London: In the wake of Norway`s terrorist attack, the European police agency is setting up a task force of more than 50 experts to help investigate non-Islamist threats in Scandinavian countries, its spokesman said on Saturday.
Soeren Pedersen said the group, based in The Hague, hopes to help Norway in the coming weeks and to aid other countries such as Denmark, Finland and Sweden in assessing non-Islamist threats. Norway has not yet requested forensic experts but Europol stands ready to assist, Pedersen said.
"There is no doubt that the threat from Islamist terrorism is still valid," he said, adding that the task force could be expanded in the future to include even more European nations. "But there have actually been warnings that (right-wing groups) are getting more professional, more aggressive in the way they attract others to their cause."
Since the September 11 terrorist attacks, European countries have viewed Islamic terrorism as the primary threat. But the fact that the suspect in Friday`s attacks turned out to be a Norwegian with right-wing views is raising questions about whether homegrown, non-Islamic terror threats have been misjudged.
The alleged assailant was identified by Norway`s national broadcaster as Anders Behring Breivik, 32; police will not confirm his name because charges are pending.
Authorities say he posted comments on Christian fundamentalist websites and held anti-Muslim views. He was also once a member of the youth wing of a rightist party.
In leaked diplomatic cables dating back to 2008, US diplomats warned that Norway seemed complacent about terror threats and criticised gaps in intelligence. The cables released by WikiLeaks also give a snapshot of simmering anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic tensions in Norway.
Anti-immigrant sentiment has grown in Norway as tensions rose over its policy of taking in conflict refugees.
In the 1990s, it welcomed immigrants from the Balkans. Years later, it opened its doors to large numbers of Iraqi refugees. The Norwegian government has said it expects some 15,000 new arrivals this year, many from Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea and Somalia.
Europe has seen an overall increase in xenophobia, boosting the ranks of ultranationalists and fuelling their activity. Still, experts and officials across Europe say the main terror threat hovering over the continent remains Islamic jihadism. They suggest that the overall danger posed by European political extremists, both from left and right, is relatively small — but that anybody with the will and the means has a chance of wreaking devastation.
"This horrendous event in Norway is sobering because it shows how easy it is to cause havoc," a British government official said on condition of anonymity to discuss security matters. "But you have to decide what the threat is. In the UK, extreme right and left wing groups aren`t perceived as big national security threats."
The numbers also indicate a low terror threat from ultrarightists.
In a report earlier this year, Europol said there had been no rightwing terror attacks in Europe last year. But there were 45 leftwing and anarchist attacks in 2010 — a 12 percent increase from the previous year. There were also 160 separatist attacks last year, mainly in France and Spain.
The report said rightwing groups lacked cohesion and had little public support, though they were increasingly active on social networking sites.
"The numbers of rightwing extremist criminal offenses are relatively low," said Europol, which has a large database where security data is regularly exchanged with partner countries and hosts a large counter-terrorism unit. Interpol, the international police agency based in Lyon, covers 187 countries around the globe.
The task force would be a special group assigned to looking at non-Islamist threats and investigating links to right-wing networks through Europe.
Security officials say it`s still too early to determine whether the attack was motivated by anti-immigrant sentiment or had support from far-right groups. Most of the dead were Norwegian youths at a summer camp for the youth wing of Norway`s ruling Labour Party.
Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere told reporters that the attack underscored the dangers of jumping to conclusions when terrorists strike but said the country needed to examine its strategy of dealing with non-Islamic and far-right terror threats.
"This is a phenomenon that we have to address very seriously," Stoere said.
Pedersen said that the task force aims to pool regional resources to more effectively meet these challenges.
"The intention is to include other neighbouring countries and the task force should be working in the coming weeks, hopefully," he said.
Discussions were already underway with Norway and other Scandinavian police forces.
Despite increased chatter among right-wing groups on the Internet and social networking sites, Pedersen said the European agency had no reason to suspect countries had miscalculated the threat of Islamic terrorism over threats from far-right or leftist groups.
He would not comment on whether the Norwegian suspect`s name came up on any of Europol`s databases.
Germany`s domestic intelligence agency keeps close tabs on the country`s far-right, which is divided and politically marginal. The most prominent far-right party, the National Democratic Party, has seats in two state legislatures but has come nowhere near winning any in the national Parliament.
The agency`s annual report for 2010 found that the number of right-wing extremists in Germany dropped to 25,000 last year from 26,600 in 2009.
Still, about a fifth whom authorities consider neo-Nazis are considered part of a growing group of potentially violent extremists who target leftist radicals, Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said this month.
In the Netherlands, the Islamic threat remains the focus of counterterrorism. But an attack two years ago on the Dutch royal family, when an unemployed man plowed his car through spectators at a parade and killed six bystanders, prompted law enforcement to revamp security procedures and raised awareness of non-Islamic threats.
Edmund Messchaert, spokesman for the Netherlands` counterterrorism office, said the office`s strategic plan for the next five years calls for more research on detecting threats from people "like this guy in Norway”.
"These people come out of the blue. It`s important to get a grip on this, but it`s very difficult to do," Messchaert said.