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Commander During 2011 Oslo Attacks Discusses Response, Gives Lessons Learned

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By Leischen Stelter, American Military University

One of the premier presentations at the 4th Annual Mid-Atlantic INLETS: Violent Crimes & Terrorism Trends seminar came from Anders Snortheimsmoen, commander of the Delta Norga, Oslo Police Distrik in Norway during two sequential lone-wolf attacks in 2011. Anders’ presentation focused on the importance of preparedness and lessons learned after these attacks. He discussed challenges with equipment procurement, communication, information accuracy, and general response capabilities during the chaos of these incidents.

The First Attack
The first attack was a vehicle bomb detonated in front of a government building in downtown Oslo. The vehicle was packed with fertilizer and the incident was very similar in style to the Oklahoma City bombing. Anders showed attendees surveillance footage of the van being parked, a person exiting it, and the van exploding a short time later. Eight people were killed and 209 were wounded in the bombing.

Preparation for such an Attack
AndersAnders discussed how his agency had changed their tactics to respond to such attacks after the World Trade Center terrorist attacks in New York City. Police in Norway had been trained for several years to immediately engage a threat and not to wait for tactical teams to arrive.

In addition, there is a multi-agency training focus in Norway, where police agencies conduct drills with fire and ambulance departments. Shortly before the bombing, these agencies had conducted training simulations based on the London bombing attacks because after those attacks “everyone understood that impossible things can happen,” Anders said. All of these training elements helped in the response.

Response to the Incident
Several agencies responded to the bombing. The fire department and emergency medical personnel were not able to immediately go into the building immediately because information had been received that there was another bomb in the building. The building was cleared and no undetonated devices were found. Teams were able to save six people in the building. Fortunately, the bomb was detonated later in the day (much later than the bomber intended, he later revealed) so there were less people in the building than usual.

While police and other agencies effectively responded to the Oslo bombing, Anders said it was challenging because the bombing coincided with a holiday, which meant many emergency personnel were on vacation, including one-third of the police force and Anders himself. When he received the call from his second-in-charge, Anders said he initially thought this had all the signs of an Al Qaeda terrorist attack—he did not think it was domestic terrorism.

The Second Attack
As police were responding to the bomb scene, calls came in that there was a shooting at a summer camp on the island of Utoya, about 45 minutes from Oslo. There were more than 600 young people on the island and police received reports that there were three-to-five perpetrators firing weapons. Phone circuits collapsed and police were unable to verify this information. It was total chaos, said Anders.

Police forces were additionally hampered from getting to the scene because they could not secure a helicopter (the police force only had one and the pilot was unavailable). Instead they had to rely on ground and water transportation. The meeting point that had been chosen was farther north than necessary, further delaying police arriving on the island.

When police arrived, they were able to capture perpetrator Anders Behring Breivik alive. Police immediately evacuated the critically wounded and were able to save many lives. The remaining youth were terrified in part because Breivik wore a mock police uniform and told them he had information about the Oslo bombing that had been all over the news. When the youth gathered around him, he shot and killed many of them. During this attack, Breivik killed 69 people and injured 110 others.

Missed Signs and Continued Preparation
Prior to the attack, Breivik was unknown in the police system. He started preparing for the attack in 2002 and took seven years to write the political manifesto that explained his reasoning for the attacks. The guns he bought were all obtained legally. He got all his information about bomb building from the Internet and books and even documented his progress with pictures.

Breivik bought a farm and told neighbors he planned to grow vegetables. The amount of fertilizer he bought came in through the intelligence system, but nothing was ever done with the information, thus police missed one of the few opportunities to flag him.

All the challenges police faced during the chaos of these attacks led to mistakes during the response. “We did the best we could under the circumstances,” Anders said. “It’s explainable, but it’s not good enough.” Anders said police continue to train for terrorist attacks, work closely with other agencies, and improve intelligence gathering capabilities.

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