News | Politics of Memory / Antifascism - Racism / Neonazism - Europe Utøya: Ten Years Later

A decade after the far-right terrorist attack, have we made progress in the fight against extremism?


Bjørn Ihler survived the 2011 terror attack and went on to co-found the Khalifa Ihler Institute, a global peace-building organization dedicated to building and empowering thriving and inclusive communities. Photo: Khalifa Ihler Institute

Ten years ago, on 22 July 2011, 77 people fell victim to the violent attack perpetrated by a far-right extremist in Norway. Today, the bombing in Oslo’s government quarter that claimed eight lives, and the massacre of 69 members of the Workers’ Youth League on the holiday island of Utøya two hours later, serves as a positive point of reference, whether direct or indirect, for a number of far-right imitators and admirers executing their own terrorist attacks.

The driving force behind this monstrous crime was the ideology of white supremacy, which sees itself as engaged in a defensive struggle against the spectres of “cultural Marxism”, Islam, and “foreign infiltration”. Friedrich Burschel, a researcher on neo-Nazism and structures and ideologies of inequality for the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, spoke with survivor Bjørn Ihler about the attack itself, what has happened in the field of right-wing terrorism since then, and what society can do about it.   

FB: Looking back ten years later, what do the 22 July Oslo and Utøya terrorist attacks mean to you as a survivor?

BI: It’s imperative that we commemorate the terrorist attacks of 2011 now, not because they occurred precisely a decade ago, but because we cannot afford to forget them: we have to learn from them if we are to succeed in making sure history does not keep repeating itself over and over again. People say “never again”, and then move on.

Bjørn Ihler is the executive director and co-founder of the Khalifa Ihler Institute. He is an internationally renowned expert in countering and preventing radicalization and violent extremism by designing healthier communities on- and offline.

For me, this anniversary is significant not only because of the pain, suffering, and lives lost on 22 July 2011, but because we failed to follow through on our promise of “never again”. We have failed to educate future generations about what happened there. We haven’t reached any collective understanding of how this kind of hatred could take root in an individual—Anders Behring Breivik—causing him to commit such a horrendous act of terrorism. Moreover, we have failed to take action to ensure that something like this will never happen again.

In fact, it already has happened again: in 2019, mere kilometres from where Breivik once lived, a man killed his adopted Asian stepsister, before attempting a shooting spree at the local mosque. We failed in Christchurch, in Halle, in El Paso and in so many other places where shootings took place. We have to remember this, we have to recommit ourselves to the cause, reassess our approach, and continue in the struggle against the global far right—in memory of that day, to honour its victims and survivors.

Everybody knows the perpetrator’s name, yet—outside the inner circle of those directly affected by it and their families, relatives and friends—hardly anyone knows a single victim’s name. Are our rituals for commemorating the victims of white supremacist terror insufficient? Even the judicial trials focus on the assassins.

When it comes to memorializing the event, we have clearly failed. Even building a national memorial site near Utøya, Norway has been a messy political process that has dragged on for the last decade—the project still hasn’t broken ground. In the past few years, teachers have reported that their students barely know about the attack at all. This is quite disconcerting, not only because it reveals a lack of respect for the victims, but also because different kinds of memorials are a source of public knowledge and an educational resource, which serve as a starting point for ensuring that history does not repeat itself. When a man murdered his Asian adopted sister before unsuccessfully attempting an attack on a mosque outside Oslo in 2019, it became evident that we had also fallen short in this regard. We consistently fail to memorialize the victims of these attacks, and in doing so miss an opportunity to contextualize and understand what’s at the root of the attacks, since the perpetrators—from an ideological perspective—often do not deviate far from the political mainstream, which we have seen consistently drift to the right.

Did the massacre change anything? Have we developed new ways of handling such atrocities? Were any new security infrastructures put in place to combat this kind of terrorism, be it fascist, neo-Nazi, white supremacist, or whatever you want to call it? Has the social discourse changed?

2011 could have served as an eye-opener, but many took consolation in the belief that it was a “lone wolf” attack. There was a strong popular belief that it was one individual man, who could no longer do any harm. He was not viewed within the context of international extremism.

After the trial, we saw Norway quickly shift its focus back to viewing Islamist terrorism as the “real” threat. This was coloured by the ISIS attacks in Europe, but it naturally also fed into a certain discourse about the migration crisis—namely, the misgiving that migrants were cooperating with the very terrorists from which they had fled—thus further advancing the established narratives of the far right. This also meant that few steps were taken to address terrorism as an inherently domestic issue in Norway, on a local level. As a result, Norway remained a breeding ground for both far-right and Islamist terrorism and the country became a net exporter of terrorists (who joined ISIS, the Azov Battalion, and other groups).

Due to these shifts and the failure to self-reflect, much of the political and social discourse in Norway moved further to the right, as did other parties across Europe. In the last decade, policy has been informed by Islamophobia and the fear of immigration—the “great replacement” conspiracy promoted by Breivik and others.

What role does the internet play in escalating right-wing terrorism?

The internet is a tool for connecting—also for the far right. It is a source of inspiration and an “educational” resource and, as such, an instrument for the far right just as it is for many others.

The “problem” of the internet is not necessarily the internet itself, but the ways in which it inherently, and by design, exaggerates and preys upon some of the worst aspects of human behaviour. In the battle for our attention (primarily in order to sell stuff through ads), social media platforms are designed to be addictive, to keep us active and engaged. They thus rarely feed us information from outside our own “bubbles”. This leads to a host of issues, because as a result we are exposed to less diverse worldviews and information sources.

This strengthens belief systems—including conspiracy theories and far-right ideologies—because it leaves them unchallenged. But it also gives individuals the false impression that “everyone” believes, feels, and knows the same things—something we see repeated by extremists everywhere. In a further effort to grab our attention, the platforms help amplify divisive posts, since shared content that people “react” to is often suggested to more users, creating a snowball effect. As humans we naturally respond to things that we find cross the lines of decency, so this mechanism employed by certain online platforms leads to something that can be described as “outrage culture” where outrageous, divisive content spreads as the norm, creating a toxic environment.

Furthermore, the internet allows us to be extremely selective about who we interact with: humans are hardwired to feel comfortable with conformity, with people who look and think like them. The internet has made this form of self-isolation possible (and even encouraged it during the COVID-19 pandemic), deepening the isolation even further. This also leads to some users finding their “community” in online subcultures, such as the chan-forums (8chan/4chan, etc.), where hate disguised as “irony” is the norm. But here users also gain credibility by being divisive, both in their offline behaviour and posts on the forums, where toxic masculinity and indeed even mass shooters and terrorists like Breivik are celebrated as heroes for their actions.

Flowers and letters of condolences at Utøya, the site of the attack, in 2011. CC BY-SA 3.0, Photo: Paal Sørensen

Most of the perpetrators such as the Norwegian terrorist are treated as “lone wolves” or “loners”. Some people disagree with this view—especially with an eye to the internet. What’s your take?

The term “lone wolf” is antiquated and harmful, because the individuals who it is used to describe are neither “lone” nor “wolves”—they are terrorists.

A key focus of my work has been to show the interconnected nature of the global far right. While individuals may act “alone”, they do so with the support of thousands in these existing networks. That they are primarily online and to a certain extent are spread out all over the globe does not in any way change the fact that it is thousands of human beings—made of flesh and blood—who support, admire and magnify acts of terrorism, and who also plan, prepare and execute them themselves.

They are in fact international terrorist organizations. Calling these perpetrators “lone wolves” makes it impossible for us, for security forces, and society to view them as what they are: terrorists. This has ramifications in the judicial system, where acts of “domestic terrorism” are often sentenced differently than “international terrorism” and consistently yield lighter sentences. It also means that there are fewer intelligence efforts to combat white supremacist/fascist far-right terrorist acts. Not to mention: the wolf is an animal far cooler than anything these terrorists deserve to be compared to.

We can that these killers are part of an international dialogue: the Norwegian perpetrator wrote a letter to one of the individuals accused in the Munich NSU trial, the man who killed nine people in the Olympia shopping mall in Munich in 2016 openly admired the Norwegian terrorist, and the anti-Semitic attacker in Halle modelled himself after the Christchurch killer and, like him, filmed his act with a helmet camera. Meanwhile, a group of German white supremacists who planned attacks on Muslim prayer rooms in order to foment a civil war had parts of the Halle perpetrator’s helmet footage saved to their motherboard.

What do these bigots have in common, what leads them to believe that their time has come and that society might thank them for their “struggle”?

The terrorists all build on one another’s acts and amplify them. Within certain communities they are regarded as heroes. Most of these terrorists are individuals who struggled to feel valued outside of environments like these. Seeking recognition within these communities thus becomes a central element in the decision to take up arms.

Within these groups, the terrorists are viewed as “knights”, “warriors”, and sometimes as “martyrs” in their vision of a coming war. There are different varieties of this, building on both the crusader narrative adopted by Breivik, and on the incendiary narratives calling for a “new civil war” that are promulgated above all by those with close ties to the US far right.

Central to some of this is the “Eurabia” conspiracy theory that claims Muslims want to take over Europe and establish Islamist rule here. Other varieties of it include the “great replacement” theory which claims that non-white people constitute an existential threat to white people all over the world. It is in line with classic white supremacist trains of thought about preserving the “white race”.

These connections and similarities are the reason why I often refer to all of these acts of violence as “white supremacist far-right terrorism”. Because, whether it’s outspokenly rooted in white supremacy, or in more vague ideas about “white culture”—such as the idea of “saving Europe from Islam”—it all builds on centuries of racial discrimination and Eurocentric/white-centric hatred and the fear of being knocked off their throne as “rulers of the world”. It dates back to the extremely damaging colonial and imperial eras, when Europeans enslaved the rest of the world for the sake of their own capital gain.

In his manifesto the Halle perpetrator wrote that the low birth rates in white societies are a result of women’s emancipation and feminism, and that foreigners are thus being brought in to replace the shrinking white populations—a plan devised by “the Jew”. What role does misogyny play in this white supremacist ideology?

Misogyny plays a central role in all forms of extremism characterized by a violent rejection of diversity, since women are (rightly) seen as being key to reproduction. This also reflects Nazi ideology from the Third Reich, where women’s role was primarily to produce and care for children.

It is seen as a moral obligation to preserve the race, especially by those who believe in various versions of “the great replacement” theory, which, as we saw with the Halle perpetrator and others, also often involves anti-Semitic elements. Incels (“involuntary celibates”)—while usually focused more on their own sexual frustration than any ideas of racial purity (granted the two certainly can be intermixed)—often also believe that women should be regarded as “property” and be denied control over their bodies and the right to reproductive choice. Furthermore, they believe in the “traditional role of women”: essentially as caretakers/servants to men, the male being understood as the dominant gender.

This also leads to a supremacist philosophy, but one of gender: male supremacy seeks to exclude women, gender and sexual minorities, and feminists, who are often viewed as the primary enemy. While not exactly the same thing, incels/male supremacy and white supremacy overlap and are far from mutually exclusive, as we have seen in several cases where white supremacists also expressed views aligned with those of incels.

Your Khalifa Ihler Institute also maps global white supremacist terrorism. What drives the project?

The Khalifa Ihler Institute is a small organization working to build healthier, more peaceful communities. We believe that diversity strengthens communities. Equality—both before the law and in the allocation of human rights—is a central component here. To work towards this the Khalifa Ihler Institute combats white supremacist and far-right extremist violence and terrorism, both by building safeguards and supporting communities by taking preventative measures against radicalization, as well as by mapping and monitoring the activities of the global far right.

We seek to accurately demonstrate the actual level of violence perpetrated by, as well as the threat posed by, the far right, and to further reveal the international network and the connections that support these terrorist acts. We hope it will be useful to policymakers, legislators, and others who need to understand the wider context of the far-right, in order to accurately assess the scope and global nature of the problem.

What can civil society do to counter the spread of inhumane and murderous ideology and acts committed in its name? How can we fight the fascist and racist attitudes and groups across Europe and in the rest of the world?

If we’ve learned anything in the last couple of years, it’s that inoculation is the only way to fight a pandemic. We have to fight racism and fascism at the systemic level and flush it out of the structures that govern our societies. But we also have to build social structures that are inherently anti-racist and anti-fascist—from the ground up.

We will achieve this not only by preaching about “tolerance”, but by building communities where people are encouraged to challenge intolerance and hatred. Communities where people are self-confident enough not to not feel threatened by others’ identities, and where diversity is viewed not as an “add-on” but an inherent value that enriches the community and allows us to expand our visions, be inspired, think differently and grow. To achieves this we have to reach all members of society. I’ve been working a lot with schools, but am excited to also get to meet with municipal workers, social organizers, and others who have enough reach and credibility in their communities to devise strategies to promote these values.

From a political perspective, we’ve seen the centre-left shift to the right for fear of losing votes, drawing on the centre right’s populist, racist, and anti-immigrant agendas for inspiration instead of presenting a viable alternative. For the past decade, this has been a persistent problem for the left. We should have a clear idea of our alternatives as we push to build healthy, peaceful, and diverse communities founded on equality, liberty, and plurality for all in the decade to come.

The global shift to illiberal forms of “democracy”, to right-wing populist and authoritarian forms of government, began to accelerate around the time of the massacre in Norway. Since then, we have seen outrageous forms of right-wing regression. What’s going on here? Is it the beginning of a new fascist century?

I think right now we are dealing with various phenomena. It’s not too late to steer the twenty-first century away from fascism.

The global rise of the far right in the 2010s was the result of something I’ve referred to as the perfect storm: the decade began, thanks to the financial crisis, with a wave of disenfranchisement, in particular among the white middle class in the West. It was amplified by the rise of social media which opened the door to a new form of self-spreading propaganda warfare, fought by populist leaders. The vacuums created by the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East, and the subsequent civil wars, also opened up a space for ISIS to grow, and gave migrants a reason to take the perilous journey across the ocean, in order to have a chance at rebuilding their lives in Europe, at peace.

After waging a prolonged “war on terror”, nativist and anti-Muslim sentiments were already strong; they grew even stronger in response to this perfect storm. It cast doubt on the project of globalization and international collaboration that the European Union, among others, represents. We thus also saw the rise of Euroscepticism and countries seeking to abandon their international commitments, such as Turkey and the US.

When faced with a sense of uncertainty, many people seem to have a natural inclination towards fascism and authoritarianism, due to their need for security. It’s an alluring trap set by “leaders” who seek to prey on people’s uncertainty; the discourse thus shifts and more and more leeway is allotted to authoritarians, even in democracies. These leaders fuel their campaigns with far-right rhetoric aimed at establishing an authoritarian rule rooted in a weak sense of what “democracy” truly means—essentially understanding it as “the rule of the majority mob”, rather than as a system of checks and balances designed to protect every citizen, including minorities, by holding those in power accountable.

We are now seeing increasing pushback against these authoritarians, as the political landscape shifts. Key elections—in Israel and the US, for example—give us a reason to be cautiously optimistic. People have had enough, and social movements, including the fight for the rights of Black Americans, women’s rights, and LGBTQI+ rights are once again gaining steam in response to repression. I hope we can seize this momentum and present a viable leftist alternative political philosophy, rather than watch the parliamentarian left follow down the path of the authoritarian right, as they have done for too long.