Lessons from the Norway terror attack

It was estimated that 1 in 4 Norwegians knew someone who had been directly affected by the deadliest attack in Norway since World War II


On July 22, 2011, a political terrorist parked a vehicle-borne improvised explosive device (VBIED) near a collection of federal government buildings in the center of Oslo, Norway. About 10 minutes after he departed the area, the car bomb exploded, killing eight people and wounding upwards of 209 more.

After he left the government center, the killer got into another vehicle and drove about 20 miles northwest of Oslo, to a location where he boarded a ferry to the island of Utoya. Upon reaching Utoya, the terrorist began to shoot the adult staff and youth participants of the Norwegian Labor Party’s summer camp, which was being held on the island. The killer began his rampage on the island at approximately 17:22, and continued to kill innocents until he was confronted by the members of a national police tactical team (“Delta”), just over an hour later. The suspect surrendered to police and was taken into custody, after killing 69 people and wounding at least 110 more.

This complex attack would have been horrific in any country, but it was particularly frightening for the residents of this normally quiet nation. It was the deadliest attack in Norway since World War II, and it was estimated that 1 in 4 Norwegians knew someone who had been directly affected by the violence.

Flowers and Norwegian flags outside the court house where the killer was being tried on May 3, 2012 for the July 22, 2011 massacre. (Photo/Geir Halvorsen via Flickr)
Flowers and Norwegian flags outside the court house where the killer was being tried on May 3, 2012 for the July 22, 2011 massacre. (Photo/Geir Halvorsen via Flickr)

Attendees at the National Tactical Officers Association (NTOA) 2018 annual tactical conference were fortunate to get an extensive debrief of the police response to this attack from two Norwegian police officers who responded to the Oslo and Utoya sites. They shared their experiences and identified many of the lessons learned from this terrible attack, which included the following:

The importance of vehicle exclusion

The terrorist was able to drive his van right up to the government buildings and park it next to the main entrance of one of the towers. There were no gates, barriers, or other security checkpoints to keep unauthorized vehicle traffic away from the building, so the terrorist was able to place his bomb right next to his target, where it could do the most damage. Considering the threat posed by VBIEDs and vehicle-ramming attacks, it’s critically important to keep vehicles away from likely target buildings and large concentrations of people, using physical barriers, checkpoints, intelligent routing of access roads and other security measures.

Use of camouflage

The terrorist dressed in a fake police uniform to carry out the attacks, which gave him many advantages. A police helmet with a face shield helped to conceal his identity as he walked away from the car bomb. His uniform and false identification also made it easy to trick the ferry pilot that took him to the island and allowed him to get close to his target once he reached the shore. The camp staff was initially tricked by the uniform, and by the time they got suspicious, he was already in range to carry out his assault with the weapons he had openly wielded as part of his costume.

Later, when real police officers arrived on the island to stop the killing and rescue the innocents, many of the victims refused to come out of hiding or ran away from the officers, because they believed them to be additional attackers. This complicated the rescue effort and made it even more difficult to provide medical care to the wounded.

Fake uniforms and identification can make it easier for attackers to access sensitive areas and bring weapons into those areas. They can also cause confusion or delay for responding officers, which could give an attacker a tactical advantage when confronted. This kind of camouflage could also make it easier for attackers to escape. For all these reasons and more, police officers and agencies must safeguard uniforms, equipment, and credentials, and thoroughly investigate the theft of any of these items (from vehicles, dry cleaning businesses, government offices, etc.).

This concern extends to uniforms, equipment and credentials from other professions as well. Items from fire departments, EMS, utility companies, private security, hotels, public venues and other sources can be effectively used to provide access to sensitive areas, and police should investigate their theft or disappearance.

Tactical Emergency Casualty Care (TECC)

One of the officers who addressed the NTOA crowd was off duty in the downtown area when the car bomb exploded and spent the majority of his effort attending to casualties with a small first aid kit from his personal vehicle, and improvised bandages and tourniquets. The other officer ‒ a member of the Delta team, who helped to arrest the suspect on Utoya island ‒ also spent most of his effort assisting victims and treating their wounds with his personal first aid kit and improvised means. Both of these officers strongly encouraged LEOs to seek additional TECC training, and have access to enhanced medical kits ‒ with enough supplies to treat a large number of wounded ‒ for mass casualty incidents (MCIs) like this one.

Most police officers receive little training in casualty care, but in the aftermath of an MCI, the police may become the primary providers of medical care in warm and hot zones, because fire and EMS crews may be prohibited from entering. Officers will probably spend more time treating and evacuating the wounded than searching for the killer, so better medical training is a must.

Additionally, officers need access to suitable quantities of medical equipment. The officers in the Norway attack did an excellent job of improvising tourniquets, chest seals and bandages with other items, but these makeshift devices will never be as effective as dedicated medical equipment. Our experience in events like the Boston Marathon bombing and the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting has demonstrated that improvised tourniquets are usually ineffective, for example, so police should have access to MCI kits that will allow them to attend to a large number of casualties.

Command, Control and Communications

The Norwegian police experienced highs and lows in their coordination during this event.

Early on, an important tip from a citizen was mishandled at the command post, and it took several hours for incident leaders to learn that the suspect from the Oslo bombing had driven away in a car, wearing a police uniform. The description of the suspect and car might have allowed the police to intercept the suspect on his way to the Utoya island ferry if it had been properly handled, but this critical information was lost in the chaos for a while.

Communication problems (including incompatible radio networks) between the national tactical team and the local police officers caused frustrating delays in deploying the Delta members to the island. There were also some police leadership failures at the local level, which held district police officers back from engaging the suspect early on, and also prevented the tactical team from getting timely boat transportation to the island.

Yet, there were some highlights in the police response as well. The members of the Delta team mobilized and deployed on their own initiative well in advance of any formal call out, which put them on scene sooner. They also took the initiative to conduct secondary searches at the site of the bombing in the absence of formal direction from overwhelmed police leadership, which enhanced scene security.

Additionally, patrol officers took the initiative to halt southbound traffic on a major highway, to allow the Delta team to bypass traffic congestion, by driving northbound on the wrong side of the road. This clever improvisation saved critical minutes as the police raced to stop the attack.

It’s common for command and control to be the weak link in the chain during a tactical incident. The officers in the field usually do a good job of solving problems, but communication, leadership, coordination and planning issues usually handicap the response. In this sense, the Norway attack reminds us that one of the most valuable things we can do to prepare for MCIs is to train agency leaders in critical incident management skills and conduct regular and robust training exercises to ensure they are ready to take command in an emergency and make good decisions under stress.

Post-event mental health

While some group debriefs were held, there were no mandatory debriefs for individual officers after this attack. Mental health resources were available for those who wanted help, but there was no requirement for officers to see a mental health professional. Unfortunately, many officers who needed help dealing with the stress and trauma of the event didn’t ask for it and suffered silently.

This event also had second-order effects on mental health, with the family members of police officers, and police officers who were not directly involved, experiencing trauma as well.

After critical incidents like this attack, agencies should consider mandatory debriefings and counseling for involved officers to eliminate the stigma and social pressure associated with voluntary referrals to mental health professionals. The mental health net should also be cast wide enough to capture non-sworn support personnel, dispatchers, family members and uninvolved officers too since all of these groups will likely be affected in some way by the trauma and stress associated with a critical incident.

Our people are our most valuable resource, and we need to do a better job of taking care of them after events like this. Peer-to-peer counseling, mandatory individual referrals, group debriefs and mental health services are all part of helping our people heal, and police leaders must be ready to commit extra energy to these activities for a long time after a critical incident.

Information is power

The NTOA’s annual tactical conference provides an important forum for officers from all over the world to exchange information and ideas, and learn from each other. The 2018 conference attendees were fortunate indeed to have the opportunity to learn about these lessons and more from their Norwegian police peers, and if you would like to get access to powerful training like this, check out the NTOA’s website for information on the 2020 conference, which will be a virtual event this year.

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