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Late push to study extremism

Norway went into shock when, on 22 July 2011, Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in Oslo and then killed 69 members of a left-wing youth camp on the nearby island of Utøya. The attack initiated a debate on violent extremism and the need to understand such behaviour in order to prevent it.

But concrete action was slow to materialise. Last year, Thomas Hegghammer, the director of terrorism research at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment, wrote in the national newspaper Aftenposten that, three years after the attack, the government had failed to back up its words with actions. “No money was set aside for research on right-wing extremism after 22 July,” he wrote.

According to Sindre Bangstad, a social anthropologist at the University of Oslo, Norway’s research council Forskningsrådet provided extra money for related research after the attack but allocated most of it to research on infrastructure—such as how to construct bomb-proof buildings—rather than to addressing extremism. “It’s not exactly the best place to start, because you’d want to understand what kind of world views are in operation,” he says.

But last week, the government indicated that it had finally woken up. From 2016, it will give Forskningsrådet 10 million Norwegian kroner (€1.2m) a year for research on understanding extremism, radicalisation, terrorism and hate crime. Alongside this, a public centre in Oslo will be set up to provide information about the events of 22 July.

Bangstad says this is a “step in the right direction” but adds that the government could still do more. “The funding being allocated doesn’t amount to an awful lot of money,” he says.

Similar action has begun in the neighbouring country of Sweden, which has a strong history of programmes to reduce racial tension. In April, the Swedish government announced plans to “clearly prioritise” racism studies through additional grants, to be distributed by the national research council in 2016. It also provided the University of Gothenburg with 5 million Swedish kronor (€500,000) to establish a centre for studies on racism and violent extremism.

“The centre will coordinate and disseminate research results, taking a wide perspective,” says Helena Lindholm Schulz, Gothenburg’s pro vice-chancellor. “There is a lot of research on racism but it’s spread out across the country. We’re aiming to put people in contact with each other and make it into something national,” she says.

This endeavour could be assisted by a plan, announced in January, to set up an antiterrorism network to share research results between Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden. This will also set up collaborations in the social sciences, and help to form and implement policy to prevent terrorism.

So despite Norway’s slow start, it now seems determined to take action to understand and counter extremism. The signs are there that a region-wide effort is blossoming.

This article also appeared in Research Europe