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Sweden’s security police alerted to potential terror plans ‘every other day’

Sweden's security police Säpo receive information about new potential terror threats every other day, a senior official tells The Local a year after the deadly Stockholm truck attack.

Sweden's security police alerted to potential terror plans 'every other day'
Fredrik Hallström of Sweden's security police Säpo. Photo: Janerik Henriksson/TT

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Five people were killed and several more injured when Isis sympathizer Rakhmat Akilov stole a large beer truck and drove it down the capital's busy street Drottninggatan last year, mowing down people in his way.

A year after the attack, The Local interviews Fredrik Hallström, deputy head of Säpo's unit for ideologically motivated actors, who tells us that potentially violent extremist movements are still growing in Sweden.

“We're seeing, as we have flagged up before, a growing extremism environment with violent Islamist ideology as well as political extremism in the form of autonomous (far-left) and white power environments,” he says. “Growing both in terms of the number of individuals, and the threat in itself, as the movements grow.”

Now-former Säpo director-general Anders Thornberg said last year that some 3,000 violent extremists are thought to be based in Sweden, of whom around two thirds are believed to have Islamist motives. The others are mostly made up of political extremists with connections to either far-right or far-left movements.

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Flowers left at the scene of the Drottninggatan attack. Photo: Anders Wiklund/TT

But it is more complex than a simple figure. How, for example, do you make the distinction between an individual with extremist ideas, and someone with genuine plans to carry out a violent attack?

“There is also likely a hidden number of people that we don't have any knowledge of,” adds Hallström.

“But we should remember that these 3,000 are people who have some form of ties to these violent environments, but just because they're 3,000, it does not mean that we have 3,000 potential terrorists.”

“We have spoken before about 'will and ability', but today we talk a lot more about will. Today you need so little, it does not have to be a complex bomb. You can implement ideas very, very quickly and use everyday tools: a truck or a knife or a stone or anything else.”

Several terror attacks have taken place across Europe in recent years, in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, and Barcelona. Säpo have referred to the situation as “the new normal”, but believe an individual attacker remains more likely than a coordinated attack against Sweden, where the terror threat level has stayed at 'three' on a five-point scale since 2010, apart from a brief period in late 2015 when it was temporarily raised to four.

“That's what's so complex,” says Hallström.

“In a way we have to get inside the person's head to understand if there is real intention and a lack of that human barrier that stops them. But we're working day and night to confirm or dismiss whether or not that intent is there. In the majority of cases we are able to dismiss the information after investigating it.”

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Sweden's security police have been criticized after it emerged that the organization had received information about Akilov's radicalization as early as autumn 2016, but dropped its probe in January 2017 – around the same time as he is believed to have started planning the terror attack less than three months later.

“It's a challenge that we have seen both in Sweden and elsewhere in Europe,” says Hallström. “We are open to criticism and we want people to review our work, but it is also important to remember that it is incredibly complex work. We are constantly working to improve our method and collaboration with other organizations.”

“We also have to have the courage to prioritize between the amount of information we get. Every other day we receive information about some form of intention to carry out an attack. The problem is that it is not always a named person, it could be a telecom address and a form of alias, where we then have to identify the person and then assess their intention,” he adds.

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A police animation of what the Drottninggatan attack looked like. Photo: Polisen/TT

Hallström was also the acting operative head of Säpo's response to the April 7th attack, and he remembers the day well. “I had quite a lot of thoughts. A knot in my stomach about the fact that it had after all happened, not least because our job is to discover and prevent it. My thoughts also went to those on the crime scene, people who in some way were affected by the incident. And my third thought was that I was furious that someone felt they had the right to take people's lives for their ideology.”

“At the same time I could not let those feelings stand in the way of ensuring that our work was calm, balanced and effective. It was an enormous effort. We worked 24/7 for several weeks, while also handling all the threats we normally have to confirm or dismiss. A lot of my colleagues came in to work. But to work that hard and for that long, people also need their rest. So one of my challenges was actually that I had too many people here during one period and had to send colleagues home who wanted to be here and contribute.”

The anniversary of the attack will be marked with memorial services and a concert open to the public in the Kungsträdgården park on Saturday, at which Prime Minister Stefan Löfven is set to give a speech.

The trial of Akilov – who has confessed to terror crimes – is expected to conclude in May.