Strengthening support for those affected by terrorism


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As we mark twelve years since the terrorist attack on Utøya, Norway, we all owe it to our next generation to do better, writes Travis Frain, Chair, National Counterterrorism Youth Advisory Group and Lecturer, University of Salford.

At 3.25 PM on 22 July 2011, a van filled with explosives detonated outside Oslo’s Government Quarter.

Within two hours of the explosion, a man disguised as a Police Officer arrived at Utøya Island, a summer camp for young people interested in politics, and began to open fire on children and adults alike.

The perpetrator, a far-right extremist, would claim the lives of 77 people and injure over 320 that day, with the youngest victims only 14 years old.

I spent several days in Norway in July, accompanying several of those affected.

They took me under their wing as though I was one of their own; surveying the scene of both attacks, meeting Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt and many other cabinet ministers and travelling to Utøya on the 22nd to mark 12 years since the attack.

The island is now a living memorial upholding the legacy of those who died; not just a plaque or commemoration, but a location where young people from around the world can continue to be brought together to debate the great issues of our time and foster the development of stronger democracies around the world.

Despite such positivity, there remains the scars of what happened on that fateful day: The bullet holes in the debate halls where students were mercilessly executed, the steep cliffs and embankments where victims as young as twelve were forced to decide whether to hide on the island or brave the long swim through dark, freezing water to safety – all whilst the attacker continued to take potshots at them from the shoreline.

Printouts of text messages from desperate parents trying to contact their children, with no response, were stapled to the cafeteria walls. It is these memories that will remain with me for some time – and so they should.

Norway has been unafraid to confront the despicable acts of pure, unadulterated evil that occurred that day.

Determined not to cower away from failures and a bungled police response to the attack, they have built from scratch an effective network of support for those affected through the Stottegruppen 22.juli, a national support network funded by the Norwegian government of the likes we simply do not yet have in the UK – a point that was met with incredulity by the many Norwegian survivors I met.

And yet, in this respect, Britain is quickly becoming the outlier.

In a report I launched back in March 2022, we researched the support provided to victims of terrorism in eight different countries around the world: The UK, US, Canada, France, Belgium, Australia, New Zealand and Spain.

Each nation was chosen for its similarities with the UK – both in culture, history and geopolitical alignment.

In almost every area, each country’s systems excelled those in the UK.

We hear all too often of how the UK’s counter terrorism strategies are world leading – and it is true that many other countries have attempted to emulate Britain’s Prevent Duty within their own context.

However, I’d struggle to describe the support we currently provide to those affected by terror as anything other than abysmal.

Whilst the content I witnessed at Utoya is harrowing, it paints a familiar picture for me – having survived the Westminster Bridge terrorist attack myself in March 2017, I can relate all too well to many of the issues that have faced the victims of Utoya.

I suffered multiple injuries, had two operations during my eight days in hospital and faced six months on crutches and a walking stick whilst recovering.

The events of 22 July 2011 were undoubtedly an attack on Norwegian democratic values.

The targeting of government officials and the attacker’s focus on murdering the youngest members of the Labour Party were intended to cripple those beliefs which he so vehemently disagreed with.

The same has often been said of the attack in which I was injured; sure, the terrorist targeted pedestrians like myself at random on Westminster Bridge, but his end destination was always going to be the Houses of Parliament, a symbolic embodiment of British democracy.

Whilst it is true that the attacks of 22 July marked a watershed moment in Norwegian history, with one in every four Norwegians personally knowing someone affected, it should not be a requirement that we all personally know someone affected by terrorism in order to sympathise with their struggle.

So, with so much in common, why did our government react so differently to Norway’s?   

I was also invited in July to attend the relaunch of Britain’s counterterrorism strategy, CONTEST – it was the first time in British history, to my knowledge, that the Home Office made a proactive attempt to involve and incorporate victims of terrorism into our discussions on how we prevent future attacks.

It was undoubtedly a positive development and I am incredibly grateful to the Home Secretary for including us, but having returned from Norway I can’t help but feel our progress on these issues is painfully slow.

Norway, like New Zealand, had one major attack and jumped into action – listening to the needs of victims and acting to ensure that those needs are met, both now and in the future with any further attacks that may emerge.

We in the UK have a long history with terrorism, as is often proudly proclaimed by our politicians, yet still our victims are not receiving the support they both need and deserve – from attacks in the 1970s and 1980s, right through to the most recent incidents.

Victims of terrorism are not static actors.

Their involvement with terrorism does not begin and end with the attack in which they were injured or bereaved.

When new attacks happen, it brings the experience flooding back for those affected – and, unlike many other crimes, it’s almost impossible to avoid any mention of terrorism.

It’s in the media, on the news and in books, television and films.

Equally, victims of terrorism are often targeted by conspiracy theorists and other violent extremists seeking to capitalise upon their vulnerability and cause further pain.

By the nature of their involvement in terror, and by no fault of their own, they inevitably become proxies for the state in a far greater international, ideological conflict, than they could ever hope to comprehend.

Hence, there is particular additional responsibility placed upon the state to support those impacted, for any failure to do so would demonstrate a damning indictment on our values as a nation.

Have we as a nation become so numb to the effects of terrorism that we have become accustomed to stagnation?

We know that terrorists will strike again – that much is almost certain. Whatever the ideology of the attack, the impact on those affected is all too familiar.

Thus, as we mark twelve years since the attack on Utoya, we all owe it to our next generation to do better and to act quicker to support those affected – whoever that attack affects, wherever that attack may take place and whoever perpetrates it.

1-ISJ- Strengthening support for those affected by terrorism
Travis Frain
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