Bjørn Ihler saw friends die at the hands of Anders Breivik in one of the worst terrorist attacks in modern European history. His response was brave – and astonishing
Bjørn Ihler is telling me his story on a rooftop bar in London, when a sudden burst of explosions causes the people at the next table to jump. “Just fireworks,” Ihler says with a wry smile.
It was six years ago, on a glistening blue July morning, that Ihler heard what he first took to be fireworks, cracking out across the meadows on the small Norwegian island of Utøya, where a group of young activists were gathered for a summer camp. “I was just wandering over to the food tent to get some waffles, and suddenly there was all this noise. I couldn’t understand what was happening.”
Even when he saw the man raising the gun, and the bodies starting to fall, it took a while to realise what was unfolding. “I thought: ‘They have to be pretending. This must be some kind of training exercise, or something.’ My mind kept trying to rationalise it – because the consequences of being wrong were just too immense to contemplate. Utøya is a beautiful island in the middle of the countryside in the most peaceful country in the world. If you were to pick the last place where you could imagine anything bad happening, this would be it.”
The news might all seem bad, but good things are happening too.
As the horror of what was under way hit home, Ihler’s day turned into a surreal struggle to survive – running through the island’s woods, desperately seeking hiding places along its rocky shoreline, while some of his friends fell dead around him. For much of the time, he was also helping shelter two small boys, sons of the camp staff, “trying to keep them calm so they didn’t cry out, asking them what they hoped to get for Christmas, that sort of thing”.
At one point, after leaping into the lake in an effort to swim to safety, he glanced over his shoulder and found himself looking straight at the gunman. “I saw him take aim, then I felt the bullet skim just past my ear.” A few more shots followed, each missing, until the killer turned away. Eventually, the police arrived, and the gunman – a far right extremist called Anders Breivik – surrendered, leaving 69 young people dead.
Unsurprisingly, the media portrayed Breivik – who had earlier set off a huge bomb in Oslo – as a monster, as “pure evil”. But in the days and weeks that followed, Ihler realised he didn’t share that view. “I’d seen him; I knew this wasn’t Voldemort – this was a human being.” And while that might make the murders somehow more terrible, it also triggered in Ihler something approaching curiosity: what had made a human behave like this? And what might have made him behave differently?
It was the start of a journey that has led Ihler to work with former extremists – mainly on the right, but including far left and Islamic radicals too – trying to understand what drove them towards violence, and what lessons may help others away from the same path.
I knew this wasn’t Voldemort – this was a human being. I care about him as much as any other human being
He readily admits that it felt very strange to start with. “The first meeting I had was with a Canadian far right activist. We’d arranged to meet, through a go-between, in the cafe in Waterstones bookshop in Piccadilly. And I was so nervous! But then when we met, it was obvious he was really nervous too. And that helped lower the barriers.”
That first meeting led to more, and convinced Ihler that extremists – far from being demons or monsters – are humans with the capacity to change. “Before, I’d been sceptical. But seeing the shift in him made me realise it was possible.” Several years later, and the two have even become friends. “In fact, I’m now friends with quite a few people who in the past, because of their worldview, would probably have wanted to kill me.”
Ihler has even reached out to Breivik, although efforts to arrange a meeting have got “stuck in the bureaucracy” of the Norwegian prison system. “I was hoping to do a documentary where I’d ask him what brought him to Utøya – in all honesty? He’d start off with his political manifesto, I know that of course, with all that bullshit – but maybe if we kept talking we’d get to something else. It might still happen.”
Meanwhile, Ihler has spoken up in favour of Breivik being treated well in prison. “It’s right that he’s there, of course, because he’s clearly still a threat to society. But he’s got the same human rights as anyone else. And I care about him as much as any other human being.”
The true meaning of safety
Perhaps the biggest lesson from all his encounters is that “extremists on wildly different sides actually have a lot in common. They really are incredibly similar both in their views of the world and how they think they should deal with it, and in the drivers that made them who they are”. Chief among these, he says, is a sense of isolation, of feeling under threat from ‘the other’ to the point where they lash out, almost as a kind of preventative attack. Nipping extremism in the bud means instilling an acceptance of diversity, he says. “It means being able to be comfortable with someone having different ideas from you; a different way of life from you; being able to accept that, and learn to live with it.
“Governments talk a lot about security – which usually means more military, more police, surveillance, more being suspicious of everyone. I talk a lot about safety – feeling safe in your community, feeling safe and at peace with who you are, and who your neighbours are.”
I’m now friends with quite a few people who in the past would probably have wanted to kill me
Ihler has been through more in his 26 years than many do in a lifetime. Yet on the surface, at least, he seems to wear it lightly. Bearded and well-built, he has a laid-back, friendly manner – easygoing, almost. He lives now with his Libyan wife in the Swedish countryside, but spends a lot of time in London and elsewhere, taking his message to the media, and into schools and community groups, too.
He finds schoolchildren the most receptive. “I talk about what makes people turn to extremism, and how we all share a responsibility to help them avoid going down that path. The kids really seem to take it to heart. The teachers tell me that after one of my talks, they notice improvements in the way children treat each other. There seems to be less bullying.”
For the most part, Ihler does this work unpaid, supporting himself with a job on a Norwegian news website. Recently he’s become part of Extremely Together, a new initiative set up by former UN secretary general Kofi Annan, with the backing of the EU and One Young World, a UK-based charity for young leaders. It brings together 10 young people from countries as varied as Somalia, Pakistan, Germany and the UK to collaborate on ways to defuse violent extremism.
In a world where governments struggle to establish complex deradicalisation strategies, Ihler has a disarmingly simple prescription that anyone can follow. “Grab a cup of tea with a neighbour who’s different from you. Learn about each other’s lives. Just chat. It really can be as simple as that.”