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What Norway Should Teach the Media About Covering Terrorism

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I wasn't alone on July 22nd in thinking that the attacks in Oslo and Utoya bore few of the hallmarks of Al Qaeda, but it certainly didn't seem that way to anyone watching rolling news coverage of the events unfolding in Norway.

News stations were extremely quick to wheel out self-appointed 'terrorism experts' who quickly drew comparisons to Mumbai and the 7/7 bombings, while academics and security professionals I knew were far more restrained - pointing out that these attacks had far more in common with Timothy McVeigh or Ted Kaczynski.

At this point it might be worth a quick rundown of the hallmarks of modern Al Qaeda attacks and how they differ from what happened in Norway. Firstly Al Qaeda tend to use simultaneous bombings on multiple targets - this can be seen as far back as the 1998 US Embassy bombings in Tanzania and Kenya. More recently this tactic has been augmented in Iraq and Afghanistan, where initial small explosions have been followed up by larger secondary explosions to target first-responders. In Norway there was a single car bomb and no secondary explosion.

Next up we have the timing of the attacks - 9/11 and 7/7 targeted the hours when people would be arriving at work and the chance of creating the largest number of casualties was greatest. In Norway July 22nd was a public holiday and government buildings were quieter than normal.

Finally we have the delay between the initial bomb and the shootings on Utoya. 'Swarming' attacks of the style perpetrated by Lashkar-e-Taiba in Mumbai involve multiple gunmen moving quickly from one firing location to another in a densely populated area. This style of attack relies upon the attack being sustained over a relatively long-period of time with no let up once the attack has begun - creating a situation where law enforcement are constantly one step behind the attackers. In Norway the attack on Utoya occurred nearly two hours after the initial bomb attack - a large delay indicative of a single gunman working alone.

While these facts are now well known and can be asserted without a shadow of a doubt, the get out clause of 'reporting in the heat of the moment' cannot be applied to the blatant disregard for the careful consideration of evidence by news stations on the day itself. Any security 'expert' should quickly have been able to see that the attack contained no elements unique to Al Qaeda's MO. A car bomb followed by small-arms fire could easily have been indicative of the IRA or Eta, but no commentators fingered them right off the bat. This signposts a worrying tendency in the media to blame all terrorism on Al Qaeda and their affiliates.

There are two very real dangers in immediately crediting Al Qaeda affiliates with terror attacks before a definitive link can be established. Firstly, we risk giving far too much credit to a disparate organization that is not as strong now as it was in 2001. Terrorism works by instilling fear in a civilian population and when people think that all catastrophic events are the work of a well organized extremist group it can be argued that terrorists have achieved one of their stated goals - creating a population that lives in constant terror of attack. If we start crediting Al Qaeda with every attack on Western individuals around the world it means they are creating an exponential output for the few successful attacks they have perpetrated.

Secondly, when blaming Islamist terrorism becomes our default response we risk institutionalizing Islamophobia within our media and further isolating moderate Muslims or creating self-fulfilling prophecies of home-grown terrorism. If the only news coverage of Islam that young Muslim men see is of Islamist terrorism, then who are they supposed to look up to?

The problem with modern media is that very seldom will you hear a security analyst give the most accurate and appropriate real world answer in the first few hours after a terrorist attack - 'I don't know.' Sometimes saying what we don't know about breaking news is as important (if not more important) than reporting what we do know. If every statement has to be couched in terms of 'may' and 'perhaps' I would argue it is not news. A continuous stream of 24-hour speculation is great when it comes to sporting transfer deadlines, but when applied to current affairs we risk creating news broadcasts one rung below a game of telephone. As consumers of the news we also need to be more discerning and ask the simple question 'but how do we know that?'

Journalism should rest upon the dogged pursuit of truth - where hearsay is discarded in favour of hard fact - particularly when we are dealing with issues of international security and terrorism. Perhaps a few more journalists should be reading Edward R. Murrow instead of watching 24.