STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Sweden was only a technical failure away from a terrorist bloodbath as the Scandinavian monarchy was hit by the first suicide bomber in the nation’s history.
In what is suspected as a protest against Sweden’s 500 soldiers in Afghanistan and the controversial Scandinavian Muhammad cartoons, a 28-year-old father of two set off a huge detonation including six pipe bombs and shiver bombs in Stockholm’s prime shopping district, along Drottninggatan (Queen’s Street), in the midst of hectic Christmas shopping Saturday evening.
Several hundred people walked close to the suicide bomber, who chanted Arabic slogans seconds before committing the attack.
“It could have killed up to several hundred people and caused lots of injuries,” said Bo Janzon, weapons expert at the Swedish Defense Research Agency, referring to the bomb’s technical failure. Five of the six pipe bombs did not go off.
A technical investigation is still underway, but Henric Ostmark, bomb expert at the Swedish Armed Forces said that, most likely, the pipe bombs weren't correctly connected.
The suicide bomber was killed and two passersby were rushed to the hospital with minor injuries. Minutes before the attack, a car bomb exploded 200 meters further down the street. A message was also sent around the same time to several email accounts, though officials have stopped short of connecting the events.
Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt said it is not yet clear that the three incidents — the suicide bomber, the car bomb and the email threat — were connected. “The three incidents are not confirmed as being connected but of course they lead to questions," he said.
Reinfeldt urged people not to panic. "There is a risk this can result in negative tensions in our society and throw suspicion on some individuals. It is therefore of great importance that we stick to what we know and defend the tolerance we want to characterize our society. People must be able to believe in different gods or no one at all. One must be able to live side by side. It is important to continue to defend our open society and do not jump into conclusions,” he said.
The area along Queen's Street turned into chaos immediately after the explosions as shoppers ran away in panic. “The buildings were shaking. We went scared and then we saw a dead person in the street,” said one onlooker, Tarja Johansson.
Some of the witnesses described a man on the street who was bleeding heavily from his stomach. “It was a major explosion followed by a sharp light and flames stretching several meters up in the air. Then we heard more explosions,” said Jonathan Bollman, another civilian at the scene of the explosion.
One anonymous witness said that he saw two people helping the suicide bomber. “I saw two people next to him. One was pulling him and one ran away,” said the witness.
Twelve minutes before the car bomb exploded at 4:40 p.m., an email was sent to Sweden’s news Agency TT. But no one read the message immediately. “We did not see it instantly but the people on duty registered that it was a heavy file in the inbox,” said Mats Johansson, TT news director.
But when the bomb alarm reached the news desk, incoming emails were checked including the message, which included two large sound files, one in Swedish and one in Arabic. “We checked with an Arabic speaking person and the content in the sound files are identical,” said Johansson.
Sweden’s biggest daily newspaper, Aftonbladet, published a reconstruction of parts of the letter. “To Sweden and the Swedish people: Because of the silence regarding Lars Vilks’ cartoons and the Swedish soldiers in Afghanistan — now your children, your daughters and your sisters will die as our brothers, our sisters and our children are dying."
"Our acts will speak for themselves. As long as you do not stop your war against Islam, your degradation of the Prophet and your stupid support for the pig Vilks. All mujahedins in Europe and Sweden: Now is time to strike, do not wait longer. Come forward with whatever you got, even if it is a knife and I know you got more than a knife. Fear no one, fear no prison, do not fear death.”
The writer also asked his family for forgiveness for misleading them about a trip to the Middle East. “I never went to the Middle East to work or to make money, I went for jihad,” he wrote.
The sender also wrote that he had not been able to tell the truth to his wife or his children. He wrote that he loves his family and asked his wife to kiss the children on his behalf. “Tell them that daddy loves them.”
The sender was not anonymous and copies of the message were sent to several email accounts, including the Swedish Security Police.
Sweden has 500 soldiers within NATO's U.S.-led International Security Assistance force (ISAF) in Afghanistan. In November the Swedish center-right government struck a deal with the two big opposition parties, the Social Democrats and the Green Party, to continue the military presence until the end of 2014. Six Swedish soldiers have been killed in Afghanistan since 2005. The Swedish presence is a hot domestic political issue.
The controversial Muhammad cartoons that rocked the world were published by Denmark’s leading daily Jyllands-Posten on Sept. 30, 2005, and caused protests and riots in Asia and Africa. Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks was also a target and received several death threats following his controversial drawing of the Prophet Muhammad as a so-called roundabout dog. In Sweden it is popular to place pictures of dogs in roundabouts.
The 28-year-old suspected suicide bomber would have turned 29 the day after the attack. He lived three hours south of Stockholm, Swedish media reported. His family is shocked. “He is my only son and the entire family is in shock. Friday he was home but after he woke up Saturday morning he took his car and drove off. He did not say if he was going to Stockholm or elsewhere,” the 28-year-old’s father told Swedish media.
A witness told Swedish tabloid Expressen that the suicide bomber worked placing store signs at Drottninggatan. “I am 95 percent sure that it was the man who worked as sign carrier. I have seen him here for three years,” the witness said. Next to the killed man was a sign with the text “Fish and chips.”
The 28-year-old’s Facebook page included a profile picture of two people, one of them carrying a black Al Qaeda flag. The page also ran violent YouTube clips of a man dying. He also posted pictures of himself from a trip to Jordan the spring of 2010.
In accordance with Scandinavian customs, the police seldom release any information about any suspects but the suicide bomber's identity was published on various blogs and in British media. The police also blocked off the 28-year-old’s address in south Sweden, which drew attention from the neighbors, who called media.
His family received threats online and Swedish police considered various safety measures Sunday night. “Some kind of security is under consideration but I can not mention what kind,” said Nils Erik Eriksson at the Jonkoping Police Department in south Sweden.