STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Despite suffering a terror attack Saturday, Swedes remained stoic about the nation's military presence in Afghanistan, presumed to be a motivation for the bomber.
The attacker, identified as Iraqi-born Swede Taimour Abdulwahab, 28, is believed to have set fire to a car which failed to ignite the gas canisters inside, before running along Drottninggatan, a pedestrian shopping street. The second explosion on a side street enveloped passers-by in smoke and reportedly ripped a hole in Abdulwahab’s stomach. Pipe bombs that failed to detonate were found by his body.
Shortly before the attack, a news agency and police received an email message and audio file expressing anger at Sweden's mission in Afghanistan and at a Swedish artist's drawing that depicts the prophet Muhammad with the body of a dog.
“It’s a political game,” said Susanna Olivin, a 30-year-old public servant, as she walked past the scene of the attack on Monday. “If he hadn’t given Afghanistan as a reason there would have been some other reason. To blow yourself to bits is really quite dumb.”
Sweden has long maintained a policy of neutrality, but contributes 500 soldiers to the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) mission in Afghanistan, which is based in the northern province of Mazar-e-Sharif. Like many Swedes, IT manager Johan Ytterholm wants to pull out of Afghanistan, but simply because he views the mission as futile, not because Swedes risk an elevated terrorism threat at home.
“The attack isn’t so surprising,” the 34-year-old said. “It happens at regular intervals in all bigger cities.”
Terrorism expert Magnus Ranstorp of the Swedish Defense College believes “Sweden is no longer in the same category of immunity” from terrorists but doesn’t think the attack will make supporters of the Afghan presence reconsider.
“This can have the opposite effect. Instead of giving up it could strengthen the support,” Ranstorp said.
Other European nations have withdrawn or reconsidered their participation in the U.S.-led mission, as pressure at home and abroad has forced the United States itself to re-evaluate its war strategy. The administration of U.S. President Barack Obama has announced a goal of bringing all troops home by 2014.
Sweden’s brushes with terrorism have so far been few. There have been Swedish citizens involved in terrorism activities abroad, such as Mohamed Moumou, a Moroccan-born terrorist who repeatedly wreaked havoc in Iraq. This year’s arrest of two young men of Somali origin for suspected links to militant Islamist organisation Al Shabbab created front-page headlines and talk of a national security turning point. Swedish magazine Fokus recently reported that the security police has been instructed to keep a more vigilant eye on recruitment in immigrant communities.
“I hope this doesn’t affect people’s perceptions of immigrants,” said Eric Lobl, 35, a student whose family originally comes from the Ivory Coast.
This nation of 9 million has in the past 20 years changed markedly. A benevolent asylum policy has torn up the cliched postcard of Sweden as blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and supplanted it with a panorama of backgrounds and ethnicities. More than 10 percent of the population has foreign roots.
In this fall’s national elections, anti-immigration party the Sweden Democrats were voted into parliament for the first time.
“Extremists will always find a way to back up their views,” added Lobl.
Saturday’s emailed message called for the ”mujahideen," or Islamic fighters, of Sweden and Europe to pick up arms. It spoke of the “denigration” of Muslims but didn’t elaborate.
“Religion isn’t the biggest problem, it’s unemployment,” theorized 49-year-old Finnish-Swedish Risto Heimonen, who works in the pharmaceuticals industry, speaking just yards from the blast site as snow began to fall on the Christmas shoppers. “This happens when you don’t have anything to occupy your time with and someone gives you a goal.”
There was widespread relief that damage from the attack was so slight.
“You do wonder what would have happened if he was only a few meters closer to the street,” said Maria Fernsten, 30, a graphic designer.