Norway cast it as the isolated act of a lone-wolf terrorist, whose boasts of a far-flung network of anti-Muslim warriors were the fantasies of a deranged mind.
European officials at an emergency counter-terror meeting see a continent-wide threat from right-wing extremists amid mounting Islamophobia — and warn of possible copycats.
Two visions of the Norway atrocity emerged Thursday, as Europe gropes for answers following an atrocity that claimed 78 people lives.
While a picture emerged of a solitary killer, the attack carried out by Anders Behring Breivik has stirred questions in Europe about whether authorities have neglected the threat of right-wing extremists in their push to crack down on Islamist terror groups after 9/11.
Security officials insist they have not, and statistics from European police agency Europol show no surge in right-wing terror.
Still, many politicians saw the Norway attacks as a violent expression of a far-right populist movement that has swept anti-Muslim parties calling for strict cuts in immigration into parliaments across the continent.
At an emergency meeting on the far-right threat, European Union counterterrorism officials warned radicals who share Breivik's ideology might be tempted to follow his lead.
"Clearly, one major risk is that somebody may actually try to mount a similar attack as a copycat attack or as a way of showing support," said Tim Jones, principal adviser to the EU's counterterrorism coordinator. In September, EU interior ministers are to meet to discuss responses to the Norway massacre.
Across Europe, far-right groups were quick to distance themselves from the Norway attacker. Geert Wilders of the Netherlands' right-wing Party for Freedom tweeted: "Terrible attack in Oslo, many innocent victims of violent, sick mind."
But some political leaders in Holland, which like Norway has grappled with an increasingly fractious debate about Muslim integration, said firebrand anti-Islamic rhetoric can fire the mind of a man like Breivik, who referred to Wilders repeatedly in his sprawling manifesto.
"Wilders has now distanced himself," said Dutch Labor Party head Job Cohen. "But I think it's good to realize that your words do have an effect — and that goes for all politicians including Wilders. They can influence people and play a role in all kinds of ways."
Ahead of Thursday's emergency counterterror meeting, EU Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom spoke of a "huge lack of political leadership" in allowing right-wing sentiment to bleed into the mainstream.
"Blaming Islam or immigration for all sorts of problems has become normal," Malmstrom told the Brussels-based European Voice newspaper. She cited a "permissive climate" in which such views "are no longer seen as extreme."
German Interior Minister Hans-Peter Friedrich said Germany's intelligence agencies had far-right groups under "intensive" surveillance, but there was a greater risk in extremists like Breivik who operate alone and under the radar.
"Among the right extremists we know of some who could be dangerous, but they're not the problem — those who we have an eye on — but rather those who radicalize in secret," he told the Rheinische Post.
European security officials, on high alert following the July 22 attacks against Norway's government and a Labor Party youth camp, say no information has emerged to support Breivik's claim that he's a member of a shadowy group of modern-day crusaders, with cells all over Europe.
The head of Norwegian security service PST said the 32-year-old Breivik, most likely did it all on his own — concocting, planning, and executing the massacre with near-total precision, and without telling anyone else of his murderous designs.
"He's devoted his life to this mission, if you can call it a mission," PST director Janne Kristiansen told The Associated Press.
She said Norway's laws, with strict limits on when and how the government is allowed to spy on its citizens, may have to be changed to give authorities a better chance to detect lone wolves who live an outwardly lawful and moderate lifestyle.
"We will sit down and go through all our laws and regulations. Can we do something differently?" Kristiansen said. "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.'"
Breivik has admitted that he set off a car bomb in the government district of Oslo, killing at least eight people, then launched a shooting spree at the ruling Labor Party's annual youth camp. Sixty-eight people died, many of them teenagers.
Magnus Norell, a terror expert at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, cautioned against drawing far-reaching conclusions about the strength of right-wing groups from the attacks.
There is a risk that Breivik's actions could inspire like-minded to try something similar. "But it's highly unlikely that this would trigger a wave of lone wolves who could pull off this type of complicated operation," he said. "It remains difficult to do this kind of thing yourself."
In a manifesto released just before the attacks, Breivik describes in detail how he secured weapons and bomb-making ingredients, including fertilizer. Most plots fail during that stage, experts say. But Breivik had the discipline to stay totally mum about his plans, which is highly unusual.
"The Norwegians have his computer," said Bob Ayers, a London-based former U.S. intelligence officer. "If there was significant dialogue, there would have been a footprint. Acting alone gave him the advantage of not being watched by security personnel."
Security officials in Norway, Germany and Britain said they had found nothing to support Breivik's claims of belonging to a network bent on starting a revolution aimed at ridding Europe of Muslims.
"The Norwegian authorities have said they haven't found any links to Britain that are of concern," a Scotland Yard spokeswoman said on condition of anonymity because she was not authorized to speak about ongoing police inquiries. "We wouldn't contradict that."
Still, police were on high alert across Europe: Finnish officers said they had arrested an 18-year-old man who ordered 22 pounds (10 kilograms) of fertilizer from Poland to build make explosives. Police said the case appeared to have no connections to the massacre; the national broadcaster YLE cited police as saying the man told them he wanted to make fireworks.
Kristiansen, the Norwegian security chief, said Breivik appeared to be a unique case.
"It's a unique person. He is total evil," she said.
The national sense of heartbreak is being renewed daily as police slowly release names of the dead. Later Thursday, 24 names were added to the list, including 23-year old Tamta Lipartelliani from Georgia who died at the camp, setting the confirmed total by police at 41.