Ten years ago, on July 22, 2011, two violent attacks in Oslo, Norway transformed white nationalism into a global extremist phenomenon. These attacks led to a growing pattern of white supremacist violence, yet by and large transnational governments have failed to recognize this and protect vulnerable and marginalized communities. With the resurgence of “strong-man” populism in the United States, Russia, China, Hungary, Brazil, and Turkey, white supremacy, anti-immigrant rhetoric, and Islamophobia have grown strong followings while more liberal governments across the globe continue to grapple with appropriately addressing the issue, consequently emboldening extremists to imitate their real or perceived leaders. This year, we mourned the deaths of a Muslim family in London, Ontario after a horrific attack motivated by white supremacy. That attack indicates that a decade after the Norway attacks, white nationalist violence continues to be a pervasive global threat. To address this complex, ideologically weaponized, violence, we must first understand how the Oslo attack was a catalyst for future attacks of the same nature and why the lack of a coordinated trans-government response ever since has exacerbated the phenomenon.
In 2011, Anders Breivik was responsible for killing 8 individuals with a car bomb in Oslo and 69 people at a summer camp where he specifically targeted children of liberal Norwegian politicians who had embraced Muslim immigrants. Breivik soon became an icon and role model for an international subculture of white nationalism ranging from those who ‘troll’ online to those motivated to commit violence, political or otherwise. His manifesto defined immigrants, Muslims, Jews, and politicians who embrace multiculturalism as the enemy. This brand of ideological messaging is meant to target a white male population that may blame demographic shifts and pro-immigration legislation for their socio-economic standing.
Despite the pervasive evidence of such ideology in social media and various forums online — including the widespread dissemination of Brevik’s manifesto, white supremacist terrorism has not been deemed as a global threat, nor was it demonized or stigmatized in the mainstream media. Rather, when an act was carried out by a terrorist motivated by white supremacy, the narrative often diluted the aggressor into a “bad apple” or a “lone wolf” rather than an individual motivated by a threatening transnational network.
The rising attacks targeting religious and ethnic minorities over the last ten years indicate a clear trend of copycat violence. The Sweden school attack of 2015, the Charleston Church massacre of 2017, the Finsbury Park attack of 2018, and the Christchurch shooting of 2019, to name a few, can all be linked to the initial attack in Oslo as each terrorist idolized Breivik and his ideology. Each of these attacks are symptoms of the widespread normalization of white supremacist violence online and within political parties and organizations.
Across Europe, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic movements operate within several organizations and parties with platform ideology echoed by Breivik and other white nationalist terrorists. The right-wing populist Progress Party in Norway, for example, strongly opposes the liberal immigration policies which are currently in place (as do the Freedom Party in Austria and the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands). By spewing blatant xenophobic rhetoric, the Populist party has garnered a lot of support, making it the third-largest party in the nation. Outside of Islamophobia within Parliament, organizations such as the People’s Movements against Immigration have been active since the 1980s, and the Stop Islamisation of Norway (SIAN) is associated with two other partner organizations in Germany and England. The Muslim Council in Norway has pleaded for the government to tackle racism concretely, but mosques have thus far had to self-fund security and find it difficult to work with the Norwegian Police Security Service despite awareness of heightened risks to mosques.
Similarly in the United States, the FBI operated under the assumption that “jihadist” ideology was the highest threat to national security by prosecuting, surveilling, and investigating American Muslims while a vast interconnected community of bigoted white extremists grew online. With a variety of web forums on websites such as Gab and 8chan, which preserve anonymity, white nationalists can find a vast intergenerational community that share and discuss manifestos and often glorify and revere former terrorists such as Breivik. One of the most explicit examples of global white supremacist terrorism developed on these web forums was when the Poway Synagogue Shooter became radicalized and eventually broadcasted his attack on 8chan’s /pol/ board. On boards similar to 8chan, individuals can still post and discuss neo-Nazi ideology comfortably, often through the guise of memes, and continue sharing manifestos and praise terrorists publicly without getting shut down.
Despite concern expressed by the Director of National Intelligence stating that extremists, “who promote the superiority of the white race are the DVE [domestic violence extremist] actors with the most persistent and concerning transnational connections because individuals with similar ideological beliefs exist outside of the United States and these RMVEs [racially-motivated violent extremists] frequently communicate with and seek to influence each other,” there have been minimal efforts to truly address global white supremacy, especially in places where it flourishes through online platforms.
Despite this overwhelming evidence of white supremacy as a threat that is global, cases continue to be prosecuted differently. While American Muslims, who have no direct connections to transnational “Islamist” organizations are prosecuted under the international terrorism statute and are stripped of their First Amendment rights, white supremacists, who may have been inspired by terrorist groups across the globe, are not prosecuted under the same statute. To address this, the federal government should establish a singular definition for terrorism and designate all violent extremist groups under that definition, regardless of race, color, or creed.
While standards are shifting globally, with Prime Minister Trudeau of Canada calling the attack this year terrorism, rhetoric is simply not enough. The United States should set the standard for the severity and seriousness of prosecuting white supremacist terrorism and global violence.
Next week on July 22, 2021, on the 10th anniversary of the Norway attack, we will be hosting a panel discussion about the challenges to Foreign Terrorism Policy following this attack and what can be done from here to build equity into terrorism policy globally. Listen in and be a part of this critical conversation!