Terrorism For Members

INTERVIEW: Terror threat against Sweden is unprecedented, expert warns

Richard Orange
Richard Orange - [email protected]
INTERVIEW: Terror threat against Sweden is unprecedented, expert warns
Terror researcher Magnus Ranstorp told The Local that the risk to individuals in Sweden was still limited. Photo: Sören Andersson/TT

With a who's who of militant Islamic groups calling for reprisals against Sweden, the threat against the country is greater than ever before, Swedish terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp has told The Local.


Magnus Ranstorp has spent nearly 20 years studying terrorism at the Swedish Defence University's Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies, where he now serves as research director, and over his career Sweden has never been such a target for Islamic extremists as it is now. 

"As terrorism researchers, we have never seen a time when we've had four or five specific terrorist organisations that have honed in on Sweden and Denmark, but particularly Sweden, to this degree," he told The Local in an interview, after Sweden raised its national terror threat level from three to four on a five-point scale.


The focus on Sweden today, he said, was greater than it had been after the artist Lars Vilks caused controversy with his drawings of the Prophet Mohammed as a dog in 2007, or after 2012 and 2013 when some 300 young Swedish residents went to Syria and Iraq to join the Islamic State terror group, or in 2015 to 2016 after the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels. 

"I think that it's much worse now. Sweden has never had such an accumulated narrative painting it as an enemy of Islam, which is being pushed on a massive level in the Middle East," he said.

Given the number of threats levelled at Sweden at the time of Quran burnings at the end of June and in July, he said, the National Centre for Terrorist Threat Assessment had been several weeks late in raising the terror threat level in Sweden to four on its five-point scale, signifying a "high threat" of an attack. 

"They could have done this two weeks earlier, because everyone could see that we were going up to a four, even outside the counterintelligence realm," Ranstorp said. 

The threat level, he said, had only been raised to four once before, between November 2015 and March 2016, after the Paris and Brussels attacks, and wasn't even raised back to four when there was a terror attack on Drottninggatan, Stockholm's main shopping street, in 2017.

He listed the three-page communique from al-Qaida's central command calling for revenge attacks on Sweden, and similar calls from the Somalia-based militant group al-Shabaab, the Lebanese militant organisation Hezbollah, Islamic State (Isis), and the Khorasan splinter group of Islamic State in Afghanistan as some of the publicly expressed threats to Sweden.  

"The system is sort of blinking red in terms of inciting attacks," he said. 


Of these groups, he said the threats from central al-Qaida and Isis were the most credible, with al-Shabaab, Hezbollah, and Isil Khorasan tending to be geographically focused on their respective local regions of the Horn of Africa, Israel-Palestine and Afghanistan and Pakistan, although he said this did not mean attacks by those affiliated to them were impossible. 

"With al-Qaida, it's quite unusual for them to hone in on Sweden in this way," he said. 

"Isil Khorasan is assessed by security services and others to pose a regional threat in and around the Afghanistan-Pakistan area and maybe in the Middle East as well, but of course, they have followers here as well." 

"There have been individual members with links to al-Shabaab who either have gone down from Sweden to do operations down there, but also the ones who attacked the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard, who did the Muhammad cartoons."


He said he understood the hesitancy of the Swedish authorities to raise the threat level. 

"I think they've been very restricted because of what happened today at the press conference, and that is that the public gets a little bit panicky. You know, 'can we go to concerts? Should we go to malls?' etc. And I think that is difficult for them to answer." 

Despite the heightened threat of a terror attack in Sweden, Ranstorp stressed that the risk to individuals was limited.

"The chance of something happening to you is extremely small," he said. "Even if something happens in your city, it isn't likely to happen to you." 


He said that the level of intelligence about Islamic militants within Sweden's Säpo security services was currently very high, with officers collaborating with their counterparts in the UK, France, Germany and the US, with Europol and with Nato. 

"They are very good, they have mapped out most of the you know, the structures over many years," he said. There are lots of different information sources, and you have signals intelligence and military intelligence, so they know a lot. But of course, there are people who may slip under the radar." 

He said that the greatest risks of attacks were to hard-to-defend public areas and gatherings and also to the individuals who have carried out Quran-burning protests. 

"Some of the directives are to assassinate the Quran burners," he said.


Ranstorp said that the focus on Sweden had begun at least 18 months ago, when there was a campaign on Arab language social media about Muslim children being forcibly taken into care by Sweden's authorities, meaning Sweden was already gaining a reputation as hostile to Muslims even before the Quran-burnings started in 2022.  

He said that as well as Russia, which has been accused by Sweden's government of spreading disinformation about Quran burnings in Arabic, Iran and Turkey and their media channels also had reasons to exploit the issue. 

"The Iranians have reacted to the sentencing of a high-ranking person to life imprisonment and expulsion for war crimes," he said. "He was actually lured to Sweden by the Iranian opposition, and also Iran always reacts like this, you know, it's really good to deflect from the domestic problems that they're having, to sort of 'wag the dog'."  


Meanwhile, Turkey's president, he said, "likes to milk conflict friction points". "He's been using Islamophobia as a weapon against Europe as a whole, and particularly against France." 

Given this, he said, Sweden's government had done a relatively good job in handling the issue, apart from being a bit late in raising the terror level.

"Otherwise, I think they've done a pretty good job. They tried to sort of stem the OIC [Organisation of Islamic Cooperation], the 57 states when they were ganging up on Sweden, and that that seems to have worked. There haven't been any big boycotts." 

"We had our national security adviser out talking about contextualising this as well, which was good. One area we haven't done so well, is that the Swedish government doesn't really communicate with Al Jazeera and all these different news organisations effectively, and therefore we leave a walkover in relation to communication. No one is really standing up to sort of counter these false rumours, and they can learn a lot from from the UK on that." 


Join the conversation in our comments section below. Share your own views and experience and if you have a question or suggestion for our journalists then email us at [email protected].
Please keep comments civil, constructive and on topic – and make sure to read our terms of use before getting involved.

Please log in to leave a comment.

See Also