OSLO — If a man walks into a drug store along one of this city’s winding streets and buys three boxes of aspirin, there would be no reason to take notice.
But when Anders Behring Breivik visited 20 drug stores a day for four days and bought three packages of aspirin at each stop - then separately ordered six tons of fertilizer, chemicals and a semiautomatic rifle - he still largely escaped attention.
Now, after the massacre of 77 people in a meticulously planned rampage, Norwegian authorities are forced to look at what they could have done to prevent or identify Mr. Breivik’s pattern of purchases and other suspect behavior.
Figuring out how government should respond will present a tough test. It pushes up against laws protecting personal freedoms and the likelihood that, even with more forceful intelligence, an isolated and thorough plotter such as Mr. Breivik will remain exceeding difficult to stop.
Mr. Breivik says in his 1,518-page manifesto that he bought the aspirin to obtain acetylsalicylic acid, which he combined with other chemicals to build the truck bomb he planted in central Oslo.
He was painstaking in arranging his purchases - creating elaborate cover stories including renting a farm and documenting a plan to grow sugar beets - to stay within the law and the norms of doing business.
The Oslo attack already has spurred antiterrorism officials at the European Union, consulting with their counterparts in Norway, to look at ways to flag suspicious sales of legal chemicals, including fertilizer, that can be used to make explosives.
EU specialists will discuss exactly how such a new system would work when they meet at a specially called conference in December, said Tim Jones, principal adviser to the EU’s counterterrorism coordinator.
Meanwhile, Norwegian officials say they plan a thorough re-examination of laws and intelligence methods.
“Can we do something differently?” asked Janne Kristiansen, director of the PST, Norway’s national security agency. “We will do that with our sister agencies all over Europe. I’m certain that my colleagues want to talk to me about ‘What can we do if we are in the same position?’.”
What could be done differently is hardly a matter of consensus in this country of 4.9 million people.
Domestic surveillance is an especially touchy subject in Norway, a country that prides itself on its transparency and dedication to protecting civil liberties.
In the mid-1990s, revelations that Norway’s intelligence agencies had been spying illegally on Norwegians with suspected or stated communist leanings sparked public outcry, parliamentary hearings, a spate of resignations and ultimately an overhaul of the country’s intelligence apparatus.
Norway agreed earlier this year to participate in an EU counterterrorism initiative mandating that the government store citizens’ telecommunications for a fixed period of time - six months in Norway - after transmission.
Norwegian Justice Minister Knut Storberget has bemoaned surveillance limitations placed on the country’s counterterrorism investigators.
Investigations “are frequently hampered because of the ever-growing limitations on what can be logged and how long that data can be stored,” he told Norwegian news agency NTB.
To the contrary, says Per Sandberg, chairman of the Justice Committee in Norway’s Parliament.
“We’ve gone far enough already, looking into the private lives of Norwegians,” said Mr. Sandberg, who is a member of the right-wing Progress Party.
The head of the commission that investigated the claims of politically motivated espionage in the 1990s, Ketil Lund, told the Associated Press that, like Mr. Sandberg, he believes widening the scope of surveillance beyond the EU’s parameters is unlikely to gain much traction.
“After all, our state leaders have been talking so much about how this terrorist act should not lead to a more closed and less democratic society,” the retired Norwegian Supreme Court justice said.
Rather than more windows into how Norwegians live, Mr. Sandberg said, PST needs more analysts and ought seek to develop still greater counterterrorism expertise by consulting countries with long histories of dealing with terrorism, like the U.S. and Britain.
Currently, about 460 people work at PST.
Norway’s government announced plans to form an independent commission to examine a host of issues, including policing matters, stemming from the July 22 attacks.
Whatever comes out of that commission, the trick is to make it easier to catch this kind of person “without taking away the openness and liberties more than necessary,” Mr. Kristiansen said.
That won’t be easy.
“Acquiring of weapons or material would be one spot where you may be able to detect people before they do something, because you need stuff, but then again you don’t need lots,” said Magnus Norell, a senior analyst at the Swedish Defense Research Agency focused on terrorism.
Mr. Breivik was well aware of the law and was skilled at making sure he would not get caught.
In order to acquire a Glock pistol legally, he writes in his manifesto about attending 15 required training sessions from late 2010 to this past January.
To obtain the enormous quantities of aspirin, he explains how he mapped out a route to 20 drug stores - walking rather than driving because of the difficulty of finding parking in Oslo.
Stores were supposed to limit him to buying only two boxes at a time, but he explained that he needed three for his company as an antidote to hangovers during upcoming holiday parties.
He also appears to have recognized when he was at risk of tripping intelligence wires.
In an entry this past March, he outlines his effort obtain aluminum powder - intended as a component for the bomb - from Polish supplier Keten Chemicals.
It turns out that Keten was being watched by Interpol, the international police agency based in France, which reported orders by 50 to 60 Norwegians to the country’s intelligence officials.
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