How one survivor fights extremism

Bjørn Ihler narrowly escaped death on the Norwegian island of Utøya in 2011, and now works to prevent violent extremism. He talks to Davina Patel.

In 2011, during his vacation from Liverpool University, 20-year-old Bjørn Ihler at tended the summer camp of the youth wing of the ruling Norwegian Labour Party on the island of Utøya.

On the afternoon of 22 July, the participants were told that there had been an explosion in Oslo. ‘Norway had never seen terrorism,’ he says. ‘At first people thought it was a gas explosion, but it was soon obvious that it was something bigger. Luckily only eight people had died.’

As the Oslo delegation frantically tried to get through to friends and family, the man who had planted the bomb, Anders Breivik, was on his way to the island dressed in a fake police uniform. He had decided to attack the camp because he thought that the Labour party was ‘in favour of the Islamisation of Norway’.

When the shooting began, the security team thought it was coming from across the lake, and gathered everyone in the centre of the island. ‘Then a man in dark clothing came towards us. Some people ran towards him, but he lifted his gun and shot people straight down.

My friend and I r an in the direction of the forest.’ On the way he found an eight-year-old boy, paralyzed with fear. (He later discovered that the boy’s father had been one of the first people to be killed.) Bjørn carried him into the forest and they hid together, with gunshots sounding around them. As the shooting got closer, a crowd started running towards them, including another young boy who was on his own.

Bjørn picked up the two boys and ran with them. ‘At one point, I stumbled into a pile of dead bodies. I recognised my friends. In that pile, I heard a phone ringing. Someone was trying to contact their loved one. They would never be able to talk to them again.’

They ended up on the tip of the island. To their relief, a man who looked like a police officer appeared, but he lifted his gun and started shooting. Everyone jumped into the water. Breivik kept shooting at the swimmers, and Bjørn saw him taking aim at him. ‘I thought I was going to die. I came to peace with this very quickly. Thankfully he missed.’ He and the two boys swam around the corner and hid in the water under some bushes until it was safe to climb out.

Meanwhile, Breivik had surrendered to the police. 69 people were dead. ‘Dealing with the trauma and finding my way back to life was extremely painful. I was somehow OK with being dead but I haven’t always been OK with being alive,’ says Bjørn. ‘I now work every day to stop violent extremism.’

On the day of the at tacks, Breivik issued a 2,000- page explanation of his actions. Bjørn read it and then, in November 2011, encountered Breivik in court for the first time. ‘I realised that he is just another human. We’ve got to figure out how he became an extremist and what we can do to make sure people don’t follow his path.’

Extremists remove the humanity from those they want to kill, Bjørn explains. ‘Psychologically you can kill cockroaches, but you can’t kill another human being in this sort of way. Extremists don’t see people as human beings. If we stop seeing each other as human beings then we’re at risk of becoming extremists ourselves.’ Demonizing Breivik gives him more power than he deserves.

‘We are all the result of the stories we believe to be true about ourselves,’ he continues. ‘We often forget that extremes grow out of every community.’ He criticises the media’s focus on Islamic extremism to the exclusion of far right extremism.

Bjørn uses social media and film to combat extremism, and share positive and diverse stories. ‘I find people with radical views online and I talk to them.’ The danger of such platforms as Facebook, he points out, is that people only select the information they agree with, and believe that’s the only truth. ‘Desmond Tutu says, “Extremism is the violent denial of diversity.” Diversity is about people being and thinking differently. If you have a strong, positive identity, you are not uncomfortable with someone else.’

Bjørn is currently producing a film about the radicalisation of a young Danish man who joined ISIS . ‘This boy was not just a terrorist, he was someone’s son,’ he says. ‘He wanted to do good, I think. He was just so misled by people who abused him.’

Photos by Jonty Herman of ICSY Productions