NORWAY was taking al-Qaeda’s threat to attack the country seriously yesterday - despite the suspicion that the terror group’s number two had confused the country with its Scandinavian neighbour, Denmark.
Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s deputy, in an audiotape released on Wednesday, told Iraqis they were "not alone" and urged Muslims to target the interests of the United States, Britain and Australia, as well as Norway.
Norway was not involved in the Iraqi war coalition and has cherished its reputation as a Middle East peacemaker. Denmark, however, with Poland and Spain, signed up to the "coalition of the willing".
"Why Norway?" cried the Oslo tabloid, Verdens Gang, on its front page yesterday.
"We are very surprised. I have no idea why we were named," a foreign ministry spokesman said last night.
The seriousness of the response to a potentially deadly threat could not be mistaken, however. The US embassy closed and armed police patrolled nearby.
Norway has long been self-conscious of its image as the "little brother" of Scandinavia. Norwegian and Danish are virtually identical languages and the country was ruled by Denmark and then Sweden until early in the 20th century.
Norwegian surprise at the threat was mirrored in Denmark, which the US ambassador in Copenhagen concluded was the true target.
Leif Andersen, writing for the independent Dankse Nyheder, asked: "Would a fanatical organisation send out a message saying, ‘Excuse us, we’re sorry, we made a mistake’? Or would they stay focused on revenge and say that their leader is always right and that Norway really is an enemy?
"It seems that Zawahiri has proved to be the Danish state’s biggest humiliation - we do not even make his list of ultimate enemies."
In Oslo, however, Stein Tonneson, the director of the Peace Research Institute, remained unconvinced that Zawahiri had slipped up with his geography. "I have twisted my brain trying to find an answer," he said last night. "After rejecting most theories, I am left with this: al-Qaeda knows a local group is ready to attack a Norwegian target."
Zawahiri, an Egyptian national, ought to know the difference between the countries; he applied for asylum in Denmark in 1991 and published a Mujahideen newsletter from an office in a Copenhagen suburb.
However, some analysts believe that that alone suggests the threat to Norway is real.
They cite other reasons too. Norwegian special forces joined the western campaign in Afghanistan. Furthermore, the country has extensive oil interests.
Another theory suggests that Norway’s pending prosecution of Mullah Krekar, the alleged leader of the terror group Ansar al-Islam, in northern Iraq, is to blame.