25 Jul 2011

Massive intelligence failure costs Oslo dear

As Norway mourns the victims of Anders Behring Breivik’s terror attacks, former defence intelligence official Anthony Tucker-Jones looks at the failings which allowed them to happen.

Norwegian anti-terror police arrive at Utoya island (Getty)

It has been said that following the shocking attacks in Oslo and Utoya Island on 22 July that Norway was ill-prepared for such terrorist atrocities.

This is far from the truth, like its Scandinavian neighbours, Norway has dedicated police and military counter-terrorist forces. These, along with the Norwegian Army, are now on the streets of Oslo thanks to what is probably Norway’s worst intelligence blunder.

Behind closed doors there will be red faces over Norway’s level of preparedness and intelligence to counter domestic security threats. How, they will be asking, did Anders Behring Breivik slip the net and strike at the heart of Oslo with a huge car bomb and then calmly follow it up with the gun attack on Utoya Island?

Norway, indeed most of Scandinavia, has little track record of terrorist attacks. Nonetheless the Norwegians, Danish and Swedish police forces all have counter-terrorism units that date from the mid-1970s, when far-left and far-right terrorist groups waged terror campaigns right across Europe.

Mercifully Scandinavia was spared the antics of the likes of ETA, the IRA, PLO, November 17 and Red Army Faction. Similarly in more recent times they have not proved fertile recruiting grounds for Islamic groups such as al-Qaeda.

What seems particularly worrying is Norway’s apparent lack of cyber-security.

Nonetheless the Nordic states could not remain immune from the threat. The assassination of Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme in 1986 proved a wake up call for Scandinavia: the notorious Red Army Faction – better known as the Baader-Meinhof gang claimed responsibility.

Norway’s Beredskaptroppen – part of the National Police created in 1975 to provide an air, sea and land counter-terrorist group – answers to the Norwegian Minister of Justice.

Backing them up is a military anti-terrorist unit, the FSK Forsvarets Spesialkommando based at Trandum. The Norwegian Intelligence Service (NIS – Etterretningstjenesten) also has a counter-terrorism role. Their actions will now be subject to very close scrutiny.

The Danish State Police Intelligence Service has the Politiets Efterretningstejeneste known as the PE, which is drawn from the State Police Intelligence Service with a counter-terrorist role. The police also have the Aktions Stryken (Action Force) for counter-terrorism duties.

Neighbouring Finland has the Helsinki-based “Bear Force” or Osasto Karhu, which is part of the Helsinki Mobile Police Department. Likewise Sweden has a National Intervention Unit called Ordningspolisens Nationella Insatsstyrkan (ONI) drawn from the Stockholm police. The Beredskapstrop is known to have close ties with these organisations.

Intelligence failure

While the Norwegians will be heartened by the reaction of the international community to this senseless brutality and destruction, behind the scenes in Oslo, General Harald Sunde, Norwegian Chief of Defence, the NIS and the Beredskaptoppen will be facing some very difficult questions.

However you look at it, this clearly is an intelligence failure comparable to 9/11 and 7/7, when terrorist plans came to fruition without being detected.

What seems particularly worrying is Norway’s apparent lack of cyber-security. Breivik’s internet postings should have raised alarm bells – if they did no action was taken. Similarly the ease with which he stocked the precursors for his car bomb is equally worrying.

The National Police, Beredskaptroppen and NIS will now be crawling all over Breivik’s movements in the days preceding his attack, his family and friends, business associates and any recent contacts to see if they missed anything.

Some might argue that this is too little too late. The man was able to plan and execute Norway’s worst atrocity with ease. In the aftermath some Norwegians may feel that heads should roll.

Although defence against such “lone wolf” attacks can never be foolproof, the Norwegian government will have to move quickly to reassure the public that it was not complacent to domestic and international terrorist threats. In the aftermath of Friday’s attacks they will certainly have their work cut out.

Anthony Tucker-Jones is the terrorism and security correspondent for “intersec – The Journal of International Security” and author of The Rise of Militant Islam.