It seemed obvious: An attack on a Western target in the wake of the constant pressure that the US and NATO forces have been applying to Al Qaeda. The group and its various offshoots have had a rough couple of months. They suffered the killing of bin Laden; the killing of Ilyas Kashmiri, Al Qaeda’s military boss in Central Asia; the attempts on the life of the leader of the Afghan Taliban, Mullah Omar; and the constant use of predator drones for targeted attacks on leaders wherever Al Qaeda is training and recruiting, notably Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen. Then today, as if in response, there were two consecutive attacks in Norway, an explosion that caused major damage to government buildings and shootings at a youth camp run by the Labor Party where top government officials were apparently scheduled to speak.
Al Qaeda did not claim credit for the chaos — as of late Friday afternoon, a group calling itself “Helpers of the Global Jihad” had made, then revoked, a statement claiming responsibility — but the twin attacks seemed to bear the group’s signature. The bombing of public buildings resembles similar assaults of embassies and hotels around the world, while the shooting rampage looked like it was straight out of the playbook of Anwar al Awlaki, an American-born cleric who has become the new face of Al Qaeda in Yemen, and has urged his followers to use guns against Western targets.
Given all the evidence — and the chatter on Islamist message boards — one would expect that the source of today’s attacks were clear. But as of 5:30 Friday evening, the only suspect arrested was a Norwegian citizen, and his ties with Islamist militants, if they existed at all, were unclear. More than one western expert had warned that it was a message from Ayman Al-Zawahiri, bin Laden’s longtime number two and the new head of Al Qaeda.
And it wasn’t just Westerners who blamed the most available bogeyman.
Ayman Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s longtime lieutenant and now the titular head of al Qaeda, has been calling for an attack against Norwegians since 2003. The Norwegian army reportedly continues to provide special forces in and around Kabul and in 2006 the Norwegian press published Danish cartoons that ridiculed Islam and the prophet Mohammed, eliciting angry protests from Muslims around the globe. (Unlike the Danish government, however, the Norwegian government issued an apology.) And last week, Mullah Krekar, an Iraqi refugee in Norway who founded the Islamist group Ansar al Islam (predecessor of Al Qaeda in Iraq), was indicted in Oslo for making threats against Norwegian politicians.
As Abu Suleiman al-Nasser, a military leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq who has repeatedly threatened attacks against Scandinavian countries, bluntly explained on a jihadist message board earlier today: “Norway was targeted in order to become a lesson and example for the rest of the countries of Europe.” Al-Nasser demanded that European countries withdraw from Afghanistan. “Answer the demands of the Mujahideen,” he said, “as what you see is only the beginning and what’s coming is more.’”
Karen Greenberg is the director of NYU’s Center on Law and Security