The report, presented to Sweden’s EU- and Democracy Minister Birgitta Ohlsson of the Liberal Party (Folkpartiet) on Friday, suggests that Sweden lags behind other EU countries when it comes to preventing militant Islamism at a time when around 30 Swedish citizens have joined al-Qaida-style groups in Syria.
“We are far behind countries like Great Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark,” said Professor Magnus Ranstorp of Sweden’s National Defence College (Försvarshögskolan). He co-authored the government-commissioned report together with his colleague Peder Hyllengren.
Sweden is well equipped when it comes to prevention of left-wing and right-wing extremism, but lags behind when it comes to preventing militant Islamism, said Ranstorp.
Ranstorp’s and Hyllengren’s report, “Prevention of violent extremism in a third country” (“Förebyggande av våldsbejakande extremism i tredjeland”), is part of the government’s action plan against violent extremism. It focuses on so-called foreign fighters or jihadi travellers – young men who travel to conflict zones like Somalia, Pakistan and Syria to take part in armed struggles.
The aim of the study was to evaluate efforts in other EU countries to prevent citizens from becoming foreign fighters and to suggest which of those methods can be adopted in Sweden.
According to the Swedish Security Service (Säpo), there are currently at least 30 Swedish nationals fighting in Syria for groups similar to al-Qaida. Around 500 EU-citizens have travelled to Syria to join the fighting there.
The Swedish security services believe there is a heightened risk that those individuals will commit acts of terror when they return to Sweden.
In Germany, there is a programme for ex-jihadists, but Ranstorp said he does not believe there is a single person in Sweden who has defected from jihadism.
Ranstorp and Hyllengren interviewed 111 people for the study, including representatives of different authorities, the security services and researchers.
They found that field workers, particularly social workers, are equipped to work with preventing for example right-wing extremism, but they are not trained in preventing violent Islamism.
The authors recommend a national coordinator for terror prevention, stronger collaboration between schools, social services and the police and more efforts to establish confidence in authorities among Muslim associations. They also suggest criminalizing trips abroad where the aim is to engage in terror training.
According to Ranstorp this kind of work is more politically sensitive in Sweden than elsewhere.
“In other countries Islamist extremism is seen as another form of extremism among others,” said Ranstorp.
Birgitta Ohlsson said she will study the report but added that advances have already been made in this area.
“We have one of the most advanced action plans against violent extremism, but we do have to become better at coordinating the work,” said Ohlsson.
Another report on preventative work is due to be published soon.
Ohlsson did not reject a ban on “terror trips” but said that Sweden already has far-reaching legislation in this area compared to other EU member states.
“Preparing acts of terror is already a punishable offence,” she said and added that is important not to tamper with the rule of law.