Soon after the stupefying pair of terrorist attacks that took place in Norway on 22nd July 2011 – at the time of writing, these had claimed no fewer than 93 lives, with 96 persons injured – the international reactions to the atrocities started pouring in. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen – a former Danish Prime Minister – affirmed that ‘NATO countries stand united in the battle against these acts of violence.’ Carl Bildt, Sweden’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and one of Scandinavia’s most eminent statesmen, echoed the famous post-9/11 Le Monde headline with the empathetic statement ‘We are all Norwegians.’ And William Hague, the Foreign Secretary of the United Kingdom, went yet further in referencing Tony Blair, his country’s Prime Minister for a decade from 1997: the UK, he stated, stood ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with Norway.
Yet these statements all seemed to have been scripted on the basis of one crucial assumption: that the attacks had been carried out not by a ‘right-wing’ terrorist in the mould of Anders Behring Breivik, but by an Islamist extremist group such as Al-Qaeda or one of its affiliates. And perhaps this is understandable insofar as it fits in with much contemporary cultural programming, part of which is shaped by popular knowledge of previous terrorist atrocities during the last decade in locations as diverse as Madrid, Istanbul and Bali.
But is this presumption actually justified by the facts? If one takes a broader perspective of the phenomenon of radical Islamist terrorism and terrorism more generally, the answer may be more complex than it first appears. For virtually all intents and purposes, Islamist (or to be more accurate, Salafist) terrorism was all but unknown outside of the Muslim world until Q3 2001. It then assumed an instant, gargantuan profile courtesy of the September 11th, 2001 attacks; a series of other comparatively smaller but still highly significant incidents followed.
However, since 2005 – the year of the 7th July London bombings, which resulted in the violent death of 52 commuters – Salafist terrorism does not appear to be occurring with anything like the same frequency or intensity, at least in the West; indeed, it is becoming increasingly discredited in the East, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the overwhelming majority of its victims (97.7%+ from 1990 to 2005) have been in the Islamic world. Moreover, recent events in the Middle East and North Africa have illustrated just how marginal figures such as the late Osama bin Laden – during his time, arguably the world’s most notorious terrorist and the ‘CEO’ of Al-Qaeda – have become.
The 2011 Europol TE-SAT 2011 EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report is particularly instructive in this regard: in 2010, a total of seven people died from terrorist attacks in the European Union; none of these fatalities were as a result of the three attacks (out of 249, or just over 1.2% of the total) carried out by radical Islamists. Yet this variant of terrorism assumes a high level of prominence in the report, while ‘right-wing’ terrorism of the kind so shockingly manifested in Norway receives cursory treatment.
It would be mistaken to claim that Salafist or radical Islamist terrorism is irrelevant or unworthy of global concern. But at the same time, it is important not to overstate its significance to the extent that adherents of ideologies that have caused death, pain and suffering on a scale that has wrecked entire continents are scarcely conceivable for what they are: an historically and presently significant element in the lexicon of terrorism that may well eclipse other sources of terrorist violence in the future.