Scandinavia's Defendant-Friendly Criminal Justice Attitudes Extend to Terrorists

The rising threat of mass casualty terrorism poses a significant problem for the criminal justice systems of the Scandinavian countries.  Legal traditions favoring defendants, and evolved to serve populations that have historically been socially disciplined and characterized by low rates of violent crime, may not be ideal for safeguarding against terrorism or dispensing justice to those who perpetrate terrorist attacks.  

The Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Norway and Sweden have historically been among the least likely in the western world to experience violent crime in any form, including terrorism.  However in recent years terrorist acts and concerns related to both domestic and international terrorism have increased.  The risk of terrorist activity and the potential sources of such attacks are varied.  

Presently, Denmark is regarded by many experts to be the most likely Scandinavian target of international Islamist groups, stemming largely from the publication and reprinting of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in Danish newspapers beginning in 2005.  Radical Islamists also utilized Denmark and neighboring Sweden and Norway as safe havens to covertly finance their activities and to otherwise support their operations via the significant and rapidly growing Muslim émigré populations, elements of which may have been infiltrated by international jihadists or otherwise radicalized. 

While Islamist-inspired terrorism remains the primary concern driving counter-terrorism policy within Scandinavia, the deadliest terrorist attack in Norwegian history occurred in 2011 when a deranged native-born ethnic Norwegian, Anders Breivik, killed 77 people and wounded hundreds in lone wolf-style attacks.  Concern remains that political radicals or mentally unstable persons unconnected to any jihadist agenda could also be a source of terrorism in the future.


On July 22, 2011, a car bomb exploded in the government quarter of Oslo, Norway, shown above, killing eight people and wounding several others.  Hours later, 69 more victims were killed by the same perpetrator at a nearby youth resort.

Reflecting this reality, Scandinavian nations have implemented new anti-terrorism laws/policies and ostensibly made improvements with regard to capabilities.  However institutional differences exist between Scandinavia and most other western nations related to the legal mechanics of counterterrorism strategies, stemming from Scandinavians’ somewhat distinctive criminal justice mindset.  In comparison to the US and most other western countries, the Scandinavian judicial system is more defendant-friendly, stemming from a cultural and legal philosophy favoring increased standards for the protection of civil liberties.  For example, higher standards of evidence and procedural rules exist, it takes longer and usually costs more to take criminal cases to trial, and conviction rates are considerably lower than in most other western democracies.  The small minority of defendants that are found guilty receive what would be regarded as short sentences by international standards.  Breivik, for example, was sentenced to a mere 21 years in prison, the maximum sentence allowed by Norwegian law...though less than 4 months for each victim he murdered.

As a result, in criminal cases -- even those involving suspected terrorist plots -- Scandinavian authorities historically have been reluctant to make formal arrests, instead favoring pre-emptive efforts to disrupt plots via allowing suspects to know that they are under investigation, and even directly informing suspects what they are suspected of and what the legal consequences will be if the plans are carried out[i].  Non-citizens suspected of involvement in terrorism or other crimes might also merely be deported rather than arrested. 

Such approaches are shocking to citizens in most other countries and often frustrating to counterterrorism and law enforcement authorities within the international community, but for many years such tactics apparently succeeded in warding off terrorist attacks within the 3 countries.  Critics note that such strategies may to a great degree pass the problem of terrorism and the suspected plotters along to other countries if Scandinavian nations merely deport them or permit them to leave without being arrested or extradited for prosecution abroad. 

In the 1970s and 80s, Europe in general was perceived by the US to have a softer approach to dealing with terrorism, but in the wake of increased intensity of international terrorism, much of the continent has pursued a more aggressive stance in recent years[ii].  Partly due to international pressure and partly from the deteriorating international security climate regarding terrorism, an ongoing shift in counterterrorism approaches may be occurring in Scandinavia as well.   Terrorism-related arrests in have increased somewhat and all three nations have also seemingly become more receptive to extradition of terror suspects to the US and other partner nations in the global war on terror, perhaps viewing the judicial systems of other nations as better venues for dealing with terrorism suspects. 

“Effective Prosecution of terrorist offenders is a key to protecting the rights of victims: miscarriages of justice do nothing to protect the rights of victims and may lead to impunity for the real offenders.” Countering Terrorism, Protecting Human Rights: A Manual. (2008) Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

B.D. Mowell is a Senior Professor of International Studies at Broward College. He is the author of the chapter “Comparative Analysis of Counterterrorism Issues, Policies and Capabilities in Northern Europe and the Baltic States” in the forthcoming book, Palgrave Handbook of Global Counterterrorism Studies

[i] M. Apuzzo, A. Goldman, L. Nordstrom and J. Olsen, “Norway al-Qaida case highlights special Scandinavian counterterrorism strategy.”  Associated Press.  July 16, 2010. 

[ii] B. Hoffman, “Is Europe Soft on Terrorism?”  Foreign Policy.  No. 115, Summer 1999.