Two Norwegian citizens were sentenced to death by a Congolese court on Tuesday, after being convicted of both espionage and murdering their driver. (They claim the man was killed by bandits who attacked their vehicle.) The Norwegian government insists that it is completely uninvolved. Do small countries like Norway engage in international espionage?
Yes. Even the smallest countries run intelligence operations to protect their national interests and security. Norway’s CIA-equivalent, called the Norwegian Intelligence Service, tends to focus on matters related to Russia. The two countries have been locked in a dispute over fishing rights and petroleum exploration in the Barents Sea for more than 40 years, and Norway closely monitors the area for any Russian activity that might undermine its territorial claims. The NIS is not known for operating in Africa.
The intelligence agencies of less populous nations often concentrate on one adversary or one particular region. As a result, when it comes to gathering intelligence in that area, a small country may be as good as or better than a more powerful nation with a well-funded crew of spies. The small country can then use this local expertise as trade bait to procure technology, money, or other intelligence (such as detailed satellite imagery) from its allies. The exchanges can be made on a casual basis, or they can be formalized in secret intelligence-sharing treaties.
Even though the population of Norway is slightly smaller than that of Colorado, the country is a crucial source of intelligence for the United States. Since the first years of the Cold War, we’ve relied on Norwegian operatives to monitor Russia’s Northern Fleet, which is docked on the Kola Peninsula and includes many of its nuclear submarines. In order to move into the open ocean, the fleet passes between Norway’s mainland and its Svalbard Island chain. (A Norwegian intelligence ship detected the explosion when the Russian Kursk submarine was sunk by one of its own torpedoes in 2000.) Russia has repeatedly complained that the NIS operates too close to the country’s military exercises. Norway also provided manpower and a launching point for CIA-sponsored land-based operations in the Soviet Union.
There is only one well-known Norwegian covert action in Africa, and it did not directly involve the NIS. During the 1980s, the Norwegian government funneled about $350 million to activists in South Africa to fund the anti-apartheid movement. The government sent the money via the Church of Norway and into the hands of Bjarne Lindstrom. Lindstrom was officially a Norwegian diplomat, but much of his work focused on providing money, counsel, and organizing space to grass-roots anti-government groups. He also sheltered activists who were wanted by the South African police.
While Norwegian intelligence hasn’t been known to work in Africa, Belgium and France have deep networks there. The former colonial powers enjoy generous mining rights in the resource-rich region. They maintain informants inside the governments, intercept electronic communications, and use satellite imagery to track the activities of groups that might threaten their economic interests. Congo, in particular, is no stranger to covert intervention by foreign powers. In 1961, Patrice Lumumba, the first democratically elected prime minister, was assassinated under circumstances that strongly suggest the involvement of the Belgian government. Only one year earlier, the CIA had planned to poison Lumumba using contaminated toothpaste, but the operation was called off by its local station chief.
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Explainer thanks David Alvarez of Saint Mary’s College of California and Thomas Boghardt of the International Spy Museum.