Acquitted in Landmark Domestic Terrorism Case

Héraðsdómur Reykjavíkur Reykjavík District Court

The Reykjavík District Court has convicted Sindri Snær Birgisson and Ísidór Nathansson for violating weapons law, but acquitted them of attempted terrorism, RÚV reports. It is the very first court ruling in Iceland in a terrorism-related case. The defence calls the ruling a condemnation of the prosecution and the National Police Commissioner, who they assert took the case too far from the start.

Hoarded weapons and planned attack

In September 2022, four Icelandic men were arrested in Iceland on suspicion of plotting terrorist acts against public institutions and civilians. The investigation was the first of its kind in Iceland, with 50 police officers taking part. According to the police, the suspects had hoarded numerous weapons – including dozens of semi-automatic guns and 3D-printed components – alongside a considerable amount of ammunition. In private messages, two of the men had reportedly discussed carrying out an attack.

Two of the suspects were immediately released but the other two, Sindri Snær Birgisson and Ísidór Nathansson, were remanded in custody. The initial case was dismissed by the District Court in February 2023. A new 64-count indictment was presented in June and also dismissed by the district judge. The District Prosecutor appealed the decision to the Court of Appeals, demanding that the case proceed to substantive trial. The Court of Appeals overturned the dismissal on October 23 last year.

Receive sentences for weapons offences

The hearing in the case finally took place last February, and both defendants denied the main charges. The District Court has just published its judgement in the case, acquitting Sindri Snær Birgisson of attempted terrorism and Ísidór Nathansson of being a party to attempted terrorism. Sindri Snær received a 24-month sentence for weapons offences, minus the time he has already spent in custody, while Ísidór received an 18-month sentence.

Inspector says police were right to intervene

Einar Oddur Sigurðsson, Ísidor’s defence attorney, stated it was a huge relief that the defendants had been cleared of allegations of intended terrorism. Sindri Snær’s attorney Sveinn Andri Sveinsson, admitted, however, that Sindri Snær’s weapons violation was an unusually serious offence. The two said that the judgement is a condemnation of how Icelandic police and the Icelandic justice system handled the case.

During his testimony, Chief Police Inspector Karl Steinar Valsson outlined the National Police Commissioner’s involvement in the case. He affirmed that it was his assessment at the time, and remains his view today, that the police were correct to intervene.

The prosecutor has not yet stated whether the judgement will be appealed.

Grindavík Residents Can Stay Overnight at Own Risk

An ambulance lingers just outside of Grindavík

Grindavík residents are permitted to stay overnight in the evacuated town as of today, but do so at their own risk. The Chief of Suðurnes Police has decided to permit the town’s residents as well as those who work in the town to stay and work there without restrictions. There is currently neither hot nor cold water in the town, and the Suðurnes police notice underlines that Grindavík is not safe for children.

No water, heating, or schools

Grindavík (pop. 3,600) was initially evacuated last November due to seismic activity and the threat of an eruption. Earthquakes and three eruptions since December have opened crevasses throughout the town, and damaged buildings and roads as well as power and water infrastructure.

The notice from Suðurnes police underlines that residents enter and stay in the town at their own risk and are “responsible for their own actions or inaction.” The notice underlines that the town is “not a place for children or children at play. There are no operational schools, and infrastructure is in disrepair.” There is currently neither hot nor cold water in the town, though authorities are working to restore both.

Police chief does not recommend staying overnight

In order to enter the town, residents, workers, and media professionals will have to apply for a QR code. Those who do enter the town are advised to stick to roads and sidewalks and avoid going into lots or other open areas due to the risk posed by crevasses.

“The police chief does not expect many Grindavík residents to choose to stay in the town overnight. They are allowed to do so, but the police chief does not recommend it,” the notice continues.

The arrangement will be reviewed again on February 29, barring and major changes in the area. Land rise continues at Svartsengi, north of Grindavík, and further eruptions are expected.

Drinking Water Pipe to Westman Islands Damaged Beyond Repair

Heimaey, Westman Islands

The pipe that transports drinking water to the Westman Islands has been damaged beyond repair. While the pipe is still fully functional, it could break at any moment, leaving Heimaey island’s 4,523 inhabitants without water. The pipe was damaged ten days ago when the trawler Huginn VE unintentionally dropped an anchor on it, which then got stuck on the pipe.

Pipe must be replaced

A notice from the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management states that the damage to the pipe stretches across a 300-metre [980-foot] section. Underwater pictures taken to assess the damage show that the pipe has shifted significantly from its former location. “This situation makes the possibility of a temporary repair difficult,” the notice reads. “The only permanent solution is a new pipe.”

The National Police Commissioner and the Chief Superintendent of the Westman Islands have jointly declared a “danger phase” in effect for the Westman Islands due to the situation. Íris Róbertsdóttir, the local mayor, told RÚV that a response plan is in the works to lay down new piping, which she insists will need to be done by next summer at the latest.

Town will not be evacuated

For the time being, there is no need for Westman Islands residents to save or store water. The town’s water tanks store 5,000 tonnes of drinking water, which could last anywhere from several days to over a week if the water pipe does break fully. The local heating is also dependent on the water supply. Westman Islands’ Chief Superintendent Karl Gauti Hjaltason stated that if the damaged water pipe does break, the town would be able to continue heating homes and buildings for up to two weeks with its stored water.

If additional water is necessary, the current plan is to transport it to the Westman islands rather than evacuate residents. The town authorities are, however, reviewing evacuation plans.

Suspend Blue Lagoon Transport Due to Threat of Eruption

Reykjanes Svartsengi power plant

Reykjavík Excursions has suspended all transport services to the Blue Lagoon due to the risk of an eruption near the site. The Blue Lagoon itself remains open to visitors, a decision Suðurnes Police Commissioner Úlfar Lúðvíksson called “irresponsible” in a RÚV interview yesterday evening. Magma is collecting some 4-5 km below the surface of the Reykjanes peninsula just west of the Blue Lagoon and Þorbjörn mountain, but so far there have been no signs of volcanic unrest.

Infrastructure and town threatened

The Reykjanes peninsula has seen three eruptions in the past three years, indicating the start of a period of volcanic activity that could last centuries. All three eruptions were preceded by earthquakes and land rise similar to the ongoing activity near the Blue Lagoon. However, land rise and earthquakes have also occurred on Reykjanes during this period without leading to an eruption.

While the previous three eruptions did not impact infrastructure or inhabited areas, the midpoint of the current activity is not only near the Blue Lagoon, it also threatens the Svartsengi Power Station and the town of Grindavík. Not only is the location closer to infrastructure, but experts have also indicated that a potential eruption from the magma intrusion could produce faster-flowing lava than the three recent eruptions on Reykjanes. This would mean inhabitants and visitors to the area would have limited time to evacuate.

Evacuation plans have been issued for the town of Grindavík and are available in English, Polish, and Icelandic.

Prioritising staff and customer safety

“Like everyone, we are trying to figure out what the scientists are saying and what the pace [of the seismic activity] is,” Reykjavík Excursions CEO Björn Ragnarsson told Vísir yesterday when asked about the decision to suspend transport to the Blue Lagoon. “We put a lot into the safety of our staff and customers and decided based on our interests as a company to make this decision today.”

On Reykjavík Excursions’ website, it is not possible to book a Blue Lagoon transfer for the coming days, though it is possible to book from November 19. The company has a notice about the seismic unrest on their Facebook page as well where they note they have suspended trips to the Blue Lagoon from noon today. The website also features a banner warning of potential volcanic unrest on Reykjanes asking customers to subscribe to SafeTravel to receive alerts.

Five volcanic systems on Reykjanes

Iceland is located on a rift between two tectonic plates, the North American and the Eurasian. Broadly speaking, the rift cuts through Iceland diagonally from the southwest to the northeast and the movement of the plates is what causes Iceland’s volcanic and seismic activity. The rift cuts across the Reykjanes peninsula, which contains five separate volcanic systems. The magma now collecting below the surface is within the Eldvörp-Svartsengi system.

The Reykjanes peninsula alternates between periods of seismic activity lasting 600-800 years and periods of volcanic activity lasting 400-500 years. The recent eruptions indicate the start of a period of volcanic activity on Reykjanes.

Read more about the geology of the Reykjanes peninsula.

Fatal Fire May Lead to Amendments on Housing Regulations

Bræðaborgarstígur fire

The Minister of Infrastructure has drafted an amendment to fire safety regulations in Iceland. The changes are meant to ensure more people have their actual residence registered correctly and make it easier for authorities to enter housing where fire prevention measures may be inadequate.

In June 2020, a fire at Bræðraborgarstígur 1 in Reykajvík claimed three lives, the deadliest fire in Iceland’s recent history. The house had previously been the subject of media attention for its unsafe living conditions. It was owned by an Icelandic company that rented the rooms mostly to migrant workers. There were reports that 73 people were registered as living in the house (though the actual number was lower).

Read More: House Fire Deaths Spark Calls for Fire Safety Reforms

The tragic fire spurred an official investigation into housing conditions in Iceland that found that in 2021, between 5,000 and 7,000 people in the country were living in properties that had been classified as commercial or industrial buildings and not residential buildings. Fire safety requirements differ between residential, commercial, and industrial housing and those living in non-residential buildings are often not sufficiently protected from the risk of fire. In many cases, the unregistered and inadequate housing is provided to temporary workers by their employer, also putting workers at risk of homelessness if they lose their job.

Under current Icelandic legislation, it is illegal to register one’s residence on commercial or industrial premises except in exceptional cases. This means there is no official information on exactly how many people live in such housing and where, which can create danger in the event of natural disasters and complicate the work of first responders. Icelandic law also does not put a limit on the number of people that can be registered at each residence, which is why 73 people were allegedly registered at Bræðraborgarstígur 1, despite fewer actually living there.

Proposed changes to increase safety

The proposed amendments would make it possible to limit the number of people who register their primary address in each home. They would also permit people to temporarily register their home address in commercial or industrial buildings as well as loosen the requirements for housing benefits to encourage people to correctly register their home address. It would also ensure that authorities had the legal authority to access housing where fire safety was inadequate. Current law permits firefighters to inspect commercial and industrial housing to ensure fire safety measures are in place, but not private homes.

How do I access the 2023 Reykjanes eruption?

reykjanes eruption 2023

An eruption began on the Reykjanes peninsula at 4:40 PM on July 10, 2023. It is the third eruption in three years at the site. The eruption area has been opened to visitors and below is all the necessary information on how to access it, including directions, route information, and safety considerations.

Checking conditions

To receive the most up-to-date information about access to the eruption site, it is best to check safetravel.is. The Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management website and Facebook page also provide information about safety at the site. Information on air quality in Iceland is available at loftgaedi.is. The site may be closed with short notice due to weather conditions or gas pollution, so make sure you check first before heading out.

Driving and parking

All off-road driving is illegal in Iceland. The hiking route to the eruption is accessed from Suðurstrandarvegur (Route 427). Cars must be parked at marked parking lots and parking on the side of the road is forbidden. Parking has a cost of ISK 1,000 [$7.60, €6.80] and can be paid online, more information is provided on-site.

Hiking route

The hike to the eruption is around 10km one way across uneven terrain. Hikers experienced with Icelandic conditions may be able to complete the hike in two hours one way (four hours round trip). Those with less experience should expect a hike of 3-4 hours one way, 6-8 hours round trip, which does not include time spent at the eruption itself. Hikers need proper footwear, warm clothing, and a wind- and rain-proof outer layer, and must bring food, water, and a fully charged cell phone. The hiking route is clearly marked from the available parking lots. More detailed information on hiking routes is available on visitreykjanes.is.

Safety risks

Visiting an active eruption poses several risks. One of the main risks is gas pollution, especially when conditions are still. Toxic gases from eruptions are heavier than the atmosphere meaning they gather close to the ground and in low-lying areas. This means that eruption sites pose a particular risk for children and pets, who are also more sensitive to toxic gases. Hikers are strongly discouraged from bringing young children or dogs to the eruption site. Surgical masks do not protect against toxic gases at eruptions.

Hikers are also encouraged to stay at a significant distance from the fresh lava, as new rivulets can break through suddenly and be difficult to escape from in due time. Visitors to the eruption should not under any circumstances walk on fresh lava: while the surface may look solid and cool, lava can remain molten underneath for years and even decades.

More about the eruption

For curious readers, Iceland Review has compiled an article with more information about the eruption itself. Several live feeds of the eruption are available online, including here and here.

This article will be updated regularly.

Eruption Site Closed Due to Gas and Wildfire Pollution

Almannavarnadeild ríkislögreglustjóra. The eruption on Reykjanes, July 10, 2023

The Suðurnes Chief of Police has decided to close the active eruption site on Reykjanes due to dangerous pollution levels from wildfires as well as the eruption itself. The site will be closed until Saturday, when authorities will review whether conditions have changed. The eruption is significantly stronger than the 2021 and 2022 eruptions at the same site and has been producing significant gas pollution and set off wildfires in the surrounding vegetation.

Some enter site despite warnings

In a written statement, the chief of police said the safety of people entering the site could not be ensured in the current conditions. The prevailing winds are now blowing the gas pollution from the eruption along the hiking route, and smoke pollution from wildfires is adding to the danger. Nevertheless, some travellers have ignored the warnings of first responders and have entered the site.

The eruption began on Monday, July 10 and so far only minor injuries have been reported from the site, such as twisted ankles and exhaustion. However, Hjördís Guðmundsdóttir, Communications Director for the Department of Civil Protection and Emergency Management stated that visitors’ behaviour was not exemplary yesterday. “It’s just a matter of time before something serious happens,” she told RÚV.

Worse pollution than 2021 and 2022 eruptions

The air quality at the current eruption site is much worse than at the 2021 and 2022 eruptions, according to Vísir. This is in part due to the wildfire smoke. “We see that the smoke from wildfires is spreading over a large area,” Gunnar Guðmundsson, lung specialist and Professor of Medicine at the University of Iceland, told mbl.is. “When vegetations burns, small soot particles form in the smoke, so the smoke can be very irritating to the eyes and respiratory system.”

The smoke is mostly a risk for hikers at the site and residents of the Suðurnes peninsula need not be concerned, Gunnar stated. He did encourage those with sensitivities, such as asthma, to show caution and use medication when necessary.

Risk of Further Avalanches in East Fjords

avalanche neskaupstaður

Evacuation orders for areas of Neskaupstaður, Seyðisfjörður, and Eskiförður, all located in Iceland’s East Fjords, will remain in effect until tomorrow due to the ongoing risk of avalanches. Three avalanches fell in Neskaupstaður during the night and early morning of March 26-27. No serious injuries have been sustained.

Some 500 residents of the three towns have been evacuated from their homes due to the ongoing risk, although the Civil Protection and Emergency Management Department announced this morning that some Neskaupstaður residents could return home today. The emergency phase declared by the Civil Protection Department yesterday has been lowered to an alert phase.

Stormy weather may impact the lifting of evacuation orders. A yellow weather warning has been issued for Southeast Iceland on Wednesday morning that may increase the risk of avalanche in the East Fjords.

Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir told RÚV she planned to visit the affected area at the first opportunity. Minister of Finance Bjarni Benediktsson and Minister of Infrastructure Sigurður Ingi Jóhannesson both stated the avalanches in Neskaupstaður gave reason to review avalanche barrier infrastructure in the East Fjords.

Read more about avalanche barriers in Iceland.

The Icelandic Medical Journal Publishes Report on Fireworks-Related Injuries

New Year's Eve Fireworks in Reykjavík, 2017.

Using data gathered between 2010 and 2022, the Medical Journal of Iceland has released a report on fireworks-related injuries in Iceland.

The study searched through medical records between these years for reports of fireworks and information related to the circumstances and severity of the injuries.

In total, some 248 people were sent to the hospital during this time for fireworks-related injuries, ranging in age from only 9 months old to 79 years old.

See also: No Smoke Without Fireworks

A large proportion of injuries, 39%, were also found to have been caused by faulty fireworks. Rockets were found to be the most dangerous, accounting for 23% of all injuries, followed by multishot box fireworks, which accounted for 17% of all injuries.

Injuries to hands and eyes were most common, and across the period of the study, individuals were hospitalized for a combined total of 91 days due to their injuries.

The report concludes that “firework accidents are a significant problem in Iceland.” An average of 21 Icelanders end up in the emergency room every year due to fireworks-related accidents. The large majority of these accidents occur on New Year’s Eve and the first hours of the New Year.

Fireworks-related accidents also, perhaps unsurprisingly, show a strong gender bias, with some three out of four affected individuals being male. However, a more serious trend is the number of children affected, with just less than half of all injuries coming from minors. One preschool-aged child, on average, each year ends up in the emergency room, generally due to a lack of supervision.

Over the course of the entire study, most injuries were found to be relatively minor cuts and burns, but at least 13 people were identified as having suffered serious injuries. The study suggests an increased emphasis on the correct handling of fireworks, especially the use of safety glasses.

Given the relatively high frequency of fireworks-related injuries, the study also suggests “considering further restrictions on their import, sale, and use.”

The report can be read in its entirety here.

Iceland: Terrorist Plot Sparks Debate on Police Power

Icelandic police arrested four men in their twenties this week who are suspected of plotting a terrorist attack on state institutions, possibly including the Icelandic parliament and police force. While the police managed to arrest the men before they could carry out their alleged plan, the incident has sparked a debate on whether the Icelandic police force is adequately equipped for responding to such incidents, and whether the legal framework they operate in is adequate. Minister of Justice Jón Gunnarsson stated he collaborating with the National Police Commissioner to draft suggestions for reform within the police force.

Ordinary police officers unarmed

“We are considering publishing these suggestions this autumn,” Jón told Fréttablaðið. “The state of organised crime is more serious than people realise.” While Jón stated that increasing police weaponry could potentially be included in those suggestions, he added that does not mean arming ordinary law enforcement officers with firearms. Ordinary policemen in Iceland don’t carry guns on their person, although there is a gun stored in every police car. The special forces, which do carry firearms, are called out for incidents involving weapons, and their call-outs have increased in number recently.

Read More: Does Iceland Have a Gun Problem?

Fjölnir Sæmundsson, chairman of the National Association of Police Officers (Landssamband lögreglumanna) stated that while the incident shocked police officers, he is not of the opinion that it indicates a need to arm ordinary police officers in Iceland. The incident does, however, demonstrate the necessity of collaborating with police departments abroad and perhaps reviewing regulations on the permissions Icelandic police have to monitor certain individuals, according to Fjölnir.

Asked whether Iceland, like other Nordic countries, is experiencing a rise in the activities of extremist alt-right groups, National Police Commissioner Sigríður Björk Guðjónsdóttir stated that the risk of crime connected to such groups is still considered low. Sigríður stated that the risk assessment for terrorist incidents would not be changed in light of this one incident.

Common denominator

Recent incidents involving weapons in Iceland contain one commonality: those involved are young, Icelandic males. Professor of Criminology Helgi Gunnlaugsson told Iceland Review he believes this should be studied. “It’s important to look at the ideology. These young Icelandic males think carrying these weapons around is important and they are prepared to use them. We need to study what’s happening with young males that are on the margins of society.”

Helgi suggested that within the Icelandic system, there is more emphasis on responding to crime instead of trying to prevent it. “You have the police, but it would also be helpful to have other types of agencies approaching troubled youth in a constructive way.”