OSLO, Norway — When Anders Behring Breivik launched his assault on the youth campers of Utoya Island, he expected Norway’s special forces to swoop down and stop him at any minute.
Instead, Delta Force police officers made the 25-mile journey by car — they have no helicopter — then had to b
e rescued by a civilian craft when their boat broke down as it tried to navigate a one-minute hop to the island.
It took police more than 90 minutes to reach the gunman, who by then had mortally wounded 68 people. Breivik immediately dropped his guns and surrendered, having exceeded his wildest murderous expectations.
As Oslo’s police force sounds an increasingly defensive note, international experts said Tuesday that Norway’s government and security forces must learn stark lessons from a massacre made worse by a lackadaisical approach to planning for terror.
“Children were being slaughtered for an hour and a half and the police should have stopped it much sooner,” said Mads Andenas, a law professor at the University of Oslo whose niece was on the island and survived by hiding in the bushes. One of his students was killed.
“Even taking all the extenuating circumstances into account, it is unforgivable,” he said.
These include the fact that Breivik preceded his one-man assault on the island with a car bomb in the heart of Oslo’s government center. Authorities were focused on helping survivors from that blast as the first frantic calls came in from campers hiding from the gunman on Utoya, northwest of Oslo.
Survivors said they struggled to get their panicked pleas heard because operators on emergency lines were rejecting calls not connected to the Oslo bomb. When police finally realized a gunman was shooting teens and 20-somethings attending a youth retreat on the island, Breivik had already been hunting them down for half an hour.
In a final act of bungling, police on Monday revised the island death toll down to 68, after initially miscounting the corpses at 86.
Breivik’s lawyer, Geir Lippestad, said Tuesday his client was surprised he even made it onto the island without being stopped by police, never mind that he was left to fire his assault rifle and handgun for so long.
The island’s lone part-time security guard was among the first people he killed.
Police spokesman Johan Fredriksen rebuffed criticism Tuesday of the planning and equipment failures, calling such comments “unworthy.”
“We can take a lot, we’re professional, but we are also human beings,” he said.
International experts said Norway must take a hard look at a response system apparently premised on the assumption that the country didn’t face a credible risk of terrorist attack, much less a back-to-back bombing and gun rampage.
That could be difficult in a country renowned for a culture of openness that has led to jaw-dropping security lapses in the past.
Norway’s most infamous crimes before Friday involved the 1994 and 2004 thefts of artworks by its best-known painter, Edvard Munch. In the first theft, the robbers left their ladder propped up against an unlocked National Gallery window — and replaced Munch’s “The Scream” with a mocking note: “Thanks for the poor security.”
Fernando Reinares, former senior anti-terrorism adviser to the Spanish government, said Friday’s attacks point to “an astonishing failure in police intelligence.” He said a competent anti-terrorist agency would have identified Breivik before he struck because of his purchases of bomb-making ingredients and specialist weaponry.
“Norway is behind other Western European countries in adapting internal security structures and procedures to face terrorist challenges,” Reinares said. “But there was also an amazing failure in police preparedness and reaction, both in terms of human resources and technical capabilities.”
Andrew Silke, director of terrorism studies at the University of East London, called the police response “a bit Keystone Kops” because Norway’s police were “just not used to dealing with something like this. The system was swamped.”
Frank Cilluffo, director of the Homeland Security Policy Institute at George Washington University, said Norway has been victimized in the same way as all countries caught off guard by terror.
“Their planners suffered a major failure of imagination, to foresee that the adversary could go that far,” he said. “But this is exactly what every counter-terror policy must do to be effective: to plan and train for worst-case scenarios. Because if you haven’t done that before the bomb goes off or the shooting starts, then you’re just improvising, and that just increases the dangers.”
In Norway’s case, the Delta Force squad — whose Norwegian name, “Beredskapstroppen,” means “emergency unit” — is equipped only to travel to crises on Norway’s largely two-lane road network. It took about a half-hour to cover the roughly 25-mile (40-kilometer) journey.
Police spokesman Sturla Henriksbo said Norway — a country spanning some 1,100 miles (1,750 kilometers) in length, with about 50,000 islands — has only one police helicopter, based at an airport north of Oslo. The helicopter has only four seats, including two for the pilots and one for an equipment manager.
“That helicopter is never assigned for the transportation of anyone, never mind Delta Force,” he said.
Still, it could have been used as a rapid-response platform for a police sniper, said Finn Abrahamsen, a former Oslo policeman who directed the force’s violent crimes unit.
But even that wasn’t possible on Friday: All police helicopter pilots were away on summer holidays.
Delta Force could have used an army helicopter, but decided it would take too long to scramble one from the nearest base in Rygge, some 40 miles (60 kilometers) to the south.
So they drove, then waited for the local police department to scramble its lone boat, a small rigid inflatable craft. All the while, shooting and screams could be heard from Utoya, just 600 yards (meters) away.
Within seconds of jumping on board, officers found themselves having to bail out the overloaded vessel. Then the engine became waterlogged and died.
“Too many policeman wanted to go too quickly to the island,” said Kgell Tvenge, commander of the police base in the nearby town of Honefoss where the boat is docked.
“But the boat didn’t sink. They got a new boat from a tourist,” he said.
Authorities say that within five minutes after the police reached the island, Breivik was disarmed and in custody.
In a 1,500-page manifesto published online before the attack, the killer said he planned to surrender as soon as police arrived, so that he could publicize his extreme nationalist and anti-Muslim views in court and inspire copycat attacks elsewhere.
Andenas, the law professor, said he would have expected Norway’s special forces to have trained to reach a popular retreat like Utoya within 15 minutes.
“Many people feel this was a very difficult situation, that one should take account of that and not be too critical of people who certainly tried to do their best,” Andenas said.
“But it was just not good enough. The police action was too little and too slow,” he said. “The cold truth is that many children who died out there should not have died.”
Associated Press writers Raphael Satter in London, Alan Clendenning in Madrid and Ian MacDougall in Oslo contributed to this report.