On Suspecting al Qaeda in the Norway Attacks (UPDATED)

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My friends Jim Fallows and Steve Clemons have both criticized in harsh terms the conservative Washington Post blogger Jennifer Rubin for what they see as a fearmongering post about the possible origins of the Norway attack. (Ta-Nehisi joins in as well.) Jim writes, in a post headlined, "The Washington Post Owes the World an Apology for This Item,"

Read it and weep. On the Post's site Jennifer Rubin first quotes the Weekly Standard, in a rushed item about the Norway horror:
>>We don't know if al Qaeda was directly responsible for today's events, but in all likelihood the attack was launched by part of the jihadist hydra. Prominent jihadists have already claimed online that the attack is payback for Norway's involvement in the war in Afghanistan.
Then she goes on to argue on her own: Moreover, there is a specific jihadist connection here: "Just nine days ago, Norwegian authorities filed charges against Mullah Krekar, an infamous al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist who, with help from Osama bin Laden, founded Ansar al Islam - a branch of al Qaeda in northern Iraq - in late 2001."

Jim goes on to write:

No, this is a sobering reminder for those who think it's too tedious to reserve judgment about horrifying events rather than instantly turning them into talking points for pre-conceived views. On a per capita basis, Norway lost twice as many people today as the U.S. did on 9/11.

Steve Clemons writes to demand that Rubin apologize personally for her post. You can read Steve here.

The question arises, then, why did Jennifer Rubin make this outrageous assertion about jihadism and Norway?

Well, perhaps it was because she was reading the Atlantic. Shortly after the bombing in Oslo, The Atlantic re-posted on its home page a very interesting piece from last year by Thomas Hegghammer and Dominic Tierney entitled "Why Does al Qaeda Have a Problem With Norway?" You can read it here. In the piece, Hegghammer and Tierney discuss why Norway, against all odds, has become a favored target of al Qaeda. They give several reasons, among them fallout from the Danish cartoon crisis, and Norway's participation in the war in Afghanistan. And then they bring up a third possibility: The presence in Norway of the aforementioned Mullah Krekar:

Which brings us to the third theory: Norway's treatment of the Iraqi Kurdish Islamist Mulla Krekar. Onetime leader of the Islamist guerrilla group Ansar al-Islam, Mulla Krekar came to Norway as a refugee in the early 1990s and spent years secretly shuttling between Oslo and Kurdistan until his arrest in September 2002. Although terrorism charges were dropped in 2003, he has been officially declared a threat to national security and placed under house arrest awaiting deportation to Iraq. For many Islamists, Mulla Krekar's treatment demonstrates Norway's subservience to the cruel whims of the United States.

    But there is little or no evidence that al-Qaeda cares enough about Mulla Krekar to seek vengeance. He was never part of Bin Laden's organization, and his fate hardly stands out in the post-9/11 world, with its Guantanamos and CIA "black sites."

    It may be pointless to search for a single grievance to explain the recent plot. Most likely, a combination of factors placed Norway on the jihadists' radar. In al-Qaeda's binary worldview, Norway is part of the "Jewish-Crusader alliance." Not a platinum member, perhaps, but a member nonetheless. If you're not with al-Qaeda, you're with the United States.

    Norway has long been considered a legitimate but low-priority target. Frustrated by the difficulty of striking key adversaries like Britain and the United States, al-Qaeda seems to be moving down the food chain.

So it would have been possible, from reading The Atlantic alone, to suspect al Qaeda involvement in the Norway attacks. I myself suspected this, and wrote so, in a post entitled "Mumbai comes to Norway." I suspected al Qaeda's involvement for three reasons:
1. The coming deportation of Mullah Krekar;
2. The fact that this was a dual-point attack -- downtown Oslo, and the youth camp, almost simultenously. Multiple, simultaneous targeting is a hallmark of al Qaeda.
3. (And this is the obvious one) Europe has been under sustained attack from Islamist terrorists for a decade. In fact, most acts of mass terrorism in recent history have been conducted by radical Islamists, usually under the organizational framework of al Qaeda. To be sure, I wrote into my coverage a bunch of "to be sure" statements, along the lines of "if this in fact a jihadist attack," and, "perhaps this was an act of right-wing extremism," but I certainly suspected al Qaeda involvement initially. I imagine that Norwegian intelligence also suspected al Qaeda initially.

I don't mean to be plumping for Jennifer Rubin here. I don't know her, but I do know she's gone after me unfairly on numerous occasions, mostly related to the Middle East peace process and, if memory serves (I'm having a hard time connecting to the Web where I am, so it's difficult to search) the so-called Ground Zero mosque controversy (I was on the "let 1000 mosques bloom" side of the argument, she was not). And also, and not incidentally, I'm quite happy to blame European Nazis this kind of terrorism. As readers of this blog surely know, if there's one thing I despise more than Islamists, it's Nazis.

The point is that I think there are lessons here for everyone. I think it's probably best, despite the pressures of blogging, to withhold speculation on these matters as long as possible, though on the other hand, readers do want to real-time thinking about breaking news stories. Another lesson, this one for the Left: It is not perverse or absurd for normal people to think of al Qaeda when they hear of acts of mass terrorism. It is logical, in fact, to suspect al Qaeda. The Norway catastrophe does not negate the fact that the majority of large-scale terrorism spectaculars by non-state actors over the past decade have been committed by Muslims. For the Right, Norway should underscore the point that Christians (and Hindus, and also Jews) are just as capable of committing murderous atrocities as Muslims.

UPDATE: I've added a link to the piece I wrote (I'm having terrible Interweb problems where I am, and this process of adding a couple of links has now been going on for a half-hour) and I want to note that another non-ideological publication, Wired, ran a piece speculating on the Islamist radical connection to the attack. It's an interesting piece. I also recommend this Joshua Foust piece, on assumptions about the bombing.

Btw, I've gotten a lot of mail along the lines of this one. "You are a racist to state that most big terrorism events over the past years have been Muslim in origin. Shame on you." Let me unpack this: One, Islam isn't a race. Two, I never blame Islam for terrorism. I blame the totalitarian political ideology of Islamism for terrorism. And three, really? When I get back to Washington, I will make a comprehensive list and post it of the most spectacular terror events of the past 20 years, but: World Trade Center 1992; the African embassies; the U.S.S. Cole; 9/11; London; Madrid, Mumbai. There are many more, obviously, but these are some of the biggest. It doesn't do anyone any good to deny reality.

P.S. I agree with Jim on this

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Jeffrey Goldberg is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a recipient of the National Magazine Award for Reporting. Author of the book Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror, Goldberg also writes the magazine's advice column. More

Before joining The Atlantic in 2007, Goldberg was a Middle East correspondent, and the Washington correspondent, for The New Yorker. Previously, he served as a correspondent for The New York Times Magazine and New York magazine. He has also written for the Jewish Daily Forward, and was a columnist for The Jerusalem Post.

His book Prisoners was hailed as one of the best books of 2006 by the Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Slate, The Progressive, Washingtonian magazine, and Playboy. Goldberg rthe recipient of the 2003 National Magazine Award for Reporting for his coverage of Islamic terrorism. He is also the winner of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists prize for best international investigative journalist; the Overseas Press Club award for best human-rights reporting; and the Abraham Cahan Prize in Journalism. He is also the recipient of 2005's Anti-Defamation League Daniel Pearl Prize.

In 2001, Goldberg was appointed the Syrkin Fellow in Letters of the Jerusalem Foundation, and in 2002 he became a public-policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C.

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