After Brussels attack, Swedes fear becoming a target for terrorists
STOCKHOLM — Outside Sweden’s national sports arena, two framed football shirts sit beneath a flag at half-mast, a memorial to the two fans killed by a terrorist in Brussels on Monday night, and a reminder to passers-by to be vigilant for follow-up attacks.
“I hope this is the last time this kind of thing happens,” said Kent Åberg, a 62-year-old airport worker who had come to pay his respects. “But I’m looking over my shoulder.”
Stockholm is on edge after the shooting deaths of two fans ahead of an international football match in Brussels between Sweden and Belgium. The Tunisian asylum seeker who pulled the trigger said in a social media post he had targeted Swedes as “revenge in the name of Muslims.” The shooter was later killed by police.
The attack followed months of rising anger toward Sweden after copies of the Quran were burned by far-right activist Rasmus Paludan and then later in the year by Iraqi protester Salwan Momika. At the same time, a long-running online disinformation campaign, which has falsely claimed that Swedish authorities are abducting Muslim children, has further undermined Sweden’s reputation among Muslims.
“We are at the top in terms of countries in the West which are seen as waging a war against Islam, and which are identified as priority targets,” Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism researcher at the Swedish Defense University, told national radio. “Terrorist organizations are focusing on Sweden, above all ISIS and al-Qaeda, and encouraging supporters to attack Sweden and Swedish interests abroad, listing public places as priority targets including football stadiums and music concerts.”
At least one of the victims of Monday’s attack was wearing the distinctive yellow of Sweden’s football kit, and a debate is now in full swing in the country over whether wearing the football shirt, or any other sign of affiliation with Sweden, is safe.
The Swedish Football Association has advised fans not to wear the yellow shirt at upcoming games, but in Brussels on Wednesday, Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson, after laying flowers at the scene of the shooting, declined to express a view.
“We must get back to a situation where Swedes can walk around in Sweden and abroad, and be proud to be Swedish,” he said.
In the center of Stockholm on Thursday, there was a noticeably more visible police presence around the parliament and other high-profile locations including the royal palace. In August, after the latest Quran burnings, Sweden’s Säpo security service raised its terrorism threat level from 3 to 4 on a scale of 5, adding that it believes Sweden is now a “priority” target for Islamist terrorists, rather than a merely “legitimate” target.
Sweden’s capital has a traumatic recent history of Islamist terrorist attacks.
In December 2010, a few hundred meters north of parliament, suicide bomber Taimour Abdulwahab was killed by his own explosive device as he prepared to attack Christmas shoppers on Drottninggatan, a popular retail street. In a message sent to Säpo as he was about to detonate his bomb, Abdulwahab said his attack was revenge for the presence of Swedish troops in Afghanistan, and for drawings of the Prophet Muhammad by the Swedish artist Lars Vilks.
In 2017, another Islamist terrorist, Uzbek citizen Rakhmat Akilov, also attacked Drottninggatan, driving a stolen truck at high speed along a pedestrianized section of the street and into a department store, killing five. Akilov said he sympathized with ISIS.
Outside the department store and along Drottninggatan today, physical barriers, including large concrete lions, have been arranged to prevent a repeat. A memorial to the victims is under construction.
In recent years, Sweden has sought to strike a balance between protecting its citizens from terrorist attacks while also respecting their other rights, including to privacy and freedom of speech. In 2015 it published a counter-terrorism strategy focused on detecting and deflecting Islamist attacks under the headings “prevent,” “preempt” and “protect.”
At the end of August, the government asked the Swedish National Council for Crime Prevention to strengthen cooperation among national authorities to prevent radicalization and the spread of violent extremism.
The Quran burnings over the summer have thrown the spotlight back on countering terrorism, with Sweden’s political leaders seeking a response that both reduces the threat and respects the right to protest.
The largest opposition party, the Social Democrats, is pushing for an inquiry into whether burning the Quran could be banned under laws regulating hate speech, while the largest party in government, Kristersson’s Moderate Party, appears to favor changing the rules governing the right to hold demonstrations.
In the short term, the challenge for Kristersson and his government is to keep Swedes safe while also not seeming to yield to terrorists or to restrict the way citizens can live their lives.
At the memorial outside the national stadium in Stockholm, football supporter Åberg said if Swedes were to stop wearing the national football shirt, that would “not be good.”
“If we do that, if we are afraid, then maybe we are showing that evil wins,” he said. “We have to show that we are stronger, that this country is stronger.”