STOCKHOLM, Feb. 11 — Sweden has for decades served as a recruitment base for extremists despite its relative lull in terms of terror attacks compared with other European countries, a defence expert said to Swedish Television on Sunday. “Sweden has stood out in this respect,” said Peder Hyllengren, a researcher at the Swedish Defence University, while talking about the relatively strong international influence of the country’s violent jihadist network.
He made the remarks two days before the start of a trial on Rakhmat Akilov, a Uzbek national accused of terrorism after carrying out a truck attack in Sweden’s capital, Stockholm last April. Hyllengren named several Swedish nationals who were involved into terror attacks outside Sweden. Mohamed Belkaid, who held a Swedish residence permit and lived in the northern Stockholm suburb of Marsta for several years, is suspected of having taken part in the terror attack in Paris in 2015.
He was killed during a police raid in Brussels. Also, Osama Krayem from Malmo, Sweden’s third largest city in the south, is suspected of involvement in the 2015 Paris terror attack and in the 2016 attack on Brussels. In addition to the attackers in Europe, the expert also mentioned the large number of Swedes who have travelled to Syria and Iraq in the past few years to join IS and other terrorist networks.
“An estimated 300 people have travelled from Sweden and that is the second largest number in the EU, in relation to the size of our population,” said Hyllengren. Moreover, many Swedes or people with strong links to Sweden have also in the past decade been convicted of terrorist crimes in Morocco, the United States, Denmark, Syria, Bosnia and Greece, according to Hyllengren.
The expert believes that hundreds of Swedes have established contact with violent jihadists from other countries or have joined different terrorist cells that have carried out attacks around Europe, with Belkaid and Krayem the most striking examples. According to Hyllengren, Sweden has for at least a couple of decades been a country from which people are recruited to terrorist training camps and to fight in conflict zones around the world. Hyllengren gave several reasons to explain why Sweden has become a “hot spot” for jihadists.
First, a number of key individuals have been based in Sweden. Second, Swedish anti-terror legislation has lagged behind and that has enabled jihadist networks to operate relatively undisturbed in Sweden. Third, in Sweden jihadism has been a controversial subject laden with taboos and that has prevented open debate about the issue as well as political action, and it has hampered the work of Sweden’s Secret Service.
“One risked being called out as a racist in a way that was not the case in other European countries. There, this issue was as uncontroversial as the importance of fighting Nazism and right-wing extremism. But in Sweden it took a long time before one could discuss jihadism in the same way as we for a long time have discussed Nazism,” said Hyllengren.