The police’s security service will not answer whether the burning of Dombås and Sel churches is classified as terrorism. It is “graded information”, according to PST.
The question of the setting fire to Dombås and Sel churches has been brought up to date by the ban on burning the Koran in front of the Turkish embassy in February. The ban came after PST had linked the burning of the Koran to acts of revenge and an increased terrorist threat against Norway.
We have been in this situation before.
On 16 November 2019, a Koran was burned on Torvet in Kristiansand.
PST had warned that Koran burning could lead to serious revenge attacks in Norway. The Directorate of Police took the signal; the day before Sian’s announced commemoration, the directorate issued a national operational order which in practice made it forbidden to burn the Koran. In Kristiansand, the police intervened and extinguished the Koran Sian (Stop the Islamization of Norway) had set on fire.
It didn’t help much. Three months later, on 20 February 2020, Dombå’s church burned down. Sel church was set on fire four weeks later. The arsonist, Somali “Abdul”, stated that it was revenge for the Koran burning in Kristiansand.
After a heated debate and heavy criticism of the police, police director Benedicte Bjørnland made a humiliating retreat a few days later: the operation order was withdrawn.
Now, however, it may seem as if the operational order from 2019 has in practice been reintroduced – quietly. Two months ago we got a repeat of the events of 2019.
On 1 February this year, PST warned – in a meeting with the Oslo police district, the Ministry of Justice and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs – that Koran burning could trigger acts of revenge in the form of terror in Norway – as it actually did three years ago.
The following day, February 2, the Oslo police district banned the burning of the Koran at the Turkish embassy.
A couple of hours earlier, Norway’s ambassador to Turkey had been summoned to the Turkish Foreign Ministry.
There are differences between what happened in November 2019 and February 2023, but the result is roughly the same: A ban on burning the Koran in public places has been introduced.
On 15 November 2019, the police in Kristiansand received an explicit order from the Directorate of Police to prevent public “desecration of the Koran”, and to intervene immediately if the book was nevertheless set on fire. The background was a new interpretation of this type of provocation against the so-called racism clause – and fear of revenge attacks from extreme Islamists. PST warned the police:
It is true that in recent months PST has been concerned about the consequences a Koran burning could have. We see it as a trigger event for violent actions, and have given a description of the situation to the police, said senior adviser Martin Bernsen in the Police’s security service.
The Oslo police district’s ban of 2 February goes even further, in that Koran burning was explicitly prohibited. The ban has been appealed to the Norwegian Police Directorate.
We do not get to know what PST thinks about the connection between the burning of the Koran in Kristiansand and the setting fire to the two churches in Nord-Gudbrandsdal three and four months later.
“Abdul” was convicted of serious damage, not terrorism, it is interesting why PST did not choose this. For example, whether the church being burnt formed part of the background for PST’s advice to the Oslo police district on 1 February. But PST will not clarify.
We still get a small hint, in what looks like a small talk from PST boss Beate Gangås. In an interview with Document on 13 February, she says this:
I am not aware that the burning of those churches has been classified as terrorism.
Gangås points out that this happened long before she became head of PST and that she is investigating the matter.
Then I almost have to come back to it.
The PST manager never returns to the matter. Four days later, PST’s senior adviser Eirik Veum refused to answer the question. In an email, he writes: “When it comes to which specific incidents PST classifies as terror, it is graded information.”
If we are to take Veum at his word, we understand that the PST will also not clarify whether the 22 July attack on the government quarter and Utøya is considered terrorism. Or whether the 25 June attack fulfils PST’s terror criteria. This again is classified information, according to PST.
In connection with the presentation of the national threat assessments on 13 February, Document interviewed PST manager Beate Gangås.
We see a number of sentences against people who are inspired by Islamism, but we see very little of this when it comes to right-wing extremism. So might it look a little strange that PST considers the two types of terror as equally big threats?
When PST assesses this level, we emphasise both what is open and accessible, both terrorist attacks that have occurred and other open information, or convictions of events, then we emphasise information that we get from other places. From collaborative services, both nationally and internationally, including graded material. So there is an overall assessment made by PST, which means that this year, as last year, we are at the same level. What we are saying is that both right-wing and Islamist terror is possible. So as it looks today, and for 2023, we have concluded that the threat is at the same level.
Last summer we went from “low risk of Islamist terror” to an “extraordinary terrorist situation” – in nine days. We went from the fact that, according to PST, it was “unlikely” that Islamists would attempt to carry out terror in Norway, to having “a network of violent Islamists”. PST admitted that they had no control over the Islamists, according to then-acting PST chief Roger Mountains who said that “we have a large number who are willing to do the same as accused terrorist Matapour.” Do you realise that it is a little difficult to understand the equality? Where is the corresponding network among the far-right – and which PST has no control over?
There are not necessarily very established networks on one side or the other. It also makes it quite demanding to have an overview and to come up with figures. But an overall assessment means that one thinks it is equally possible – and there is quite a lot of wiggle room within “possible” – but for none of them we have taken it down to “unlikely”. We will see if it changes for the next threat assessment, but for this year – that is the assessment.
Is there intelligence information that you cannot share behind the assessment?
There are both things we can share, and then of course there is also graded information that we use when we make our decisions and come up with our threat assessment. Then I must add that we come up with a graded threat assessment.
Berg said that there are Islamist networks over which the PST has no control, does this also apply to the extreme right?
I choose to talk about individuals rather than networks. We are concerned with checking out people about whom we receive tips, or whom we uncover in other ways. People we believe have an intention, a will to carry out terrorist attacks. We then seek to clarify whether the person concerned also has the capacity or ability to carry it out. This is a continuous job with various people that send us information.
But when Berg talks about networks, do we understand that there is more than one, to put it gently?
I cannot comment on what Berg has said. But what we see, for example among the far-right, is that part of the radicalisation takes place online, so it is not necessarily a question of very established networks. These individuals when it comes to extreme Islamist actions, maybe using simple means, which do not have to be very planned nor complicated attacks.
After the Koran burning in Kristiansand in 2019, two churches were set on fire; Dombås and Sel churches. Does the PST classify those actions as terrorism?
I am not aware that the burning of those churches has been classified as terrorism. What we say in our assessment is that it is the attention that Koran burning receives that is decisive for such actions and their impact on the threat picture. So we are concerned with paying attention to what may be subsequent actions.
PST said at the time that they feared retaliation. The person who was sentenced for the church fires said in court that this was revenge for the burning of the Koran in Kristiansand and that the police did not intervene.
It was a long time before I became head of PST, so I have to investigate that if I am going to comment on it.
It would be nice if you could do it, because this is interesting in light of the ban on Koran burning in front of the Turkish embassy.
Then I almost have to come back to it.
We see that several people who have been charged, prosecuted and sentenced for terrorism have a criminal past. At the same time, we see, especially in certain environments in Oslo, that serious violence with firearms and knives is increasing. Does PST see this development as a danger of recruitment into extremist environments?
What we see is that these vulnerability factors, which one must be aware of both when it comes to recruitment into criminal environments and when it comes to radicalisation, there may be some common attributes. In other words, what provides the basis to easily entering a criminal environment, or being radicalised. But there is no direct connection between that, between individuals or environments in Oslo and radicalisation, I have no basis to say that.
Document agreed with Gangås that she will respond to matters concerning church burning by email. These are the questions we sent, via senior adviser Veum:
Does the PST classify the arson of Dombås and Sel churches (February and March 2020) as terrorism?
From the imprisonment order from Hedmarken district court on 21 March 2020:
“He has stated as the reason for his actions that he was angry and cursed because a Norwegian man had set fire to the Koran, without the police doing something about it.”
In court, he elaborated that he had been violated, as well as being disappointed that the police did not intervene:
The reason for setting fire to the churches was to take revenge, so that whoever burns the Koran should not do it again.
I asked you this question on the phone, but since we were interrupted, I’ll ask it again:
Does PST see a danger / a potential for increased radicalisation and recruitment to Islamist terror against the background of increasing violence with the use of knives and firearms in certain environments, particularly in Oslo?
I am referring to the fact that many extremists have a past as criminals. According to this article from forskning.no, a full 68 per cent had been involved in crime before they were radicalised.
These are the answers we received from Veum:
The number of classified terrorist incidents and individual incidents is not something we release publicly. FFI has a terror database based on open sources that could possibly give you some answers.
Now we have just published the national threat assessment. There you will find the latest news about how we assess Islamist terror in Norway. We do not assess the terrorist threat locally in Norway.
We have previously published articles (on our websites) about the background of those who are radicalised.
When it comes to which specific incidents PST classifies as terror, that is graded information.
I have not asked for the number of terrorist incidents, nor the “terrorist threat locally in Norway”. However, what I have asked for and not received an answer to, this:
1) Does the PST classify the arson of Dombås and Sel churches (February and March 2020) as terrorism?
2) Does PST see a danger / a potential for increased radicalization and recruitment to Islamist terror against the background of increasing violence with the use of knives and firearms in certain environments, particularly in Oslo?
I have one more question. The threat assessment states:
Debates and events in Norway that are perceived to inhibit religious practice will also reinforce the perception that the West is at war with Islam. When such events take place in Norway, the likelihood of radicalization and ultimately terrorist planning against Norway increases.
Which, or what kind of, debates can lead to terrorist planning against Norway?
Senior adviser Veum never answered the questions, nor to repeated attempts to reach him by phone.