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Lessons of Norway Attacks

July 23, 2011 |
Perhaps the starkest lesson from the Norway attack is that, based on early reports, more people seem to have been killed by firearms than by explosives.
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Terror came home to Norway on Friday. A bomb was detonated near the prime minister's office in Oslo and a gunman attacked a political youth camp on the island of Utoya. In the end, at least 87 people were killed, a nation was traumatized, and the world was again riveted by a terrorist attack experienced indirectly, but in real time, on television news reports and in 140 character bits via Twitter.

Initial speculation that al Qaeda might have been involved was unsubstantiated, premature, and has since been disproved.The only person thus far implicated in the attack was a Norwegian citizen who may have been associated with right-wing political activists, but it is not clear whether he was working alone or why he conducted such a merciless assault.

In the immediate wake of an attack like the one that rocked Norway Friday, we often search for reasons. How could someone kill innocent children? Why would someone set off a bomb that would inevitably maim bystanders? In lieu of better information about why the perpetrators of the Norway attack did what they did, it is important to think about how they did what they did. Because the terrible reality is that there are dark-hearted people with many different political agendas willing to use violence against innocents to achieve their ends.

Perhaps the starkest lesson from the Norway attack is that, based on early reports, more people seem to have been killed by firearms than by explosives. In this way, the Norway attack reflects a larger trend in terrorism, exemplified most terribly by the November 26, 2008, terrorist attack in Mumbai, in which 10 gunmen collaborated to kill more than 160 people.

Terrorists kill for two basic reasons: They want to disrupt and destroy institutions or symbols of a political order they despise and they want to intimidate people not touched by the attack directly. For years, bombs have been the most useful tool to achieve both goals: They were the best way to kill a large number of people and get a lot of media attention. But that may be changing. The increasing availability of automatic weapons makes mass killing easier, even by a single individual. And the speed and pervasiveness of media coverage means that the community of people watching any sort of violent attack is massive, whether terrorists use bombs or firearms.

The perpetrators of the Norway attack successfully built and detonated an explosive in downtown Oslo, but one lesson from would-be al Qaeda terrorists is that building explosives is harder than it might seem. Whether the example is Faisal Shahzad's botched attempt to detonate a bomb in Times Square on May 1, 2010 or the failed underwear bomber who tried to bring down an airliner over Detroit on Christmas in 2009, it is clear that a terrorist attack using explosives introduces a lot of risk for people without serious training. If terrorists can use firearms to achieve similar levels of destruction without taking on the operational risk of using bombs, we can expect them to do so.

One dangerous outcome of the Norway attack is that terrorists around the globe will be studying it to learn lessons -- and not just people with similar ideological convictions to the perpetrators of Friday's strike. Al Qaeda has been particularly adept at adapting techniques developed by other organizations. We should expect that al Qaeda propagandists will at the very least point to the attack in Norway as an example of the kind of strike an individual or small group could conduct in the future.

It is difficult to identify useful lessons from a tragedy like Friday's horror in Norway, especially in the immediate wake of an attack. But we must, because there are inevitably more attacks to come. One clear lesson is that speculation about the perpetrators of a terrorist attack should be left aside until there is clear evidence of some kind. Another is that firearms are increasingly a weapon of choice for terrorists; reasonable restrictions on the sale and distribution of automatic weapons make sense. We monitor the sale of precursor chemicals for the construction of bombs; we should monitor the most dangerous guns as well.

But perhaps the most important lesson reaffirmed by the terrible events in Norway was provided by Norway's Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, who said after the attack, "You will not destroy us. You will not destroy our democracy and our ideals for a better world." No matter what a terrorist's motives or the weapon they choose, that is always the right answer.