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The Local interviews Sweden's leading terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp

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The Local interviews Sweden's leading terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp
Dr Magnus Ranstorp. Photo: Victor Lundberg / TT
16:33 CET+01:00
The Local sat down with terrorism expert Dr Magnus Ranstorp at his office in the Swedish Defence University to discuss terrorism and Sweden.

This article is available to Members of The Local. Read more Membership Exclusives here.

Dr Magnus Ranstorp is the head of research on terrorism and countering violent extremism at the Centre for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish Defence University. He works on a range of different issues relating to countering terrorism and violent extremism. He has worked in the area for over 30 years, on topics ranging from Northern Ireland to extremist groups in the Middle East and Indonesia. He also works two days a week for the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network Centre of Excellence, a network made up of over 3,000 practitioners working in the field countering violent extremism.

He recently returned from the US where he spoke at the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee, the UNCTC on foreign terrorist fighters, violent extremism, and the protection of soft targets.

What do people usually ask you when you go abroad about Sweden and terrorism?

It’s a difficult space to be in. Of course when Trump said “look what happened in Sweden”, we had to do some interviews where we needed to balance the perspective. The problem is that, given those kind of statements, Sweden has had a negative image.

Sweden has its challenges. Not so much on extremism, but more on territorial criminal gangs in low class areas. We’ve been out with the police in those areas. We don’t have any no-go zones, we have zones in which it’s difficult for the police to do community policing, or to operate in, because there is a small clique of youngsters who create problems. But I think one has to put it in proportion. So that is one of the issues, and when that is highlighted, it gives us a fair representation of one of the challenges.

They obviously also ask about (2017 Stockholm terror attack suspect) Akilov, who is going to stand trial. One of the questions you often get with that is, ‘well, he was part of 12,500 denied asylum seekers; that number is going to increase to 50,000, so obviously that is a security concern’.

The other question we get is about right-wing extremism. They are very strong groups, for example the neo-Nazi Nordiska Motståndsrörelsen (Nordic Resistance Movement, NMR) – they are quite problematic. They are violent and they seek to overthrow the democratic order. They had large protests in Gothenburg, and I happened to be on one of the signs, as a criminal, because I had mentioned that they were a terrorist organisation when they perpetrated the attacks in Gothenburg.

So I’m not popular amongst jihadists, and I’m certainly not popular amongst neo-Nazis. We have a happy medium there.

How does it feel being a terror researcher in one of the most peaceful countries in the world?

Well I started 30 years ago, in the UK, and when I began, Lockerbie had just happened and I visited. One of the first things we did was we organised a conference in London with the British Defence Minister, and about an hour before the meeting opened, a sound technician found a pound and a half of Semtex (an explosive) in a lunchbox taped to the speaker’s podium.

They had a sleeper IRA guy – or [paramilitary Irish republican organisation] PIRA – who had been planted there to take the opportunity to do the operation, and had it not been for the sound technician, at least 100 people would have been dead. But he found it and they defused it. So when you are a terrorism researcher, you step into this.

This is not something in an ivory tower, you have to be out in the field. I wrote the first book on Hezballah, in Lebanon. Hezballah was a political, social, military movement with a terrorism component, that Iran controlled. And I’ve done the same with Hamas, for many years.

I helped CNN a lot during 9/11, in London. Afterwards, I also helped CNN in analysing the bags of material that were brought out by journalists in Afghanistan from the camps. So we had videotapes, bomb manuals, tonnes of material that some really crafty journalists had gathered and brought out to see what was there.

It’s really interesting work, because we work not only in Sweden, but around the world.

Do you feel your concerns are taken seriously?

Well, we’ve had a lot of impact, our work is widely recognised. You get to speak to the UN Security Council Counter-terrorism Committee, to the EU Commission, brief ministers. We were the ones who suggested that we should have a national CVE (countering violent extremism) coordinator in Sweden.

Sometimes the political environment is not ready, so the political debate is not ready.


Photo: Thommy Tengborg/TT

You mentioned your work with CNN, and you also talked about the political debate not being ready for some of the ideas being discussed. What do you think about the current state of the media?

I think it’s a function of globalisation, and it has affected terrorism and the force of terrorism. It creates infinite constellations of different individuals and groups brainstorming collectively how we should attack society. They collect information by remote control, so you can actually do casing of terrorist targeting by googling, and you can get a lot of information.

Do you think your work or your efforts are undermined by comments that say they are ‘fake news’?

The ‘fake news’ is being underpinned often by efforts in Russia, by promotion of or support for right-wing extremist groups – that occurs both financially but also in the creation of news outlets that amplify really fake and nuanced news about immigration, about very controversial issues, about Islam, that creates this sort of siege mentality, or the urge that you have to act. It really presses emotional buttons.

And that is one of the biggest problems, because it also affects elections. It has affected the US elections, it is affecting European elections, and we have to invest in efforts to expose that, and one of the big problems is that everyone runs around in their little filter bubble, their echo-chamber – how do you break through? How do you communicate to different segments of society if they are not consuming the same news? So globalisation, social media, all this have opened up a Pandora’s box of challenges.

Sweden has an election coming up next year...

Sweden has an election coming up, and because we have a lot of extremism, everyone is very concerned. We have right-wing extremists, a right-wing populist party that there are problematic elements in terms of their views, we have a very polarised debate. And we have Islamic extremism, that we are only now beginning to unravel.

I think that there are fractures within our societies and I think Sweden can do a huge amount of work in minimising segregation and minimising social exclusion. It starts with yes, the political leaders, but it also starts with us as individuals. We have to combat segregation. We say we are quite good at equality, gender equality (you can also see the #metoo campaign and how that is taking hold here and worldwide) but I think we have a lot of work to do. We have to look ourselves in the mirror and say ‘look, what is everyone doing to make this country a better place?’ So far it’s only the political leaders and some organisations that are doing the lion’s share.

You have criticised Sweden in the past for not addressing the foreign funding of mosques as possible foreign interference in the country. Could you tell us a bit more about that?

What we see happening today is the spread of Salafism [an ultra-conservative branch of Sunni Islam] and Takfirism [when one Muslim declares another Muslim a non-believer], that creates self-isolated communities which do not want to subject themselves to secular authorities. It reinforces a parallel society. It is also from within those strands – the Takfiri element of Salafism that is being promoted and projected – that people come who want to go to Syria, or who support al-Qaeda and IS, and who do not want to accept democratic values. And that is often funded by Gulf States. They do that all around the world.

We are very concerned about Russia’s influence operations that have been run – they try to infiltrate political parties, they try to create uncertainty, disinformation – there is a lot of focus on that issue. The same is going on with the funding by Gulf States in one particular interpretation of Islam, that is anti-democratic.

What does it mean in reality? It means that some of those mosques are beholden to a particular interpretation, and they also crowd out the other mosaic of influences within Islam. For example, in Gothenburg there is one particular mosque that is Salafi, with funding from the Gulf, which can gather 3-4,000 followers. Some of the more Sufi elements [a mystical practice of Islam which seeks a direct and personal experience with God through meditation] don’t have that mosque space.

It’s a very simple thing: the more money you have, the more you can spread your message, the more you can absorb people’s interests. I think we should have a debate about what this does to Swedish society and what it does to the pluralism within the Muslim community.


Photo: Marcus Ericsson/TT

What are your thoughts on the terrorist attack in Stockholm this last April?

It was not the first one. We had the Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly incident in 2010. He only killed himself, and therefore there was no debate about those issues. Then the Akilov incident happened, and it followed a very familiar repertoire with truck attacks and it killed five.

The response was great – they had just practiced, the police and the rapid response team, so they were very quickly on site. One thing that didn’t work so well was the rumour mongering, that there were other events happening.

I was very worried at the time of the attack, given the extremism and polarisation in society, about the consequences to Swedish society. Will it fuel [division]? And I’d say, people put down flowers, roses, and that was beautiful to see, and it was very moving. It brought out the best in people, just like it brought up the best in people after the Anders Breivik attack in Norway, and also in Copenhagen. The problem is, if you have multiple attacks over a period of time, this unity will wear out. So if there are more terrorists attacks in Sweden, it will lead to polarisation, I’m pretty convinced of that.

Do you feel like the attack has changed the way Sweden deals with terrorism?

I don’t think it has, because we already began to have a more integrated architecture of police and intelligence services. I think it changed the public discourse a little bit, because Sweden was a calm bay in a stormy world before that. You know, “it doesn’t happen here, it happens to someone else, and if it does happen here, it won’t happen to me”. And now it came.

Here we have someone from Central Asia, a region that isn’t well known, but there are problems there. But also, the most important thing, the most problematic issue, is that he was part of 12,500 people that were denied asylum. There had already been discussions about how to handle these people who do not want to leave Sweden. That number will grow, given the large influx of people. That creates an underclass within society, which then fuels exploitation, crime, and huge vulnerability. It [also] creates a logistical headache, because even if we find the people, we can’t expel them, because of Human Rights issues, or we don’t have holding facilities. So that is probably one of the biggest issues we have to deal with.

In June, Säpo chief Anders Thornberg said there were ‘thousands of militant extremists’ living in Sweden, mostly in Stockholm, Gothenburg, Malmö, and Örebro. You authored a report around the same time on Swedish foreign fighters travelling to Syria and Iraq, which found that around 80% of those who travelled to join violent extremist groups came from the same regions, and were also mostly young and from vulnerable areas. How does the integration of young people in vulnerable urban areas feature in Sweden’s policies for prevention of violent extremism and radicalisation?

This is the dilemma: we have structural problems, layers of structural socioeconomic issues. Educational achievements are very low in these areas, we have people who score low on a lot of social indicators. Many of them who have left [to join violent extremist groups in the Syria or Iraq] are in this group, they are “losers”. Many of them have a criminal background.

That’s the same pattern all across Europe. The question is how do you turn around an area like that. You have to have both broad, structural policies that address those issues, but on top of the structural issues, you also have criminal structures, you have clan structures, religious systems. We call this in Swedish normativa påverkanssystem [normative influencing systems]. They are setting the norms in local areas. The biggest problem is actually gangs that are thriving in these areas – it’s about drugs, not about religious ideologies and ideas.

You have structural issues, and you have them acting in that environment, and that creates gang activity, social unrest, a difficult operational environment. In the longer term, you have to turn these areas around – because otherwise you will have a lot of people who are disaffected – but you also need to have a very targeted approach. The prevention of violent extremism policies go hand-in-hand with repressive policies.

The security services, police and the prosecutors, that’s one side of the coin. On the other side of the coin are the prevention aspects. And you need to work hand in glove on those issues. On the repressive side, you also have the tax authority, who have used Al Capone methods to be able to go after the money – that’s quite an effective way. But on the prevention side, extremists are local, they live in local communities, they live in local neighbourhoods. So you have to have coordination between the national agencies and the local level.

I know sometimes the perspective is, from the outside, that Sweden or the Nordic countries are hugging the extremists, but it’s a no-brainer. If you don’t have contact with the family, if you don’t discuss and have dialogue, if you don’t include the family, if you don’t try to work and change the person’s attitudes, you’re going to find a bigger problem. It’s the same with gang criminality.

Going back to foreign fighters, the threat of returning foreign fighters was discussed recently at the UN Security Council, with Mr Vladimir Voronkov, Under-Secretary-General of the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, describing it as “an enormous challenge with no easy solution”. How does Sweden see this threat, and what is it doing to address it?

The foreign fighter issue is very difficult. Sweden had two foreign fighters who participated in the Paris and Brussels attacks. So we have already had two people who were part of some of Europe’s worst terrorist attacks, so that shows that there is a problem. But the really big problem is all the kids, who have been born into the caliphate, or brought by their parents.

What do you do with those children when they come back? They’re deeply traumatised, they’ve experienced executions, they have been indoctrinated to even turn against their families, and we also know from child psychology that the first years of a child are crucial, and the trauma will shape them. So you need to have access to trauma specialists, and that’s a big issue in general with people who come from conflict.

Some of the most dangerous ones are not going to come back. Many of them are disappearing to transit countries, to third countries. They are being expelled by Turkey, and there’s a big debate among the (UN) member states: Should we take them back? How far should we extend consular services? There are a couple of places that are showing up as next departure points, and Malaysia turned up to be one of those areas. And there are stories about Malaysian authorities not being able to find people within the country, but they also may continue elsewhere. There are Middle East and North African countries as well.


Photo: Victor Lundberg / TT

What do you consider to be the greatest security threats in the world right now, and in Sweden?

Our endpoint is to ensure resilience in society, that’s the aim of any counter-terrorism strategy. Terrorism can threaten social cohesion, it can lead to polarisation. How do you manage that? That’s the most important thing for politicians, to maintain normalcy.

Another issue is the protection of critical infrastructure, so nuclear security, for example. If there was a war or a conflict, an invasion of Sweden, we know that (probably Russians) would target the energy sector, which involves nuclear power plants, electrical grids and so on. How do we protect that? Terrorists can also attack that, and we saw in Brussels that there was an interest in targeting nuclear scientists, that there were connections with probing activity around nuclear installations, flying drones. I’m not saying that’s an overwhelming threat, because I think security is relatively good, but that would be a very bad scenario should they discuss this. I don’t want to be alarmist, but we know some of these groups have thought about it. So these sort of catastrophic, big scale attacks, that really cripple society, that create so much social unrest, is the worst scenario.

Do you think Sweden will eventually succeed in dealing with the rise of violent extremism?

The proof is in the pudding. I often press policy makers on details, because with details they cannot get away with generalities. I often ask ‘how many cases are you working on?’ and several officials have not been able to answer that in the Swedish context, because the work has not been sufficiently sharp.

I’m hopeful, but I also have to be realistic. And unless we create a more inclusive society, and really work on a shared understanding of different ways of thinking about religion, values, and culture, on having real meeting points and working against segregation, it’s just going to get worse. Extremism will be a symptom, there will be other social issues that will come with it. I take a card out of the British way of dealing with terrorism and extremism, and they’ve always said ‘alert but not alarm’.

But you have to be realistic, and you cannot paint the reality in rosy pictures, you have to stare the dark underside straight on. And we Swedes are very well-intentioned, we are the moral guardians of the world, we believe the best in people, but sometimes we also have to recognise there may also be a dark underside.

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