Did the Internet play a decisive role in Anders Behring Breivik’s violent radicalisation? In a recent study of Breivik’s online activities, I went through his posts on various message boards between 2002 and 2011, in addition to a collection of more than 7,000 of his private e-mails forwarded by Norwegian hackers to a Norwegian journalist six days after the terrorist attacks. I also attended Breivik’s 2012 trial on a daily basis, which offered further insights into Breivik’s Internet adventures and road to militancy.
My study led me to five main findings: First, Breivik never discussed his terrorist plans with anyone online. In fact, his online posts can hardly be described as extreme compared to some of the posts that appear regularly in the comments sections in mainstream news media. In other words, even if Norwegian Security Authorities had systematically monitored his online activity, it is unlikely that they would have responded.
Second, Breivik’s critical views on Islam and socialism had been established long before the so-called counterjihad blogs were created. These blogs may therefore have played a less decisive role for Breivik’s early radicalisation than assumed by many. Later on, however, the same blogs certainly echoed parts of Breivik’s worldview, although they come across as far less extreme than the ideological statements Breivik made in his own manifesto, in court, and from prison.
Third, Breivik’s original intention was not to become a terrorist, but to become a professional author and publisher. He spent a lot of time and resources to establish a magazine for so-called cultural conservatives. It was only in 2009, when he was rejected by some of the people he admired and wanted to cooperate with – bloggers, politicians and online publishers – that he apparently decided to turn to mass violence, and started preparing the attacks.
Fourth, a prolonged withdrawal from family and friends as a result of extensive online gaming may have influenced Breivik’s disposition to self-radicalise. In 2006, he moved back to his mother’s apartment and took a year off to play computer games. Extensive online gaming continued to dominate Breivik’s life in the years leading up to the attacks. Eventually, he stopped hanging out with his old friends despite continuous efforts on their part to include him.
This is not to say that it was the violent content of computer games per se that influenced his disposition for violence. Many people play violent games, yet very few engage in violence. Moreover, online gaming does not by definition lead to social isolation; it can be a rather social activity. In fact, the social dimension of online gaming makes it a potentially attractive alternative for someone experiencing difficulties in the “real” world. The social commitments are smaller, and you get to be part of a team that, depending on the type of game you are playing, fights together against various enemies – some of them more adventurous and spectacular than others.
The potential danger of such an alternative reality is that it can be so attractive to some that they decide to spend most of their time in it, and gradually lose their connections to the “real” world and the people closest to them. The latter are perhaps the only ones that could potentially prevent someone like Breivik, who already suffered from multiple personality disorders, from self-radicalising and gradually accepting mass violence as a legitimate means to an end.
Finally, the Internet offered Breivik the necessary knowledge and ingredients to build a large deadly fertilizer bomb. In fact, it appears that Breivik, through experimentation and dedication, was the first person to devise a bomb from diluted fertilizer. Measures to dilute the concentration of ammonium nitrate in fertilizer was introduced in Europe after the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995. The aim was to ensure that fertilizer products could never again be used to manufacture bombs. Breivik nonetheless managed to synthesize knowledge from hundreds of online bomb recipes to produce a very powerful bomb based on diluted fertilizer.
So, would Breivik have become a terrorist and a mass murderer if the Internet did not exist, all other things being equal (ceteris paribus)? No one will ever know for sure. There are several reasons to believe that the Internet intensified and boosted Breivik’s violent radicalisation. It offered him a place where he could cultivate his radical views largely uncontested. It offered him relevant tactical skills and knowledge. And it offered him an alternative reality contributing to his gradual distancing from family and friends, which, in turn, may have been a precondition for his radicalisation.
On the other hand, the Internet is in many ways only a reflection of the “real” world, and thus shares its unpredictable and complex features. It is what you make of it. While the Internet can be seen as a source for radicalisation, it can easily have the opposite effect too, depending on how you use it. We must therefore be extremely careful when drawing conclusions about the Internet’s effects on particular outcomes. The Internet is perhaps more fruitfully seen as a means to an end rather than as cause to an outcome. As such, it certainly facilitated Breivik’s violent radicalisation, but it does not explain it.
Jacob Aasland Ravndal is a PhD-candidate at the Norwegian Defence Research Establishment (FFI). Follow Jacob on Twitter: https://twitter.com/Jacravn
A longer version of this article published in 2013, can be accessed here.