.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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