In a world of terror and violence it’s nice to live in Iceland, where 70% of all crimes committed are traffic offences. Still, last winter’s incidents in Paris and Copenhagen hit a little closer to home than we may like. A February report by the National Commissioner of the Icelandic Police declared that “uncertainty about the terrorist threat is growing in Iceland and the other Nordic countries,” and that here in Iceland, “generally speaking, it is not possible to exclude the risk of terrorism.”
We asked a few local security pundits what kind of terrorist threat we could be facing here in Iceland, to help get a better idea of what this means.
Is extremism on the rise?
According to the European Union’s law enforcement agency, Europol, the threat level in Europe is growing, and it has not been this high in Europe since the 9/11 attacks in the US. Still, in the age of the 24-hour news cycle, it is important to question how much extremist violence is growing—and how much it seems to be the case due to the media’s fixation on tragedy (irony: noted). When asked if they think extremism is becoming more of an issue in Europe and in Iceland specifically, our sources gave mixed responses.
“The fixation of some politicians and media on extremism, especially Islamic extremism, is out of proportion and politically motivated,” said Stefán Pálsson, the chairman of Samtök Hernaðarandstæðinga, an Icelandic pacifist society. Independence Party MP Ásmundur Friðriksson took an opposing view. “There’s certainly a growing threat of terrorism in Europe, as the examples show. It’s important that we pay close attention and stay alert regarding our own security,” he said.
“It’s definitely becoming more of an issue,” said Pirate Party MP Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson, finding the middle ground, “but the reactions to it scare me much more than the terrorism itself.” When it comes to terrorism, he said, there’s a tendency to panic: “It’s not something that we should be panicking over, it’s something we should be dealing with like crime.”
For former NATO advisor Chris Jagger, whether extremism is on the rise is beside the point. “Those charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe are, unfortunately, overwhelmed with leads of potential terrorists,” he said. “The simple fact is that the resources do not match the threat.”
Are the police prepared for an act of terrorism in Iceland?
If extremism is in fact on the rise, are the Icelandic police prepared to handle an attack like the ones in Paris or Copenhagen? Ásmundur thinks not, and has been making his opinion on Islamic extremism clear. In fifteen hardly reassuring words @logreglan wrote via Twitter, “the police do everything they can to be prepared for any situation that may arise.”
Stefán and Helgi gave very similar answers. Neither one thinks any country can be adequately prepared for random acts of terrorism, and both expressed concerns over moving towards “dystopian fascist societies” or “1984” in a pursuit of total freedom from terrorism. “We will always have some form of terrorism,” Helgi said. “I don’t know at what time it became reasonable to expect terrorism to just go away forever. I don’t remember a time without terrorism. I don’t think it ever existed, and I don’t think it ever will.” The National Commissioner’s report expresses a need for increased investigative powers when it comes to matters of terrorism and organised crime, giving Stefán and Helgi’s fear a bit more weight.
What are the best steps to prevent terrorist or extremist violence in Iceland?
The National Commissioner’s report suggests the following precautions: legislation on increased police investigative powers; legislation on prohibition of travel by foreign terrorist fighters; more officers, experts and equipment; the creation of a special unit to combat terrorism; information sharing between police, social and health workers regarding individuals who may pose a threat; and a social resource for those exposed to radicalisation.
When we asked our experts about the best steps to prevent extremist violence in Iceland, the responses were a bit less STASI. “Perhaps below the radar of public perception, progress is being made across Europe in leaps and bounds towards reducing the threat from terrorism,” Chris said, noting that de-radicalisation of potential terrorists after an early arrest has already proved highly successful in the UK. He also noted the importance of the authorities keeping the public involved. “From my experience prevention almost always starts with good public co-operation,” he said.
Somewhat ironically, on this topic, the Independence Party MP looked to Europe for the answer, while the leftleaning pacifist took an isolationist stance. “It seems natural that the police have the tools and legislation that are considered normal in the neighbouring countries that we want to compare ourselves to,” Ásmundur said, in contrast to Stefán, who indicated that Iceland is simply too small and insignificant to be a plausible target. “How small and farflung Iceland is from the rest of Europe almost by definition makes the idea of a major terrorist attack in Iceland highly unlikely,” Stefán said.
Helgi said that while serious tools are needed to combat serious crimes there is a tendency to sacrifice civil rights and liberties in the pursuit of security. “If liberal democracies intend to remain liberal democracies, they will have to bloody well live with the fact that we live in an unsafe world. We cannot have both security and liberty at the same time, there never was a time when we did. We shouldn’t act as if that’s possible because the moment that we do, we will lose one, if not both.”
Why aren’t Icelanders running away to the Islamic State?
Over the past year there have been reports of Europeans and North Americans leaving their home countries and joining the Islamic State. This does not seem to be happening in Iceland, but Ásmundur and Helgi both questioned whether we would actually know if any Icelanders had sought to join IS. Chris agreed that it is hard to say for certain that no Icelander has joined IS or has any connections to it. That being said, he believes it’s unlikely because there has not been an indication of sympathies towards the cause in Iceland.
Stefán suggested it’s because Iceland does not operate a military. “Armies come with glorification of militarism and ill-judged optimism towards warfare,” he said. “The bigger the role of the military in society, the more young people will be drawn to that lifestyle—and are thus more likely to pursue a career as mercenaries or radical militants.”
Based on their research, the National Commissioner reports that most people who join the Islamic State are young second and third generation immigrants who are looking for social recognition. Helgi sees this marginalisation as the fault of Western democracies that force assimilation out of fear that their societies might become less “French” or “German,” for example. “We are an international community, multiculturalism is not optional. The only question is how you deal with it. And I submit you should start by acknowledging it. Stop pretending as if we have a choice.”
Chris sees all this as a common myth that needs to be corrected. “It is wrong to think that only marginalised young males are joining Islamic State,” he said. “It seems that individuals from all walks of life are capable of demonstrating everything from sympathy to the aims and objectives of the Islamic State on one end of the spectrum to giving their lives on the other to the cause on the other.”
Should the Icelandic police be armed?
After the police were forced to return their “gifts” to Norway in November [Ed. they still haven’t], it is clear where most Icelanders stand on police weaponry. When asked if the Icelandic police should be armed, Stefán clearly stated that they are more than sufficiently armed as it is.
In a response to a question posed by Left-Green MP Katrín Jakobsdóttir, the Interior Ministry reported that the police have 590 guns, which seemed more than sufficient until the National Commissioner reported that there are 72,000 registered firearms in the country and “the number of unregistered weapons is unknown.”
“They certainly shouldn’t be armed in their everyday tasks, absolutely not,” Helgi said, “it causes more problems than it solves.” Chris was sceptical that more guns would act as a deterrent. “As the event in France demonstrated, protecting vulnerable people and property is not always achieved using weapons,” he said. “The ideal position for a security agency is to prevent an attack well before its intended date; to do so normally requires sophisticated intelligence gathering operations.”
The National Commissioner used similar reasoning in their recommendation for pre-emptive investigative powers for the Icelandic police. Iceland’s neighbours have enacted such legislation in the past, but the Icelandic Parliament has repeatedly rejected the idea. The police argue that without such powers, they cannot investigate and prevent terror plots in the making, but can only respond to acts after it’s too late. As Helgi and Stefán argue, when the authorities are given the power to investigate individuals who have not yet committed a crime, society walks a fine line between civil liberties and security.
Róbert R. Spanó, an Icelandic-Italian judge at the European Court of Human Rights, has argued that pre-emptive investigative powers may, unfortunately, be necessary to combat terrorism and modern forms of organised crime. However, if they are introduced, it is imperative that they are accompanied by strict regulations and oversight. The Pirate Party believes that oversight is already needed, proposing legislation for an independent police oversight committee to Parliament last month. Perhaps this will lay the groundwork for better and more responsible police investigations.
Are we safe?
The National Commissioner’s report places Iceland under a moderate threat level, meaning that however unlikely a terrorist attack may be, it is impossible to exclude the possibility of one. “In my experience,” Chris Jagger said, “there is no such thing as total security.” So, a moderate threat level may be the best one could hope for. In the mean time, it seems the most conclusive answer is: we are not unsafe. Ásmundur put it simply: he feels safe in his everyday life as an Icelander, “but nevertheless, we have to have a discussion about the problem.”
Our Informants, from left to right
Chris Jagger: Chris worked at the London Metropolitan Police, New Scotland Yard, and the British National Criminal Intelligence Service, before becoming a United Nations Head of Military Liaison, a NATO Advisor on Organised Crime, Border and Maritime Security and a NATO Director of National Security Vetting.
Stefán Pálsson: Stefán is the chairman of Samtök Hernaðarandstæðinga, an Icelandic pacifist society.
Ásmundur Friðriksson: Ásmundur is an Independence Party MP who has become known for taking a hard line against possible Islamist threats.
Helgi Hrafn Gunnarsson: Helgi is a Pirate Party MP, and has been vocal about making sure the Icelandic police remain accountable.