In Norway the trial of Anders Breivik who killed 77 people last summer has begun. Over the last couple of days he has been giving testimony in his defence arguing that he was acting for the good with a ‘preventive attack against state traitors‘ who themselves were guilty of the ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Nordic race enacted through aggressive multiculturalism and mass immigration. It has been hugely discomforting to survivors and families of victims, and Norwegian society more generally. The courts have placed restrictions on reporting of Breivik’s ‘day in the sun’ and there is consternation, as Daniel Bennett observes at the Index on Censorship, of the ethics of journalists propagating his views and political agenda. There is an understandable temptation to declare him insane, which may or may not be the case. That would be tidier for practically everyone, except Breivik; but the law is as it is and due process in Norway, as it should be in all democracies, means that even heinous terrorists get a fair trial. In the Telegraph today Dan Hodges captures the essence of the problem:
But there is something faintly sickening, not validating, about the process unfolding before our eyes. For one thing, I find its sterility demeaning. The cramped, featureless courtroom. Brevik seated casually at the table between his attorneys, looking like a man taking part in a civil custody hearing, rather than someone on trial for 77 murders.
It’s an environment that appears to be framing Breivik, not cowing or reducing him as I’d hoped. There is no banality of evil on display here. Breivik actually appears quite an imposing figure, his physicality if anything enhanced by his calm, softly spoken interventions.
That’s not how this was supposed to be. We were supposed to grow in proximity to him, not the other way around.
He concludes, again quite understandably, that it would have been so much better if ‘they’d just killed him‘. It would be interesting to generalise from that point to the wider ongoing debate over ‘targeted killing’ which we’ve talked about on KoW before, see Adam Stahl’s Pro et Raffaello Pantucci’s Con. But that’s not my main interest today which is, rather, to stick to the case at hand. The Oslo bombing and Utoya shootings on 22 July 2011 really struck me because they occurred at a time when I was just beginning to grapple with the impact of connectivity (the Web, basically, but not just the Web) on domestic security, the prospects of ‘revolution’ particularly in Europe, and the whole phenomenon of ‘super empowerment’ which, it seemed to me, was manifesting before our eyes in a pretty uncongenial way. A few weeks before the attacks I wrote a post here entitled ‘Revolution! Is anyone really up for it?‘ After the attack I hesitated to say what I was thinking. I didn’t want to jump to conclusions before brooding a lot more on the evidence.
I’ve done that now. In particular, I’ve read pretty carefully Breivik’s manifesto. And thought a lot more about digital connectivity, the way in which it is reshaping the public sphere, and how various social movements–small and large, violent and non-violent–are using the power of networks to enhance their capabilities for action, to popularise their agendas, and attempt to animate their chosen constituencies through multimedia communications. This has ended up in various papers to be published, anonymous reviewers agreeing, here and there in the course of time. I’ll let you know. For what it’s worth, though, I thought I might put down a few observations here for discussion/disagreement now.
In my post last summer I linked to this fascinating lecture from the Salt Lake City Ignite conference from a couple of years ago. As far as I know almost nobody watched it. According to You Tube it’s had a grand total of 163 views, half a dozen of which are probably me. You should look at it again. The lecturer, Matthew Reinbold, who enjoins his listeners to ‘make the world what you want it to be’ sounds like a clever guy and he is clearly passionate about the ability of connectivity to empower people to do good. Watch the lecture. It’s short and clear (Ignite‘s motto is ‘Enlighten us but make it quick’ which I love as a principle, probably because I’m so far from attaining it in practice).
But, you see the dark side, yes? That’s pretty much Breivik’s playbook to a tee. Of course his manifesto at 1500+ pages is a lot more specific on his ‘sacred cause’ about which he is colossally prolix and the specifics of the ways and means about which he is meticulous. Nonetheless, it covers the same ground, following the same logic, in practically the same order. Here’s Reinbold (emphasis added by me):
When you organize your tribe and you’ve decided to tackle one of these problems make sure that you have a semi-permeable membrane made out of belief. That belief will tell you what ideas you should accept into your organization and what ideas you should reject. But ultimately it starts with you. You have to care. You can’t just idly sit back and decide that somebody else is going to solve your problems, that somebody else is going to come save you, that somebody else is going to be the champion that you’ve been waiting for; it is all up to you. The alternative is sitting in darkness, stumbling around victimized by boom and bust cycles. It’s imperative that you take action. You decide the problems that you want to solve, you decide the world that you want to make. You can keep calm and just hope that things get better or you can make the effort to get excited and make the world that you want. Find your tribe. Decide what you believe. Rally them around you.
Believe me when I say that Breivik goes on and on (and on) about these things in his manifesto. The whole thing is a ‘semi-permeable membrane of belief’, his obsession with ‘tribes’ runs over hundreds of pages (and is a theme he’s picked up again in his testimony where he compares himself to Sitting Bull), the warnings to himself and others against complacency and the need to champion one’s own tribe are too numerous to count, and there can be no doubt whatsoever of his network savviness and perception of his efforts as being part of a much larger ‘war of ideas’ (his words). Here are a few snippets.
I don’t want to belabour the point here which is, simply, that Breivik is following a strategy which is well understood by students of insurgency and social movement theory. The terms they use differ as do the emphases they put on various phases and methods but, in a nutshell, I think Reinbold puts it very well–succinctly and without jargon: 1. find your tribe, 2. decide what you believe, and 3. rally them around you (though arguably you might say that two precedes one). What’s noteworthy about Breivik’s case, objectively, and I’m sorry if this upsets people, is that he is playing the part extremely well. It’s not just the ‘framing’ that the courtroom allows him which so infuriates Dan Hodges, as noted above. Nor is it the seemingly deliberate appropriation of Leftist iconography such as the clenched fist salute, normally symbolic of Left-wing radicalism, which really gets beneath the skin. As the BBC explains:
For psychologist Oliver James, author of Affluenza, the clenched fist has proved such a powerful symbol because it encapsulates connotations of resistance, solidarity, pride and militancy in one simple gesture.
“It’s a way of indicating that you intend to meet malevolent, massive institutional force with force of your own – you are an individual who feels bound with other individuals to fight an oppressive status quo,” James says.
It’s these things combined with two others which are, in my opinion, very discomfiting and worrying for the future. First, while Breivik himself is an extremist (the word seems underpowered to describe someone who coldbloodedly gunned down 69 children and young adults but there it is) but the essential underpinning of his strategic narrative is not. In the past few years, all the major European leaders have made speeches to the effect that multiculturalism is a failed policy–in Angela Merkel’s estimation, as an example, it had failed ‘utterly‘. A 2011 report by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation on Intolerance, Prejudice and Discrimination (pdf) in Europe concluded ‘Europeans are largely united in their rejection of Muslims and Islam’ (see pp. 61-63 for details). In other words, at a rough estimate a good half of Europeans would likely agree with a good half of his rationalisation. A very much smaller fraction would agree with what he did and a vanishingly small fraction are wont to imitate him–though according to the group Hope not Hate the ‘Counter-Jihad‘ movement which inspired Breivik is thriving. Anyway, this too is not new; terrorism experts have observed the same thing in various populations in respect of various causes for decades. Take, for instance, the Palestinian terrorist attack on the 1972 Munich Olympic Games which caused the death of eleven Israeli athletes. Before September 11 there is no better example of the power of terrorism to rocket an insurgent cause onto the international agenda. The attacks were widely decried—even by the PLO which feared that the Palestinian cause had been damaged by the atrocity; yet, they were also hugely successful. As Black September boasted:
In our assessment, and in light of the result, we have made one of the best achievements of Palestinian commando action. A bomb in the White House, a mine in the Vatican, the death of Mao Tse-Tung, an earthquake in Paris could not have echoed through the consciousness of every man in the world like the operation at Munich. The Olympiad arouses the people’s interest and attention more than anything else in the world. The choice of the Olympics, from the purely propagandistic view-point, was 100 percent successful. It was like painting the name of Palestine on a mountain that can be seen from the four corners of the earth (quoted in Bruce Hoffman’s Inside Terrorism).
Second, what’s new-ish is that while the trend of smaller and smaller groups (i.e.,’bunches of guys‘ as Marc Sageman puts it–link is to the famous Foreign Affairs exchange between Hoffman and Sageman, which you’ve probably already read) being able to conduct ever more spectacular attacks is well established, Breivik is just one guy–an extreme example of super empowerment (‘…work solo, be disciplined and keep your mouth shut’, he says at one point). It would be good for everyone if he was crazy; hence, it seems to me, why we see two Guardian articles on him in the same day, one saying he has no coherent ideology and another that his ’ideology may be difficult to listen to, but not because it is incoherent.’ Personally, I tend to the latter view. The manifesto is an absurdly overstuffed hotchpotch of cut and paste but, still, there is a thesis there which is apparent enough (stated and restated over and over). Moreover, the reflective parts of it where he considers what he is planning to do and anticipates some of the challenges do not seem to me that of a maniac. His physical preparation, working out and watching his weight, is the least of it. There is also the meticulous sourcing of components for and preparation of the bomb as well as the purchase and prepositioning of the weapons used on the island. The eeriest part is the psychological preparation: reckoning that systematically murdering dozens of terrified people will be psychologically jarring he admits that he,
… can’t possibly imagine how my state of mind will be during the time of the operation, though. It will be during a steroid cycle and on top of that; during an ephedrine rush, which will increase my aggressiveness, physical performance and mental focus with at least 50-60% but possibly up to 100%. In addition, I will put my iPod on max volume as a tool to suppress fear if needed. I might just put Lux Aeterna by Clint Mansell on repeat as it is an incredibly powerful song. The combination of these factors (when added on top of intense training, simulation, superior armour and weaponry) basically turns you into an extremely focused and deadly force, a one-man-army. At the moment, I do not fear death, but I am very concerned about being afraid on the day of the mission. I’m afraid that the potential fear I might experience during the mission will paralyze me or will result in me “crapping my pants” so to speak. Theoretically, this will not happen, as I have grown to be extremely mentally disciplined and I have undergone numerous hours of training and simulations. Nevertheless, it is impossible to properly simulate a martyrdom operation so I am still somewhat concerned for my mental state during that time.
By ‘simulations’ he seems to be referring to video games such as Call of Duty and Modern Warfare which he plays a lot of as part of his ‘training’ regime. Indeed, a lot of his preparation involves on-line preparation of the attack primarily as what you might an ‘information operation’. He spends more time ‘Facebook farming’ than he does constructing the actual bomb:
I’ve now worked with email farming for two months. God, I wouldn’t have imagined it was going to be this f…… boring:D I’m using Facebook to target various nationalist related groups and inviting every single member. I’ve managed to farm approximately 1700 email addresses this way. I did generic swipes of various blogs and internet sites earlier this year as well. Total number of email addresses is aprox 3000-5000, haven’t made an exact count yet<3
Ofc, it’s a quite tedious task due to the fact that Facebook has a 50 invitations cap per day. Even with my two accounts I’m limited to inviting a maximum of 100 per day, where an average of 40-50% accepts. Of these 40-50% around 90% have email addresses whereas aprox only 50% are checked on a regular basis. So of 1000 Facebook friends I will achieve a penetration rate of around 20-30%. Not optimal but then again, I can’t think of a more efficient way to get in direct touch with nationalists in all European countries.
OK, again, let’s not belabour the point. If Breivik is a nut then he is a calculating, patient, and self-aware one following a well established terrorist strategy quite adroitly, on his own, and demonstrating a fairly cutting edge sense of the propaganda potential of social media. Pretty unusual, no? Well, that’s the thing, isn’t it? Is he one in a million? Ten million? A hundred million? A hundred thousand? Ten thousand? There’s a lot riding on the answer to that question. I don’t know what it is, though my gut feeling is that Breivik is not all that remarkable in his combination of traits. I don’t think the Norwegian government knows, or the UK’s for that matter. That’s pretty bad–particularly as one of the effects of connectivity is that even if the population of Breiviks is very small the Web can help them find each other. What’s worse is that there’s no patent on these techniques. Breivik quite happily drew on diverse sources including Jihadist manuals for the information he required. As he put it:
All the guides [on bomb-making] I reviewed, around 8, had flawed or even dysfunctional methods. I had to locate an entirely different method from YouTube which proved to work excellently.
Thanks YouTube! The bottomline is that you can expect lots more Breiviks. The techniques are more than adequately demonstrated. The means are readily available if you know where to look. It’s the causes which are more nebulous. ‘Counter Jihad’, in my view, is the most likely to metastasise into something larger and more virulent. But all sorts may give it a try: anti-vivisectionists, radical environmentalists, post-crash anti-capitalists, neo-anarchists… One thing which might make Breivik a one-off in Norway is the peculiarity of Norway’s economy which is buoyed up on a still large amount of recoverable oil. Norway is rich and likely to remain so. I suspect money has an important emollient effect. Unfortunately, just about everywhere else in Europe the money is running out fast.