European Eye on Radicalization
In Norway, about an hour-and-a-half after midnight on 25 June, during an LGBT festival, a gunman fired on civilians outside three clubs, including the London Pub, a popular gay bar in Oslo, and the Herr Nilsen jazz club, murdering two people and wounding twenty-one. Norwegian security forces quickly arrested the killer and identified the atrocity as an “Islamist terror act”. The assailant has been named as Zaniar Matapour, a 42-year-old immigrant from Iran who appears to be an Islamic State (ISIS) loyalist, and he will face charges of murder, attempted murder, and terrorism.
The Norwegian Police Security Service (PST) gave a press conference hours later that disclosed Matapour’s long history of criminality, and the PST’s knowledge that he was an Islamist radical for at least seven years. Matapour is from the Kurdish area of Iran and came to Norway as a refugee in the 1990s when he was a child. He holds Norwegian citizenship.
In 1999, Matapour, who was then still in high school, was sentenced to ten months in prison for stabbing somebody in a nightclub, but the conviction was overturned in 2000 because the evidence did not hold up to re-examination and his allegedly “obvious mental problems”; his sentence was reduced to thirty days for assault. Matapour’s most serious sentence was in 2016 to four months in prison—though he served almost none of it—for possession of drugs. A strange part about the case is that the charge seems to relate to an offence a decade earlier.
In July 2019, Matapour was arrested for attempted murder, illegally possessing a firearm, and carrying a knife in a public place. Over the objections of the prosecution, Matapour was released days later when the court ruled it had insufficient evidence to hold him. Matapour was convicted again in 2020 for possession of a knife and given a fine, which he refused to pay, leading to him being brought back to court. It is unclear at the time of writing how that case resolved, or if it was resolved. It seems Matapour has been receiving disability benefits since 2013, though nobody seems to know why. The police speculate it related to psychiatric issues.
The PST disclosed that Matapour first came across their radar in 2015 after his online activity indicated support for ISIS, and the police even took the step of interviewing Matapour in May 2022 because they wanted to assess whether his evident Islamist extremism made him a risk to the public. The PST decided that he did not. Indeed, Matapour appears to have avoided attracting attention in general, despite the repeated red flags. Matapour’s neighbours, for example, have—as is customary on these occasions—professed themselves surprised, not to say shocked, since the only thing they really knew about Matapour was that he kept himself to himself.
Due to the targets and the timing—there was to have been a Gay Pride parade in the area later on 25 June—the prevailing suspicion, in online reaction and press commentary, is that this was an anti-homosexual terrorist attack. Even the official reaction reflected this. Norway’s Prime Minister, Jonas Gahr Stoere, said at the 26 June memorial service that “the shooting in the night hours put an end to the Pride parade, but it did not stop the fight and the efforts to fight discrimination, prejudice, and hatred.”
The police and intelligence services are being more circumspect about Matapour’s motive. One reason for this is that Matapour, currently held on four weeks pre-trial detention, has so far refused to speak about his motives. Norway’s standard practice is to record police interviews, but Matapour has demanded—through his lawyer—to have his interview broadcast to the public “with no time delay so it won’t be censored or manipulated”. The idea of giving a suspected terrorist a national live-feed is obviously one that the Norwegian security services have not looked favourably upon. The furthest Norway’s security forces are prepared to go is to say they consider the possibility that what Matapour did is a “hate crime” to be “quite strong”.
Another reason the security forces are perhaps being cautious is that we have before us the example of the ISIS attack on the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, in June 2016—an event that was mentioned in some of the commentary. There seemed to be little doubt about what had happened at Pulse: the New York-born Omar Mateen, confessedly motivated by jihadist ideology, had murdered 49 people and wounded 53 at a gay nightclub. As it turned out, what Mateen wanted was to punish the United States for its campaign against the ISIS “caliphate”, not to murder homosexuals: Mateen “had no idea Pulse was a gay club, and simply Googled ‘Orlando nightclubs’ after finding that security at his original target, a major shopping and entertainment complex, was too high”.
This attack is also a reminder that there are other areas where caution is needed. For instance, there has, of late, been considerable concern about the rise of the far-Right in the West, particularly Scandinavia. In Norway, this has resonance, since the worst terrorist attack in its history—and one of the most lethal terrorist attacks ever—took place there in 2011, carried out by Anders Breivik, a neo-Nazi. More recently, in August 2019, a far-Right extremist, Philip Manshaus, murdered his stepsister and then wounded two worshippers in an attack on Al-Noor Islamic Centre in Oslo.
Exceptions make bad law, as the adage goes, and they make for bad security analysis, too. In the fraught political atmosphere of the moment, with a relative increase in visibility and support for the far-Right, it can feel like the movement is on the march. But in terms of violent extremism there is very little empirical basis for this perception: there has been a relative decline in Islamist terrorism since the destruction of ISIS’s “caliphate” in early 2019, but in most European countries Islamism remains the primary terrorist danger, and the scale of their propaganda-recruitment activities, whether online or in temporal social settings like prisons, poses a serious challenge for states on the Continent.