Norway refocuses security, brings post-9/11 decade full circle. By James M. Dorsey


Friday’s bombing and shooting in Norway is likely to expand, if not shift, the focus of counter-terrorism and homeland security.

For the past decade, Al Qaeda, militant Islam and the threat of immigrants functioning as a fifth wheel in Western societies consumed the attention of intelligence agencies, counter-terrorism forces and homeland security.

To be sure, that threat may be substantially diminished but potentially will exist for some time to come.

Nonetheless, it is increasingly likely to be overtaken by more immediate concerns.

Norway focuses attention on the re-emergence of right-wing Western groups against the backdrop of a severe economic crisis involving high unemployment and fiscal austerity and increased hostility towards immigrants.

That hostility feeds on an empathetic environment in which in the wake of the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks a decade ago on New York and Washington prejudice against Islam was tolerated and no longer universally condemned as discriminatory and racist.

Extreme right-wing violence is nothing new in the West, think the Klu Klux Klan in the United States and assorted militant groups in Europe. Yet, for much of post-World War Two history that violence was treated as a law enforcement issue. 9/11 changed all of that; terrorism became an obsession and a category of its own and largely in public perception one that emanated from the Muslim world.

To be fair, if the struggle against militant Islam is one that is not only an issue of law enforcement and counter-terrorism but also of political, social and economic engagement, so is the threat of right-wing extremism. It is one that feeds on existential and perhaps irrational fear, rooted in domestic problems rather than imported by migrants from a different world.

The re-emergence of right-wing extremism offers Western governments and an opportunity to redress the post 9/11 record, return to the lessons learnt by the Holocaust that made racism and discrimination a social taboo and a legal no-go and revisit issues such as racial profiling.

If anything Ander Behring Brevik’s Nordic and Germanic looks with his blonde hair and blue eyes effectively renders racial profiling senseless and counterproductive.

In fact, a review of the decade of the war on terrorism contains important lessons for the future of counter terrorism and homeland security.

To be sure, stepped up homeland security and counter-terrorism measures coupled with an increased international cooperation and an aggressive military campaign against Al Qaeda that culminated in May in the killing of Osama Bin Laden did much to weaken the group and prevent terrorist attacks.

Yet, it was Al Qaeda itself and Middle Eastern and North African society that dealt the group a truly mortal blow.
Al Qaeda’s indiscriminate killing of Muslims in attacks on residential compounds in Saudi Arabia in 2003 and 2004, luxury hotels in Jordan in 2005 and its ruthless, violent campaign in Iraq alienated much of Middle Eastern and North African public opinion and destroyed whatever empathy its anti-American stance may have enjoyed.

The seven month-old Arab revolt against autocratic rule represented a total repudiation of Al Qaeda, cemented its marginalization and virtually destroyed its ability to recruit.

Protesters successfully overthrew the leaders of Egypt and Tunisia peacefully with demands for a more open, pluralistic society rather than a restrictive Islamic one; Libyan rebels forced to take up arms by Libyan leader Colonel Muammar Qaddafi’s use of his armed forces demonstrated the power and advantages of a national rather than a jihadist approach; and demonstrators in Syria and Yemen serve as models of the strength of pacifist resilience and perseverance in the face of brutal government crackdowns.

With other words, the real defeat of extremism is achieved by societies that turn on it. Law enforcement and counter-terrorism have important contributions to make but are unable to solve the problem without societies playing an active role that goes significantly beyond passive acceptance of impingement of privacy and support for stringent security measures.

The Arab revolt and its impact on Al Qaeda and militant Islam has a significant impact on the fight against right-wing extremism and the perceived potential threat emanating from immigrants. Right-wing extremism’s hostility towards immigrants raises the specter of raising inter-communal tensions in Western societies and forces governments to address simmering discontent among immigrants not as a law enforcement problem but as a social problem.

For Europe, this means coming to grips with the fact that they have become immigrant societies that on the one hand have to ensure social cohesion, but also have to allow for the existence of multiple cultural identities and practices.

If disaffected immigrants in whatever numbers sought refuge in Al Qaeda and assorted militant groups, the Arab revolt, Al Qaeda’s decline and Mr. Brevik’s abhorrent violence ironically directed against Norwegians rather than immigrants is likely to refocus their attention on where it should be: on the societies where they live and in many cases were born.

In effect, the rise of Western right-wing extremism and Mr. Brevik has brought the post 9/11 decade full-circle: a renewed political, social and economic focus on the transformation of Europe rather than a narrow struggle against a long diminishing phenomenon.

(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior fellow at the Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])