Sweden ‘far behind’ on counter-terrorism

Swedish Muslims fighting in Syria and other conflict zones could return home to carry out terror attacks and Sweden has a lot to learn from other EU countries when it comes to preventing Islamist terrorism, a new report claims.

Sweden 'far behind' on counter-terrorism

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.

TT/The Local/nr

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‘History will record how everyone reacted to the Syrian tragedy’

Erik, a 21-year-old Swedish volunteer, reflects on his experience helping refugees in Sweden and abroad.

'History will record how everyone reacted to the Syrian tragedy'
Photo: Erik Gerhardsson

Opening or shutting doors. Defending or discrediting refugees. Caring for or turning our backs on vulnerable people fleeing Syria’s cruel war. All is going to be written down, believes Erik Gerhardsson, a 21-year-old Swedish volunteer.

“Syria’s war is intricate and I think history will record how we, individuals or groups, reacted to this tragedy,” he says.

Gerhardsson wants his own entry in this still-being-written saga to be a positive one, even if his efforts only amounted to a very small detail in the perplexing tumult of the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Here’s what he had to tell us, in his own words.


I completed high school at the start of the refugee influx. I’d been working and saving money but didn’t have any real commitments. And I had always wanted to volunteer and help.

So in September 2015 when I saw that refugees were suffering from the long journey across Europe, and agonizing in the very same spots where I used to go on holiday, I couldn’t not react. I had to do something.

The first thing I did is donate ‎€500 of my own savings; I started offering what I had on hand. Then a friend of mine who was volunteering with a Swedish humanitarian organization told me that people were in need for blankets in Hungary.

I could mobilize people in our municipality to collect blankets for refugees – and so that’s what we did.

But that wasn’t enough for me, I wanted to be more involved.

Heading to Hungary

It was obvious that many people were not doing anything to help. And then came calls for the borders to be closed. I and three friends of mine took a different stance. We managed to raise ‎€3,000 in donations from family, friends, and people in our hometown that allowed us fly to Hungary to aid refugees en route to Austria in September 2015.   

Trains carrying 1,500 people transported refugees closer to Austrian borders every hour. Nonetheless, refugees still had to walk for two to three hours to reach the closest Austrian customs checkpoint. It was a tough journey on foot. 

So, we decided to walk part of the way with the refugees and did our best to offer them what they needed along the way. We gave them information to guide them throughout their march to their final destinations.

We offered water, food, and helped carry their kids or bags. Many of them were about to faint from the journey since they had already suffered through harsh conditions before arriving in Hungary.

Helping closer to home

In October we were back in Sweden and found many refugees were arriving to our hometown of Ingarp, part of Eksjö municipality in Småland in southern Sweden.

Here again, my friends and I created a small initiative called Medmänniskor Hjälper to prop up newcomers among us.

Locals in our town donated clothes and other household items that we later distributed to newcomers. We organized more activities such as sports and movie nights. Refugees needed a warm welcome.

Next stop: Greece

The scenes from Lesbos in Greece saddened me indeed. I still can’t get the terrible images out of my head showing hundreds of people sleeping on the ground without a roof.

It was December 2015 when I saw countless refugees shivering in despair in the freezing winter on that island. There weren’t enough places in camps to shelter everyone. I joined a group of volunteers at the notorious camp Moria on Lesbos. A few months later, in March 2016, I joined volunteers with another Greek NGO called Emergency Response Centre International (ERCI).

It was very frustrating as we wanted to share the burden with others, but it felt like we really weren’t able to help much at all.

However, we helped as many families as we could among those suffering most from the freezing temperatures. They were cold, wet, and soaked to their bones. We gave them clothes and hot food, and a small taste of relief.

Heart-breaking moments

In 2016, hundreds of refugees were still arriving to the Greek shores. In March I moved to Lesbos and joined ERCI there also to patrol the coastline and help refugees who might struggle to make it ashore in the rough and unpredictable seas. We basically worked as lifeguards, spotting boats and helping prevent people from drowning.

Throughout the time of my volunteering I came across both hopeful and heart-breaking moments. Some boats arrived with everyone healthy and alive and smiles on their faces; others arrived with people crying and moaning out of fear, or from losing their loved ones.

One time a boat arrived with two corpses aboard. That shocked me. However, there wasn’t time to think much; only to act, and that’s what usually happens in such moments. My colleagues and I pushed the bodies off the boat and continued to help the other lucky ones who survived.

Emotional recovery usually came during rare moments of rest, and talking to each other helped us volunteers ‘heal’ and get over the trauma. Spending the day aiding people and making sure I could stand by every refugee that needed my help was actually the best medicine against emotional deterioration.

A message to Swedes and other Europeans

I’m always ready to go anywhere; wherever there are people on the run in need of help. I think it’s a shame most European countries have shut their borders in the faces of refugees.

Just ask yourselves how you would react if you were in these refugees’ situation! How would you like to be treated? Would you favour being shunned and rejected by other capable societies? I don’t think so.

European states are using resources to deploy soldiers, tighten borders, install walls and fences, and use tear gas, rather than using those resources to help vulnerable fellow humans.   

A message to refugees of the Syrian war

You need to know that despite all the misery in your lives, there are lots of great people out there doing their best to help.

We hear you and feel your pain. I know it feels like the whole world has failed to end your suffering, but I hope that you hear me and know that I’m standing by you, and that you are not alone.