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Was Anders Breivik a psychotic spree killer or a calculating terrorist?

Commentary, 18 August 2011
Terrorism, Europe
Since he was charged with terrorism offences, commentators have argued that Breivik was insane or deranged. Yet, like individuals inspired by al-Qaida, Breivik carried out attacks to provide publicity for a political agenda. Only Breivik's meticulous planning and ruthlessness sets him apart from other violent extremist nationalists.

Since he was charged with terrorism offences, commentators have argued that Breivik was insane or deranged. Yet, like individuals inspired by Al-Qa'ida, Breivik  carried out attacks  to provide publicity for a political agenda. Only Breivik's meticulous planning and ruthlessness sets him apart from other violent extremist nationalists.   

By Dr Robert Lambert for

Anders Breivik

On 25 July 2011, Anders Breivik, a Norwegian extremist nationalist, was charged with 'destabilising or destroying basic functions of society', 'creating serious fear in the population' and acts of terrorism under the criminal law. He was ordered to be held for eight weeks - the first four in solitary confinement - pending further court proceedings. This followed his arrest and confession of responsibility for two terrorist attacks on 22 July 2011:  the bombing of government buildings in Oslo that resulted in eight deaths, and the mass shooting at a camp of the Workers' Youth League (AUF) of the Labour Party on the island of Utøya where he killed sixty nine people, mostly teenagers. In custody, Breivik indicated through his lawyer that he had planned the attack for some time and would explain in court why he thought his act of terrorism was 'necessary'.

In the event Breivik was denied the additional oxygen of publicity he sought as his first court appearance was held in camera. In a subsequent press conference his lawyer Geir Lippestad, clearly acting outside the remit of his client's instructions, gave an impromptu assessment of Breivik's insanity that was eagerly seized upon by journalists and commentators. It is not the intention of this article to pre-empt the evidence that will emerge in Breivik's case, but rather to challenge the premature claims by experts and commentators who seek to deny his sanity and the role of a terrorist for which his words and actions provide strong prima facia evidence.

Attributing psychotic motivations

Simon Jenkins writing in the Guardian provided an emphatic account insisting Breivik was neither engaged in terrorism nor sane.[1] Breivik, on Jenkins' account, was 'so insane he can see nothing wrong in shooting dead 68 young people in cold blood' and is 'so exceptional as to be of interest to criminology and brain science, but not to politics'.[2] Furthermore, Jenkins insists, [Breivik] is 'plainly very sick', 'merely deranged,' expressing 'some vague hatred of society' that 'tells us nothing about terrorism...' and has instead committed 'a terrible but random act of insanity...'Terrorism, for Jenkins is 'a specific and rational political form: the use of violence to achieve a multiplier of fear through a civilian population to a particular end'. Jenkins pays no regard to Breivik's clear explanation for his target selection which fits an established rationale for terrorism.

Torbjørn Ottersen objects that Jenkins ignores 'not only the specificity of the terrorist's stated purpose, but also his rhetorical and ideological connections'.[3] Specifically, 'Christian Tybring-Jedde, leader of the Oslo Progress party and a member of the Norwegian parliament, wrote last year that the Labour party had "stabbed Norwegian culture in the back"'. 'This narrative', Ottersen explains, ' a key argument advanced by the right in Norway and, along with intimations that the Norwegian Labour party has a secretive network of operatives within the civil service ready to undermine any rightwing government, is advanced with worrying regularity'.

Significantly, Jenkins was immediately backed up by another 'big-hitter' from the Guardian's stable of commentators, Deborah Orr, who wrote the following day, 'Anders Behring Breivik's not a terrorist, he's a mass-murderer: the Norwegian killer is insane and those trying to give meaning to his actions should stop'.[4] ' At this point Orr offers a glimpse of an editorial imperative to deny Breivik the status the paper would undoubtedly have afforded to the perpetrator of the same atrocity had he or she been inspired or directed by Al-Qa'ida instead.  'How can a man capable of carrying out the acts that he did be anything else?' she asks, dismissing out of hand the possibility of Breivik's sanity.

Similarly dismissing the concept of Breivik as a rational terrorist actor, Darian Leader, a psychoanalyst was commissioned by the Guardian to explain to its readers how Breivik's case might be illuminated by a consideration of the case of Ernst Wagner, a German schoolmaster who in 1913 'strapped guns to his hands and opened fire on the inhabitants of the village of Mülhausen'.[5] Like Breivik, Wagner's case 'demonstrated the compatibility of madness and normal life'.[6]

Terrorists are invariably sane

Interestingly, it is only in recent years that academic research by terrorism studies scholars has finally laid to rest the persistent and popular notion that terrorists are predisposed to insanity or psychiatric or psychological abnormality. Whatever the cause terrorists pursue and - in those cases where they survive the terrorist attacks they carry out - whenever they are examined by medical experts their sanity and normality is invariably proven.

Even Nazi war criminals were eventually shown to be psychologically healthy and normal and indistinguishable from a sample of average American civilians.[7] In this regard Andrew Silke has done more than most to explain that psychological abnormality or anomaly is rarely a trait in terrorists and is certainly not evidenced simply because terrorist violence 'runs contrary to the accepted standards of society'. Instead, rigorous examinations conducted over three decades point to the fact that terrorists are perfectly rational and approach their chosen tasks in much the same way as soldiers.[8]

'[Breivik's] in a war and he says that the rest of the world, particularly the Western world don't understand his point of view, but in 60 years time we all will understand it' Lippestad said. Eventually Lippestad concludes that Breivik is insane because he 'is not like any one of us'. In fact, experience suggests that Breivik is 'unlike us' because he has resorted to terrorist violence for exactly the same kind of reasons that terrorists in all kinds of movements always have done over the last hundred years or more. Breivik's manifesto is consistent with the sentiments and methods of Europe's burgeoning violent extremist nationalist milieu, appearing to sustain his morale during a long process of strategic and tactical terrorist planning.

Breivik can claim to have followed a long tradition of terrorism target selection that is intended to send a strong message to politicians in an attempt to persuade them to change policy. As Alex Schmid reminds us, terrorism is a form of communication that 'cannot be understood only in terms of violence.'[9] Rather, he suggests, 'it has to be understood primarily in terms of propaganda' in order to penetrate the terrorist's strategic purpose'.[10] This is normal terrorist thinking. Thankfully terrorism is by definition a minority pursuit. If it ever it became commonplace Europe would be facing the kind of civil war Breivik intends he and others like him will eventually trigger.

Breivik appears to understand Schmid's analysis that terrorism is a combination of violence and propaganda. 'By using violence against one victim,' a terrorist, Schmid explains, 'seeks to coerce and persuade others'. 'The immediate victim' he suggests 'is merely instrumental, the skin on a drum beaten to achieve a calculated impact on a wider audience'.[11]

This is certainly the kind of rationalisation that perpetrators of political violence have adopted in many contexts in pursuit of diverse political causes for decades. Many extremist nationalists in Norway, across Europe and North America will be appalled by Breivik's resort to terrorism and in particular his target selection. [12] However, Breivik is likely to believe that he has sent a powerful and coercive message to all politicians in the West that will help put the campaign against the 'Islamification of Europe' at the top of their agenda.  

Crucial, therefore, for Breivik that he should explain his purpose as publicly as possible so that it is not misunderstood or misinterpreted. He is therefore very likely to want the widest possible audience to know why he has chosen to adopt the established tactic of terrorism so as to win an opportunity to deliver a political message. His innocent victims, he might think, are necessary collateral damage in a war that has to be won. Others, Breivik might intend, will take inspiration from his act and seek to emulate him.

Terrorism may be repulsive to many who share Breivik's bigoted anti-Muslim views but it is a tactic that only ever requires a small number of adherents to achieve its purpose whatever the cause. So if even only a handful follow his route Breivik will count that as success. For this reason Breivik stands apart from a significant number of other violent extremist nationalists in the West who share his hostility towards Muslims but whose plans to commit acts of terrorism have so far failed to reach such deadly fruition. That is to say, Breivik has demonstrated the skills that are necessary to plan and execute acts of terrorism of any kind, especially crucial when bombs and firearms are involved.      

Not without precedence

In the UK for example there have been important convictions in recent years of violent extremist nationalists before they have been able to carry out terrorist attacks. Robert Cottage, a former British National Party candidate was jailed in July 2007 for possessing explosive chemicals in his home - 'described by police at the time of his arrest as the largest amount of chemical explosive of its type ever found in this country'; Martin Gillard, a Nazi sympathiser was jailed in June 2008 after police found nail bombs, bullets, swords, axes and knives in his flat, as well as a note in which he had written, "I am so sick and tired of hearing nationalists talk of killing Muslims, of blowing up mosques, of fighting back... the time has come to stop the talk and start to act."[13]

More recently, on 15 January 2010 Terence Gavan, a former British National Party member and soldier, was convicted of manufacturing nail bombs and a staggering array of explosives, firearms and weapons. The presiding judge, Mr Justice Calvert-Smith said it was the largest find of its kind in the UK in modern history. The fact that David Copeland used nail bombs to deadly effect in London in 1999 makes this an especially disturbing case. Gavan had previously pleaded guilty to twenty-two charges at Woolwich Crown Court, a case in which police discovered twelve firearms and fifty-four improvised explosive devices, which included nail bombs and a booby-trapped cigarette packet. After the case, the head of the North East Counter Terrorism Unit David Buxton said Gavan used his extensive knowledge to manufacture and accumulate devices capable of causing significant injury or harm and posed a significant risk to public safety.[14]

Gavan is reported as having specifically Muslim targets in mind, in particular he is reported to have planned to 'target an address he had seen on a television programme that he believed was linked to the 7 July bomb attacks in London.'[15] In one hand written note that Breivik might have written, Gavan explains, 'the patriot must always be ready to defend his country against enemies and their governments.'[16]

While the explanations and rationalisations of those who commit acts of terrorism and political violence should never be taken at face value still less should they be disregarded in favour of analyses that propose an unrealistic and opposing interpretation of their actions. Experts and commentators who promote Breivik's insanity and psychological susceptibility to violence so as to help explain his dramatic departure from the conventions of civilised society seek to impose an analysis that ignores Breivik's attachment to terrorist tactics. Taking account of both the meticulous planning that went into his 'necessary' act of terror and the extraordinarily detailed rationale contained in his published 'manifesto' it becomes possible to understand the political nature of his violence.

Dr Robert Lambert is Co-Director of the European Muslim Research Centre at Exeter University and lecturer at the Centre for the Study of Terrorism and Political Violence at the University of St Andrews. His book, Countering Al-Qaeda in London: Police and Muslims in Partnership, will be out in September 2011.

The views expressed here are the authors own and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI.


[1] Simon, Jenkins, 'The last thing Norway needs is illiberal Britain's patronising'. The Guardian 26 July 2011. <> accessed 12.8.11.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Torbjørn Skinnemoen Ottersen, 'Norway: mad, bad or political terror?' Letter to the Guardian. The Guardian, 27 July 2011.>  accessed 12.8.11.

[4] Deborah Orr, 'Anders Behring Breivik's not a terrorist, he's a mass-murderer', The Guardian. 27 July 2011. accessed 12.8.11.

[5] Darian Leader, 'Anders Behring Breivik and the logic of madness', The Guardian, 29 July 2011.
<> accessed 12.8.11.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Andrew Silke, 'The Road Less Travelled: Recent Trends in Terrorism Research', Andrew Silke (editor), Research on Terrorism: Trends, Achievements and Failures. (Frank Cass: London, 2004), pp. 186-213; and Andrew Silke, 'The Devil You Know: Continuing Problems with Research on Terrorism', Andrew Silke (editor), Research on Terrorism: Trends, Achievements and Failures. (Frank Cass: London, 2004), pp. 57-71.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Alex P. Schmid, 'Frameworks for Conceptualising Terrorism', Terrorism and Political Violence, (Volume 16, Number 2) pp. 197-221.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Robert Lambert, Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: a London case study, (European Muslim Research Centre, University of Exeter: Exeter, 2004).
<> accessed 26.1.10; see also Lambert, Robert and Jonathan Githens-Mazer, Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: UK case studies, (European Muslim Research Centre, University of Exeter: Exeter, 2010).

[12] English Defence League,

[13] Mehdi Hasan, Know your enemy. New Statesman. 9 July 2009.<> accessed 12.8.11.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Githens-Mazer and Lambert, 2010, op. cit; see also The Guardian, 'BNP member given 11 years for making bombs and guns', 15 January 2010 <> accessed 12.8.11.

[16] Ibid.

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