On 22 July 2011 Anders Behring Breivik committed a massacre in Norway. Despite attempts to depoliticise the attack, we must be clear that Breivik’s targets and motivations were deeply political. The memory of Utøya must spur us on to fight against racism and the rise of the far right across the world.
Ten years ago today, 77 people were killed in a far-right massacre in Norway. Anders Behring Breivik first detonated a fertiliser bomb at the government buildings in Oslo, which killed eight people. He then travelled to Utøya, an island north-west of Oslo, where he shot and killed 69 people over the course of an hour. These targets were not chosen at random; the Norwegian government at the time was a coalition led by Arbeidetpartiet – the Labour Party – and Utøya was the site of the annual summer camp of their youth party: AUF or the Workers’ Youth League. The massacre at Utøya remains the most deadly mass shooting perpetrated by a single gunman anywhere in the world. 33 of the victims were under 18 years old.
The interpretation of the attack has been subject of intense debate. Before Breivik’s identity was known, in the moments after the bomb-blast in central Oslo, the world’s news channels were full of ‘terrorism experts’, hurriedly speculating as to why Norway had become a target for ‘radical Islamic terrorism’. It was only once it was realised that the attack could not be neatly aligned with the broader framing of Western ‘counter-extremism’ that wider discussion of the political dimensions of the attack receded. There has been sustained effort from Norwegian media and politicians to depoliticise the massacre, with mention of his historic membership of Fremskrittspartiet and connection to wider far-right political actors becoming almost taboo in public debate.
Instead, the profile of Breivik constructed by the mainstream press is one which we are now depressingly familiar with in situations involving white gunmen: Breivik’s motivations were, apparently, purely the product of mental illness. Meanwhile, the survivors of the Utøya massacre – many of whom still live with the physical and mental scars of 22 July 2011 – report their frustration at being censored when they try to talk about Islamophobia, racism, violence against the Left and anti-feminism, in relation to the attack. The survivors know well why they were targeted 10 years ago, what motivated Breivik and how his ideas resonate in both the far right and more “mainstream” political environments.
This is all the more egregious considering Breivik’s influence on the far right over the last decade. Since the attack Breivik has continued to advocate his far-right politics, attempting to coordinate political organisation from prison. The “manifesto” he released before the attack: 2083: A European Declaration of Independence makes crystal clear that Breivik considered his actions part of a war against Communism. Since then, his actions have served as inspiration for numerous far-right killers around the world. Notably, this includes Brenton Tarrant, who murdered 51 people in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand in 2019; and Philip Manshaus, who murdered his adopted sister but failed in his attempt to commit a massacre at the al-Noor Islamic Centre in Bærum, west of Oslo in 2019.
Yet, Breivik’s political motivations – like those of other far-right attackers – have been consistently downplayed because they upset the narratives used to legitimise the regimes of so-called counter-extremism that have come to dominate state management since the declaration of the ‘War on Terror’. Breivik was able to utilise precisely those fears of Islamic terrorism which justify Western counter-extremism and securitisation to carry out his attack, He posed as a police officer ostensibly sent to brief the camp on Utøya about the bomb in Oslo, the bomb which he had detonated earlier that day. He stated that he expected to be shot when apprehended by police, yet when they reached the island he called them ‘brothers’. This stark opposition makes clear Breivik’s own awareness of both the far-right and more mainstream political context of his actions, and his attempt to push the contradictions of mainstream nationalist ideology to their conclusion.
It is therefore not just that the attack at Utøya does not ‘fit the mould’ of mainstream ‘counter-terror’ narratives, but rather that the islamophobic and nationalistic sentiments which are used to justify Western securitisation, and which are reproduced through ‘counter-terror’ strategies, overlap significantly with Breivik’s own politics and continue to provide fertile ground for the growth of the far right today.
The legacy of Utøya matters. As the official remembrance casts the attack purely as a “national” tragedy, it elides the nationalist politics which caused the attack. Framing it as an act of mindless violence provides impetus to the regimes of securitisation and counter-terror which are deeply entwined in the same Islamophobic assumptions which fed Breivik’s own politics and continue to feed the politics of others like him.
This depoliticised narrative of remembrance reduces those killed and the survivors of the attack to passive victims, smothering their political convictions as an inconvenient detail, when it was these convictions which made them targets in the first place.
This is why remembering Utøya must mean a continued commitment to politicising the massacre. It is also why it must mean a continued commitment to fighting against those regimes of state-sanctioned Islamophobia and racism which continue to feed the growth of the far right across the world.