Norway police criticised for slow response

Oslo's elite Delta Force drove to Utoeya to intercept killer because unit does not own a transport helicopter.

    It took the Delta Force more than 90 minutes to reach the gunman, who had mortally wounded 68 people [Reuters]

    When Anders Behring Breivik launched his assault on the youth campers of Utoeya Island, he expected Norway's special forces to swoop down and stop him any minute.

    But Breivik was given time to kill.

    The officers of Oslo's elite Delta Force drove because police don't own a transport helicopter, then were rescued by a civilian boat when their own broke down as it tried to navigate a one-minute hop to the island.

    It took police more than 90 minutes to reach the gunman, who had mortally wounded 68 people. Breivik dropped his guns and surrendered, having exceeded his wildest murderous expectations.

    As Oslo's police force sounded an increasingly defensive note, international experts said on Tuesday that Norway's government and security forces must learn stark lessons from a massacre made worse by a lackadaisical approach to planning for terror.

    "Children were being slaughtered for an hour and a half and the police should have stopped it much sooner.


    Even taking all the extenuating circumstances into account, it is unforgivable," Mads Andenas, a law professor at the University of Oslo, said.

    He lost a student in the island attack while his 20-year-old niece, also at the camp, survived by hiding in bushes.

    Those extenuating circumstances include the fact that Breivik preceded his one-man assault on the camp with a car bomb in the heart of Oslo's government center.

    Authorities were focused on helping survivors from that blast as the first frantic calls came in from campers hiding from the gunman on Utoya, northwest of Oslo.

    Survivors said they struggled initially to get their panicked pleas heard and understood, because operators on emergency lines were rejecting calls not connected to the bomb.

    When police finally took note that a gunman was shooting teens and 20-somethings on the island retreat, Breivik had already been hunting them down for a half-hour.

    In a final act of bungling, police on Monday revised the island death toll down to 68, after initially miscounting the corpses at 86.

    Breivik's lawyer, Geir Lippestad, said on Tuesday his client was surprised that he was able even to reach the island without being stopped by police, much less be free to kill for 90 minutes or more with his assault rifle and handgun.

    The island's only part-time private security guard was among the first people he killed. When officers did arrive, Breivik immediately fell prone on the ground in surrender.

    'Unworthy criticisms'

    Police spokesman Johan Fredriksen rebuffed journalists' questions on Tuesday about the planning and equipment failures that gave Breivik untold extra minutes to kill. He called the criticisms "unworthy”.

    "We can take a lot, we're professional, but we are also human beings," Fredriksen said.

    International experts said in coming months Norway must take a hard, cold look at a system premised on the assumption that the country didn't face a credible risk of terrorist attack, much less a back-to-back bombing and gun rampage.

    That challenge could be particularly difficult in a country renowned for a culture of inspiring openness that also increases the risk of jaw-dropping security lapses.

    Norway's most infamous crimes before Friday involved the 1994 and 2004 thefts of artworks by its best-known painter, Edvard Munch.

    In the first theft, the robbers left their ladder propped up against an unlocked National Gallery window — and replaced Munch's "The Scream" with a mocking note: "Thanks for the poor security."

    Fernando Reinares, former senior anti-terrorism adviser to the Spanish government, said Norway has just suffered "an astonishing failure in police intelligence”.

    He said Breivik should have been identified by a competent anti-terrorist agency because of his purchases of bomb-making ingredients and specialist weaponry.

    "Norway is behind other Western European countries in adapting internal security structures and procedures to face terrorist challenges," he said.

    "But there was also an amazing failure in police preparedness and reaction, both in terms of human resources and technical capabilities."

    Andrew Silke, director of terrorism studies at the University of East London, called the police response to the island attack "a bit Keystone Kops" because Norway's police were "just not used to dealing with something like this. The system was swamped."

    Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said Norway has just been victimised by the common experience of all countries caught off guard by terror.

    "Their planners suffered a major failure of imagination, to foresee that the adversary could go that far," he said.

    "But this is exactly what every counter-terror policy must do to be effective: to plan and train for worst-case scenarios. Because if you haven't done that before the bomb goes off or the shooting starts, then you're just improvising, and that just increases the dangers."

    No helicopter

    In Norway's case, the Delta Force squad - whose formal Norwegian name of "Beredskapstroppen" means "emergency unit" - is equipped only to travel to crises on Norway's largely two-lane road network.

    It took about a half-hour to cover the roughly 40-kilometre journey.

    Police spokesman Sturla Henriksbo said Norway - a land some 1,750 kilometres long with around 50,000 islands alone - has only one police helicopter, based at an airport north of Oslo. And that helicopter has only four seats: two for the pilots, one for an equipment manager.

    "That helicopter is never assigned for the transportation of anyone, never mind Delta Force," he said.

    Finn Abrahamsen, a former Oslo policeman who directed the force's violent crimes unit, said Norway could have used that helicopter as a rapid-response platform for a police sniper.

    It turns out they couldn't, not on Friday anyway. The police's qualified helicopter pilots were all away on summer holidays.

    Delta Force could have used an army helicopter, but decided it would take too long to scramble one from the nearest base in Rygge, some 60 kilometres to the south. So they drove, then waited for the tiny local police department to scramble its lone boat, a small rigid inflatable craft.

    All the while, shooting and screams could be heard from Utoya Island only 600 metres away.

    Within seconds of scrambling on board, officers found themselves having to bail out the overloaded vessel. Then the engine became waterlogged and died.

    "Too many policeman wanted to go too quickly to the island," explained Kgell Tvenge, commander of the police base in the nearby town of Honefoss where the boat is docked. "But the boat didn't sink. They got a new boat from a tourist," he said.

    Police say within 5 minutes of their reaching the island, Breivik was disarmed and in custody. The killer wrote beforehand that he always planned to surrender as soon as police arrived, so that he could publicise his extreme nationalist and anti-Muslim views in court and inspire copycat attacks elsewhere.

    Andenas, the law professor, said he would have expected Norway's special forces to have trained to reach a nearby popular retreat like Utoya within 15 minutes, not an hour.

    He conceded that many countrymen felt the same but feared saying it out loud because emotions remain so raw.

    "Many people feel this was a very difficult situation, that one should take account of that and not too be too critical of people who certainly tried to do their best," Andenas said.

    "But it was just not good enough. The police action was too little and too slow," he said. "The cold truth is that many children who died out there should not have died." 

    SOURCE: Associated Press


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