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Press release: Why did we get Oslo and Utøya so wrong?

5 August 2011: Two weeks ago a car bomb in Oslo and a mass shooting in Utøya claimed the lives of 77 people. In the hours after the attack, journalists and experts alike were quick to conclude that an al-Qaeda linked group were most likely responsible. We now know that this speculation was inaccurate: the attacks were the work of a Norwegian, anti-Muslim, far-right extremist, Anders Breivik.

However, what little evidence there was at the time pointed more towards far-right extremism than Islamic terrorism. Considering the tactics and politically-motivated targets, in particular, should have led many more experts to raise this possibility than was apparent in the early media reporting. For their part, journalists and broadcasters should have widened the discussion to have allowed more space for this possibility to have been explored. Why did this not happen?

Open Briefing’s Executive Director, Chris Abbott, has written a short media briefing that explores some of these issues. As the dust settles: Avoiding the mistakes of Oslo and Utøya in future media coverage of suspected terrorist attacks seeks to explain the processes that led to this collective failure, including psychological biases and conformity.

Abbott also proposes a series of questions that journalists and experts might ask themselves in the aftermath of suspected terrorist attacks in future:

    1. Were there any concrete warnings or specific intelligence beforehand of a possible attack?
    2. Has any individual or group claimed responsibility for the attack?
    3. Are the authorities searching for a specific suspect or group and/or do they have someone in detention or killed at the scene?
    4. Who, if anyone, do the targets selected and the tactics used point to?
    5. Are there any national or regional security trends pertinent to the country where the attack occurred that suggest a possible group or motive?

In the immediate absence of any clear suspects from most of these questions, it was question four that pointed Open Briefing towards far-right extremism as a likely motive.

As the dust settles is the first publication from Open Briefing, a new peace and security think tank due for public launch in October. Open Briefing is the world’s first civil society intelligence agency; an accessible platform for insight and analysis on key defence, security and foreign policy issues.

Download press release and notes to editors | Read briefing