By Hans Mathias Moeller
On April 7, Rakhmat Akilov stole a commercial truck outside a restaurant and mowed down pedestrians along Drottninggatan in central Stockholm. Akilov crashed the truck into the Åhléns department store and escaped via a nearby subway station. He was arrested shortly thereafter. The terrorist attack killed four and injured fifteen.
Stockholm Attack Likely Inspired by Islamic State
No terrorist group has claimed responsibility for the Stockholm attack to date, but stated intentions, a history of similar attacks, and the tactics and techniques employed all suggest that the attack was inspired by the Islamic State (ISIS). The police investigation is still at an early stage, but initial findings indicate that Akilov perpetrated the attack in support of ISIS. Like many lone wolf terrorists he was active on the Internet and social media and broadcasted his support for Sunni terrorist activities on ISIS propaganda videos and photos from the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.
The degradation of ISIS in Iraq and Syria has led the group to compensate by inciting lone actors to perpetrate “do-it-yourself attacks” behind “enemy lines.” Increased counterterrorism pressure from global security services has also forced a tactical adaptation from ISIS and alike to promote individual terrorism that reduces detection and increases operational success. The call for individual terrorism or lone wolf attacks is evident in ISIS’ online magazines.
In the November 2016 issue of Rumiyah, ISIS provided technical specifications of suitable trucks and recommended trucks that would arouse little suspicion, could easily be rented or stolen, and that could inflict a large number of causalities due to their size and speed. Rumiyah also referenced high crowd density areas, such as outdoor attractions and pedestrian areas, as suitable targets. Recent attacks in Berlin, Germany; London, UK; Nice, France; and now Stockholm, Sweden indicate that supporters continue to act on these instructions.
Sweden Vulnerable to Further Terrorism and Radicalization
Sweden is vulnerable to terrorism and religious extremism. Despite making progress to overcome shortcomings in anti-terrorism legislation, Sweden still lags behind many countries in Europe as well as neighboring countries. In Sweden, it is not a criminal offense to be associated with a designated terrorist group. Swedish lawmakers have been reluctant to define it a crime because it could undermine freedom of assembly and freedom of expression. At the same time, the absence of such a law has enabled at least 300 individuals in Sweden to join ISIS in Syria and Iraq and then return to Sweden without facing any charges. Sweden has little deterrence in place against joining terrorist groups.
Another challenge is Sweden’s approach toward returning ISIS fighters, and how officials determine whether they have disengaged from terrorism or are motivated to recruit and carry out further attacks. Few effective programs exist in local municipalities to detect and counter radicalization, including countering the ideological narrative. Sweden is also lagging behind in this area compared to many other countries in Europe, including Denmark and Norway.
A plausible explanation for this passiveness is a fear in Sweden of demonizing Islam, which some feels could play into the hands of anti-immigration parties and polarize society. As a result, radical Islam has received less attention and has been given an opportunity to grow.
Sweden is vulnerable to ISIS recruitment and the Salafist ideology the group represents. This is evident in the number of individuals that have traveled to Syria and Iraq. Sweden is one of the largest exporters of foreign fighters per capita in Europe. A plausible explanation is that some immigrants are triggered by personal and political grievances they have developed as a consequence of Sweden’s failed integration policies and unregulated immigration.
Sweden’s housing segregation, complete with inadequate schooling, and difficulties entering the labor markets appears to have created marginalization and feelings of social exclusion. These feelings breed frustration and resentment among some toward the Swedish government. The growth of anti-immigration parties and Islamophobia plays into the Salafist narrative of a clash between civilizations. ISIS can tap into these grievances and offer a sense of belonging, empowerment, and purpose.
Therefore, Sweden needs to strike a balance between reactive and proactive counterterrorism measures and consider how to strengthen anti-terrorism legislation, handle returning fighters, and properly address terrorism motivated by radical forces within Islam. Sweden also faces serious integration challenges. Long-term counter terrorism measures must address root causes and structural factors, such as alienation and social exclusion, to make pathways to terrorism less attractive.
Sweden’s Short-term Terrorism Threat
According to the Swedish Security Service (Säkerhetspolisen), Sweden has traditionally been more of a hub for terrorist supporters engaged in recruitment, funding, logistical support, and planning of attacks in the Middle East and Africa. Sweden is also an exporter of terrorists to countries in Europe. Osama Krayem and Belkaid Mohamed, from Stockholm and Malmo were identified as perpetrators of the terrorist attacks in Paris, France in November 2015 and in Brussels, Belgium in March 2016. The attack in Stockholm now indicates that Sweden is facing a similar threat as countries in Western Europe. However, it is important to remember that Sweden is not a priority target in the same sense as many countries on the continent, including France, UK, Turkey, Belgium, and Germany.
The most recent and urgent threats are acts of individual terrorism or lone wolf assailants that are either inspired or acting of behalf of ISIS or Al Qaeda (AQ). Both ISIS and AQ have called on supporters to carry out “do-it-yourself” attacks because it increases operational success as single individuals can operate under law enforcement radar with a low risk of detection and disruption. Terrorist techniques and tactics are rudimentary and do not require any logistical support. Yet, the lack of logistical support can also undermine the effectiveness or outcome of an attack. Recent attacks in Europe indicate that vehicle ramming techniques, bladed weapons, and homemade explosives are favored techniques.
This trend of lone assailant attacks is likely to continue and will pose a threat to Sweden in the immediate short-term. This attack modality can be replicated on a mass scale. The Internet has made it easier to access instructions and material on what tactics and techniques to use and what targets to select. Attacks generally do not require any substantial pre-operational planning and capabilities.
Sweden like many other European countries will likely continue to see terrorists favoring soft targets and open-access venues. The lack of perimeter or access controls at hotels, shopping malls, restaurants, concerts, movie theaters, and airport check-ins makes them easier to penetrate for lone actors and more difficult to defend against. Attack against these targets also increases the likelihood of higher causalities due to crowd density and maximize fear and anxiety because it undermines the public’s confidence in security and safety at public places.
The terrorist threat to Sweden and the rest of Europe will likely increase during national holiday celebrations, sport events, and pre-election periods. These are events that have been singled out by ISIS and AQ. National holidays and sport events are symbolic targets and larger crowd densities can inflict greater causalities. Attacks in pre-election periods can sway the election outcome in favor of a specific candidate or party. The targeting of national elections can favor right-wing candidates and parties that promote repressive counter terrorism measures, anti-immigration policies, and Islamophobia. Such candidates and parties can, in theory, create an environment that makes moderate Muslims more susceptible to radicalization and recruitment.
Therefore, terrorist attacks leading up to national elections in Sweden, France, and Germany, cannot be ruled out.
This article was published at Geopolitical Monitor.com