Bomb attacks: ‘Sweden is either described as a war zone or heaven on earth’

Sweden's national bomb squad were called out to more than 100 blasts last year, a level not seen anywhere else in Europe. The Local speaks with the police commissioner in charge of a new task force cracking down on the spate of criminal bomb attacks.

Bomb attacks: 'Sweden is either described as a war zone or heaven on earth'
Stefan Hector of the Swedish police force's national operative department. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

Stefan Hector is the newly commissioned chief for 'Hoarfrost', a Special Incident operation tasked with tackling the rise of shootings and explosions in Sweden.

In an interview with The Local he gives a picture of the recent detonations and shootings in Sweden and what the police are doing to try and stop it.

Why are there so many explosions in Sweden?

“We've seen, over the last couple of years, that the amount of explosions in Sweden have risen to a level not seen anywhere else in Europe. The reasons, or underlying cause, are criminals clashing.

“They range from conflicts of a rational character, like market shares for the illegal narcotics trade, or more personal, such as provocations or insults, old conflicts with causes long-forgotten. Nevertheless, the explosions are an expression of clashes between criminal elements.

“These criminal elements are in large part comprised of street gangs from 'vulnerable areas' in the suburbs but also what we sometimes refer to as 'biker gangs'. There is, however, a lot of overlap between these two groups so as a whole this is about conflicts between different criminal networks.” 

Detonation on the fourth floor of an apartment complex in Husby, January 2020, in Stockholm. Photo: Fredrik Sandberg/TT

How do your colleagues abroad view this development in Sweden?

“They are astonished. The prevailing picture of Sweden is that it is a calm and stable country and these expressions of violence, which are without equal, at least in Europe, is a surprise to our neighbouring countries.

“We have ongoing collaboration with many of the European countries, especially with the Nordic countries, and no one has the same kind of problems which is why this is a perplexing and possibly even frightening issue. But they are actively seeking more knowledge and are discussing these issues with us in order to share experiences and trying to understand this phenomenon.”

Hand grenades used to be the go-to for criminals in past explosions, have the methods changed?

“These last few years one of the most common explosives were hand grenades. However we've seen a shift from hand grenades towards homemade bombs or IEDs, improvised explosive devices. The devices ranges from simple designs, filling a thermos with explosives and a fuse, to more advanced ones with remotely detonated triggers.”

Where does the bomb material come from? Is it external or do criminals get their hands on the components in Sweden?

“We haven't got the full picture but most of the material for homemade bombs are things you can buy over the counter, it isn't difficult to obtain. When it comes to the actual explosives our impression is that it's usually commercial grade explosives that are used in construction and road work that gets stolen or misappropriated. We have reason to believe that the majority of the explosives used in homemade bombs in Sweden come from these kinds of sources and then end up on the black market.”

Isn't some kind of pre-existing knowledge or information required to make these bombs?

“It does require a certain level of knowledge to build a bomb and what we've seen is that there are a few groupings, or clusters, that make charges and sell or pass them on. With Operation Hoarfrost, this far we've neutralized two such clusters of bomb-makers and are continuing work on getting more of these criminal groupings. It does take know-how and experience though, we are currently trying to map out who these people and networks are in order to neutralize them.”

Has Operation Hoarfrost yielded any results?

“It is still too early to say anything certain about the overall effect on our main objective, which is to break the progression of shootings and detonations in Sweden.

“But when it comes to indicators, we can use Malmö as an example where we are showing our strength with reinforcements coming in nationwide. There are signs that the arrests, busts, screenings and seizures done towards these environments, people involved in shootings and detonations, are beginning to have an effect on similar violence in Malmö. It would be strange otherwise, seeing as we've made huge busts of guns, explosives and narcotics.”

Stefan Hector, right, and police in Malmö at a press conference about Operation Hoarfrost. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

You have been given quite a lot of resources with Hoarfrost, but has the police shortage in Sweden affected your work?

“Yes, and no. Basically we would have liked to be able to do these kinds of operations without a show of strength, meaning that we take police officers from other parts of Sweden in order to amass resources in Malmö. In an ideal world we would have been able to operate here without reinforcements, but we're not there yet.

“Until we have enough police officers in Sweden we need to move resources around. So these kinds of operations do affect the police organization in Sweden, but we're not taking enough officers from each region for it to make any impact. That's the advantage of having an organization where you can collect people nationwide, the detrimental effect on a specific geographical region is minimal.”

Police, customs and The Swedish Enforcement Authority screened cars in Malmö on January 30th, as part of Operation Hoarfrost. Photo: Johan Nilsson/TT

You talked about seizures of other weapons, beside explosives. Recently a Bosnian man in the US got sentenced to prison for smuggling weapon parts to, among others, Swedish neo-nazis. How common are criminal international networks when it comes to Swedish gunrunning?

“From what I've seen, one of the most common guns in criminal clashes in Sweden is the AK 47, and they aren't manufactured here. Which means that it needs to be smuggled into the country, so in that sense international players are contributing to shootings in Sweden. These kinds of guns usually come from the Balkans, as they have a surplus of weapons from past decades of conflict.”

Are those the kind of weapons you usually seize or are, for example, Swedish hunting weapons also confiscated?

“No. Swedish hunting rifles are extremely rare in these kinds of contexts, it's usually assault rifles such as the AK 47, pistols or submachine guns. It is very, very rare that we see hunting weapons as a part of our work with Operation Hoarfrost.”

Guns seized in Sweden 2017 by Swedish Customs. Photo: Christine Olsson/TT

Where in Sweden do these kinds of crimes, shootings and detonations, happen? Are there geographical differences?

“Yes, there's a difference. But it has also changed over time. I would say that the most frequent shootings and detonations happen in areas that the police define as 'vulnerable' and 'especially vulnerable' areas, there are 62 in Sweden.

“But it has been changing. Before, shootings, gun seizures and detonations were predominant in the big cities: Stockholm, Malmö and in some capacity Gothenburg. But now we see a progression where it is spreading to smaller cities in Sweden as well: Värnamo, Västerås, Uppsala and so on.”

Why is that?

“We're seeing that criminal networks get a foothold, or rather, acquire a foothold outside of the big cities. We don't know for sure but a hypothesis is that the criminal market is exhausted in the big cities which is why they seek out smaller cities where market shares are more readily available.”

How about the bigger picture? What is the nature of crime in Sweden?

“What I can verify is that shootings and explosions within criminal environments are on a whole other level than the rest of Europe, however the overall crime statistics encompasses so much more than just the shootings and detonations.

“In the end these are conflicts and clashes between criminal groups in Sweden, and it is important to see it in that light. The risk of third parties getting hurt is very, very small, even though it does exist.

“I mean, this is not an embellished view of Sweden. I have noticed a polarization in how people view Sweden. On one hand it's described as a war zone with guns and misery, and on the other hand it is pictured as heaven on earth.

“What you have heard this far is my view, from a standpoint of the crime-fighting mission of the police, and it is dark, that is the nature of the beast. The police deal with bad stuff, that is our mission, which is why my view is just one part of the picture. However, what I can say is that I'm not worried when walking the streets of the city.”

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Sweden breaks yearly record for fatal shootings

A man was shot to death in Kristianstad, Skåne, late on Thursday night. He is the 48th person to be shot dead in Sweden this year, meaning that the previous record for most fatal shootings in one year set in 2020 has now been broken.

Sweden breaks yearly record for fatal shootings

“Unfortunately we can’t say more than that he’s in his twenties and we have no current suspects,” duty officer Mikael Lind told TT newswire.

According to police statistics, this most recent deadly shooting means that 48 people have been shot to death in 2022, meaning that Sweden has broken a new record for deadly shootings per year.

Earlier this week, Sweden’s police chief Anders Thornberg said that this number is likely to rise even higher before the end of the year.

“It looks like we’re going to break the record this year,” he told TT on Tuesday. “That means – if it continues at the same pace – around 60 deadly shootings.”

“If it ends up being such a large increase that would be very unusual,” said Manne Gerell, criminiologist at Malmö University.

“We saw a large increase between 2017 and 2018, and we could see the same now, as we’re on such low figures in Sweden. But it’s still worrying that it’s increasing by so much over such a short time period,” he said.

There also seems to be an upwards trend in the number of shootings overall during 2022. 273 shootings had occured by September 1st this year, compared with 344 for the whole of 2021 and 379 for the whole of 2020.

If shootings continue at this rate for the rest of 2022, it is likely that the total number for the year would be higher than 2021 and 2020. There are, however, fewer injuries.

“The majority of shootings cause no injuries, but this year, mortality has increased substantially,” Gerell explained. “There aren’t more people being shot, but when someone is shot, they’re more likely to die.”

Thursday’s shooting took place in Kristianstad, but it’s only partially true that deadly gun violence is becoming more common in smaller cities.

“It’s moved out somewhat to smaller cities, but we’re overexaggerating that effect,” Gerell said. “We’re forgetting that there have been shootings in other small cities in previous years.”

A report from the Crime Prevention Council (Brå) presented last spring showed that Sweden, when compared with 22 different countries in Europe, was the only one with an upwards trend for deadly shootings.

Temporary increases can be seen during some years in a few countries, but there were no countries which showed such a clear increase as Sweden has seen for multiple years in a row, according to Brå.

The Swedish upwards trend for deadly gun violence began in the beginning of the 2000s, but the trend took off in 2013 and has continued to increase since.

Eight of ten deadly shootings take place in criminal environments, the study showed. The Swedish increase has taken place in principle only among the 20-29 year old age group.

When police chief Anders Thornberg was asked how the trend can be broken, he said that new recruitments are one of the most important factors.

“The most important thing is to break recruitment, make sure we can listen encrypted and that we can get to the profits of crime in a better way,” he said.