x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

Trial of 'the madman' Breivik ignores a virulent ideology

A right-wing killer's links to anti-Islamic contacts in Serbia are wrongly being played down in his homeland.

The trial of the right-wing terrorist Anders Behring Breivik has been a field day in the international media, with Breivik's ice-cold bearing and callous statements playing to the headlines. For many of the journalists inside the courtroom, however, the first couple of days in Oslo were disappointing in terms of actual information.

The accused appeared to have no reason to worry about a gruelling cross examination. Often, the prosecution's questions resembled those that would be asked by psychologists, inquiring after his mental state. Although Breivik is one of the worst terrorists in Europe since the Second World War, perhaps the need to understand his actions has been greater than the urge to hold him accountable.

But as the trial resumed on Friday, news broke that the Bosnian investigative weekly Sloboda Bosna had named Breivik's mystery Serbian contact as Milorad Pelemis, a war criminal who participated in the Srebrenica massacre in 1995. Should this connection turn out to be true, it would be a vital piece of the puzzle of Breivik's international connections and the ideological underpinnings of the murders of 77 people in Oslo and Utoya in July.

In court, Breivik had explained that the Nato bombing of Serbia in 1999 was "the straw that broke the camel's back" when it came to his radicalisation. Srebrenica is often overlooked when discussing sources of inspiration for the anti-Muslim extreme right in Europe.

But some groups regard the Serbs as heroes for retaliating against the "Islamisation" of the Balkans; they're role models in the fight against a looming "Eurabia" (the conspiracy theory that Europe is being "colonised" by Muslims as part of a secret deal between the EU and the Arab world).

In his manifesto, Breivik calls war criminal Radovan Karadzic an "honourable crusader". He also denies the true nature of the Yugoslavia horrors. This is as common in the so-called "counter jihad" movement as Holocaust denials are in neo-Nazi circles. The author Robert Spencer, of the Stop Islamization of America (SIOA) organisation, is one of the more influential polemicists spreading the claim that what happened in Srebrenica, and the massacre of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims, is a myth.

The prosecution - and the first, heavily criticised psychiatric evaluation - tried to make Breivik's claims of an international network seem ludicrous, the daydreams of a megalomaniac.

Yet it has only been a couple of months since Germans were shocked by the unearthing of a neo-Nazi terror cell, Nationalsozialistischer Untergrund, which had worked undisturbed for a decade. The prosecution has settled on the explanation that Breivik is a psychopath, going against many other psychiatric experts, and thereby ignores the far-right ideology from which he drew inspiration.

But Breivik is clever and well-spoken, the son of a diplomat from a stable country, and had no criminal record - he would have been an ideal terrorist agent, at least on paper. During his extensive period of preparation, he was never caught or even monitored by the police.

There are missing pieces to this puzzle and, naturally, Breivik's testimony is suspect. But this is what is known: Breivik was in Liberia in the spring of 2002 and flew to the UK from there. He claims to have met his Serbian contact in Monrovia (Milorad Pelemis was a mercenary there, according to Sloboda Bosna) and to have represented the contact at the founding meeting of an "international Christian military order" in London. Norwegian police have not found any evidence that the meeting took place or that the organisation existed. It has been verified that Breivik paid two brief visits to the Baltics in 2004, where he claimed to have received military training.

It would be no mystery if Breivik had sought contacts outside Norway. The Norwegian extreme-right scene is tiny and under constant surveillance. "If you wish to make things more complicated for the intelligence services, you have to cross national borders," Breivik told the court. His other statements in the past week, about years spent training with video games and his claims about "de-emotionalising" possibly indicate some sort of psychotic break, but Norwegian police have been remarkably uninterested in his international connections. It's certainly more convenient to dismiss him as a lone madman than to dig around Liberia and the Balkans.

Breivik claims to have met his contacts online. How real those contacts were, much less if they solidified into actual collaboration in the attacks, needs further investigation. But the far-right ideological influences that he cited are undeniable and should be a wake-up call for intelligence agencies that monitor militant Islamist forums and ignore their right-wing counterparts.

Throughout the trial, Breivik has said he was inspired by Al Qaeda - but has not named a specific inspiration for the July 22 attacks. The Srebrenica massacre, which took place over almost two weeks, ended on about July 22, 1995. Was Breivik's massacre of "Muslim-loving" youths an homage to that atrocity?

It remains to be seen whether he had practical support from other militant nationalists. But we already know that his ideology has adherents in the highest political assemblies. From the ex-Nazi Sweden Democrats in the north to Italy's Northern League separatists, and charismatic populists such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, similar ideas are growing in strength. It's not unlikely that more than one Anders Behring Breivik will cross the line from militant rhetoric to violence.

 

Lisa Bjurwald, based in Stockholm, is a freelance writer specialising in Europe's right-wing populist parties. Maik Baumgärtner is a Berlin-based freelance journalist and author specialising in right-wing extremism