City shaken by bow and arrow murders reflects on terrorism and mental illness
KONGSBERG, Norway – A few years ago, a nervous Dane walked into a mosque in this peaceful Scandinavian town, seeking help in carrying a message to the world he claimed to have received “from above.”
The mosque spokesperson fired him. But he recalled the bizarre episode from last week after the man, Espen Andersen Brathen, confessed to killing five people on Wednesday with weapons, including a bow and arrow, leaving many in Kongsberg wondering how his life had deviated so terribly.
“I told him we weren’t a news agency,” Osama Tlili, who runs the only mosque in Kongsberg, said of the meeting about five years ago. “You could see the strain on his face and body, it made me uncomfortable, and I remember thinking, ‘This man is a risk. “”
Police initially said they believed Mr Brathen, 37, may have been motivated by Islamic extremism and committed acts of terrorism. Authorities highlighted the randomness of the targets and Mr. Brathen’s conversion to Islam.
But the evidence uncovered since seems to call this conclusion into question. Mr. Tlili says his first impression of Mr. Brathen, at the time a recent convert to Islam, suggested less a man motivated by religious fervor than a man with deep personal problems.
“Although it remains to be seen whether this is terrorism or psychiatry,” said Arne Christian Haugstoyl, head of the Norwegian counterterrorism unit at the Police Security Service, “throughout along the way, we saw his psychological problems, and that was our main concern, not his ideology.
In this ordinarily quiet town, the remnants of the crime scene wove a strange seam through the otherwise orderly clapboard streets: a crack in the window of the Coop supermarket, where Mr. Brathen began his attack; red police tape that plowed its way through town; and bouquets of flowers piled up in front of the doors where he entered and killed.
Norwegians are no strangers to terrorism. In 2011, Anders Behring Breivik, a right-wing extremist who later changed his name to Fjotolf Hansen, killed 77 people, many of them children, in a shootout on an island near Oslo.
But in the bow and arrow murders, early headlines about a terrorist attack gave way to a different story: Police announced at a press conference on Friday that Mr Brathen had been transferred to a medical facility for a psychiatric evaluation. They also said that Mr. Brathen’s interrogation was suspended until his mental state was determined.
“He’s very tired, and he’s not doing well, mentally,” said Per Thomas Omholt, police inspector at Kongsberg.
Local police and the Kongsberg District Psychiatric Care Center are under investigation for possible failures in their relationship with Mr Brathen during his apparent emotional breakdown.
Sunday was a day of remembrance for this small town, where many were shaken by the murders.
Some have laid flowers or lit candles in a makeshift memorial in the center of town. Paper hearts with messages dotted the bridge leading across the river to the only church in town, where a long line of people waited to attend a memorial service for the victims.
“My hometown is shaking,” said Borghild Glosimot, 52, who was born and raised here. “It’s a shame that’s what puts him in the limelight.”
Members of the Norwegian royal family attended the service, as did members of the local mosque.
Kongsberg resident Kari Elizabeth Hoff, 82, was dining on Wednesday when she heard a disturbing scream. Soon after, a friend downstairs started knocking on Ms Hoff’s door, saying her neighbors had been killed.
“I knew then that we were suddenly in the middle of a war here,” Ms. Hoff said. “It could have been me, my house or this store.”
The day after the attack, stunned and uncertain, Mrs. Hoff walked towards the church. “I’m not a religious person,” she said, fighting back tears, “but I just needed to sit in a corner somewhere and say,“ Thank you for my life. “”
Mr Brathen, the son of a Norwegian father and Danish mother, lived in Kongsberg most of his life and attended secondary school here. Interviews with friends and acquaintances paint a portrait of a young man with a soft, friendly voice who suddenly took on a disturbing turn.
“He was incredibly sweet, didn’t crave attention,” said a 30-year-old woman who met him around 2009 and saw him often at parties. “He never spoke of politics or religion,” she said. He was more interested in skateboarding, hip-hop and hashish smoking, she said. The woman spoke on condition of anonymity because her family is close to one of the victims and feared that discussing Mr Brathen would disrupt their lives.
But the last few years, when she met him, he always looked confused, she said: His eyes were evasive and his sentences dragged on. The last time she saw him was on the Saturday before the attack, as she was walking home from a grocery store. He was in front of her when he suddenly started acting paranoid, checking frantically over her shoulder.
“It was so obvious to anyone who saw him on the street, even those who didn’t know it, that he needed help,” she said.
Mr Brathen first appeared in police reports in 2012 for minor offenses like drug possession and breaking and entering a local mining museum.
Soon after, Mr. Brathen converted to Islam and quickly went to the Mosque of the Islamic Cultural Center in Kongsberg, where he asked Mr. Tlili to help him carry his divine messages.
“This guy, he didn’t know anything about Islam,” Tlili said, adding that he didn’t even know how to wash his hands properly before the afternoon prayer.
During his 14 years as head of the mosque, Mr Tlili said he had helped several native Norwegians convert. But he was suspicious of Mr. Brathen’s stated enthusiasm for Islam.
“He was not at all interested in talking about religion,” he said. Mr. Tlili suspected that even then Mr. Brathen might be ill. “Looking back, I think it was a cry for help,” he said.
Over the next several weeks, Mr Tlili said, Mr Brathen returned two more times to ask for help in carrying his “message”. And then he stopped. The next time Mr. Tlili saw him was last week on national television.
Around the same time Mr Brathen entered the mosque in 2015, Norwegian police security services learned that he had converted to Islam and appeared to pose a threat, according to one. spokesperson for the security services, Martin Berntsen.
In 2017, federal agents became alarmed after Mr. Brathen posted a video on YouTube in which he said he was a “messenger.” The following year, they warned the district mental health center that Mr. Brathen’s mental state “was lowering his threshold of violence,” Berntsen said.
According to local authorities, Mr Brathen underwent psychiatric examinations in 2010 and 2018.
The Kongsberg District Psychiatric Center, where Mr. Brathen has been treated at least once, said in a statement he was working on “turning every stone to get to the bottom of what happened, what has been our role and if there is anything we could have done better.
Last year, a judge imposed a six-month injunction on Mr Brathen at the behest of his parents after he refused to leave their home, threatened to kill his father and left a gun on their sofa.
Silje Limstrand, 22, and Gudoon Hersi, 21, were roommates who lived across from Mr Brathen until two weeks ago. They described him as a brooding and unstable presence who often kept to himself and whose demeanor became more and more disturbing over time.
“One day he was making scary comments about my hair or my dress and the next day he was walking right by me with completely empty eyes,” said Ms. Limstrand, a kindergarten teacher.
Mr Brathen spat racist remarks at Ms Hersi, who is black. And, she recalls, “he had some weird habits, like opening all the mailboxes on the road, or going back and forth from the Coop three to four times in an hour.”
Ms Hersi said she had tried to alert her neighbors, but her concerns had gone unheeded. Then she heard about the attack last week.
“I knew right away it was him,” she said.