Stockholm bomb a wake-up call for country called world's conscience
As Christmas shoppers fled, the terrorist's open gut bled onto the grey snow. A few streets north, firefighters extinguished a car's burning chassis. These were the scenes of Sweden's first suicide bomb attack, as the Iraqi-Swedish assailant, Taimour Abdulwahab al Abdaly, failed in his plans, launched along one of Stockholm's busiest commercial streets.
The fire slightly injured two passers-by. The only fatality was al Abdaly himself, killed by the only one of his six explosives to detonate. In an e-mail sent 10 minutes before the attacks to a news service and the national security police, he gave as motivation Sweden's 500 troops in Afghanistan and called for "Muslims to take up arms".
The failed two-pronged attack in the capital's heart heralds a sea-change for the Scandinavian nation of nine million, which was once dubbed "the world's conscience". In 2004, Osama bin Laden famously countered the US claim that al Qa'eda hated freedom by asking: "Why didn't we attack Sweden?" Although it isn't yet known which, if any, organisation stands behind last week's attack, the question is: what happened to Sweden's immunity?
Jan Joel Andersson, a senior research fellow and conflict analyst at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs, said: "We have a new generation which no longer has an image of Sweden as a neutral, peace-loving country. Our mission in Afghanistan, despite being under UN mandate, is part of the American war on terror."
Magnus Reitberger, a senior politics lecturer at Stockholm University, agreed. "The build-up to the American invasion of Afghanistan was of course September 11, 2001. It was done in the interest of American national security."
Before last weekend's attack, Sweden had not been completely spared political violence. In 1973, left-wing extremists from the Baader-Meinhof group took hostages in the case that gave its name to "Stockholm syndrome", when victims empathise with their attackers. The country lost its prime minister, Olof Palme, in 1987 and its foreign minister, Anna Lindh, in 2003, to violence: Palme was shot by an unknown assailant, Lindh stabbed by a mentally disturbed Swede of Serbian parentage.
Yet the country had so far evaded terrorism. Among Swedes passing the blast site a few days later, there was mixed opinion on whether such an attack had been expected.
"It happens regularly in all big cities," said Johan Ytterholm, 30, an IT manager, shrugging his shoulders. "You can't hide behind locked doors," said Maria Fernstein, 30, a graphic designer. During their lunch hour, people casually walked past the location where al Abdaly, nicknamed "the world's worst terrorist" on several internet forums, died. A young woman leisurely picked up her iPhone to photograph the spot.
Mr Andersson does not believe the attack will change Swedes' opinion on Afghanistan. "There's almost a feeling that the attack didn't happen. It would have been different if 25 people had died. We haven't had any mass demonstration to pull the troops out. The acceptance of losing soldiers is high."
Al Abdaly's e-mail also mentioned the Swedish artist Lars Vilks, who drew an offensive caricature of the Prophet Mohammed in 2007. It did not take long for the outraged reactions ,and Mr Vilks now receives police protection. He was not a particularly well-known artist in Sweden before the drawing.
"Vilks is a joke," said a 76-year-old retired nurse, who declined to be named, as she marched down Drottninggatan. "He achieved what he wanted to achieve, which was attention. And it was unnecessary. One shouldn't hurt other people's feelings."
A report delivered this week to the government identifies 200 individuals within the country with known links to Islamist extremism. Somalia and Pakistan are the top two destinations for Swedish citizens with militant leanings, according to the terrorism expert, Magnus Ranstorp, at the National Defence College.
Earlier this year, two young men with suspected links to the Somali militant organisation Al Shabab were detained.
The country's social fabric has become much more complex in the past decades. As one conflict has followed another across the world, Sweden has welcomed successive waves of immigrants. Chileans escaping the military dictator Augusto Pinochet began the trend in the 1970s. Then followed, among many others, Kurds, Bosnians, Syrians and Somalis. Among the most recent arrivals are Iraqis fleeing after the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein but also undercut the fragile detente between ethnic and religious groups. Almost one in seven - 14 per cent - of Sweden's population is estimated to be foreign-born.
In the autumn election, the anti-immigration party, the Sweden Democrats, entered parliament for the first time after capturing nearly six per cent of the vote, with 20 seats and a self-proclaimed mandate to preserve native culture.
There has long been a debate on immigration and integration. Embittered feelings in some quarters came on the heels of several high-profile honour killings. The first widely publicised case in 2002 so shocked Sweden that Crown Princess Victoria and several high-profile politicians attended the funeral of the Kurdish-Swedish Fadime Sahindal. She was 26 when her father ordered her murder for living with a Swedish boyfriend.
Then came a media debate about "Rinkeby Swedish", a hybrid slang incorporating Arabic, Turkish and other foreign languages. It was named after an immigrant-majority suburb of Stockholm. Defenders said the lingo should be recognised as a new dialect. Others argued that it showed a failure to integrate and could put immigrants at jeopardy of discrimination on the job market.
The integration debate has in part focused on newcomers clustering together. Södertälje, 40 minutes south of Stockholm, has received more Iraqis than all of the United States combined.
To reach the almost exclusively Iraqi neighbourhood of Hovsjo, bus number 751 exits Södertälje town centre and rumbles past sentry-like pine trees. The forest clears to reveal six-storey apartment blocks spread like giant Lego pieces. The brown façades sprout satellite dishes, all facing east.
Whereas some other European countries considered banning minarets, the Swedish integration debate a few years ago focused on these satellite dishes. They could fall and injure people, was the official concern. In the immigrant suburbs, however, there was a sense of being picked on by the authorities.
The dialogue highlighted a worry among politicians, ethnic Swedes, and indeed among previous generations of now well-established immigrants, that exclusively watching foreign television channels hindered learning the Swedish language.
Watching ArabSat is far from illegal but the fear now is that socio-economic and cultural isolation could fuel extremism. The democracy minister, Birgitta Olsson, commented: "Generally, we can conclude that increased polarisation favours all forms of extremism and should be avoided for the sake of social cohesion."
Earlier this year, Nyamko Sabuni, then integration minister, herself from Burundi, mentioned Hovsjo as an example of the geographical isolation of immigrant suburbs. The neighbourhood is wedged in between a lake and a huge industrial site without much else around it. Sabuni argued in a co-authored editorial that such locations entrench immigrants' sense of alienation. The Arabic translator Elie Haddad agrees with her.
Mr Haddad, a Lebanese Christian, who arrived in Sweden more than 20 years ago and works in the area where his Arabic has picked up an Iraqi accent, said: "I'd like the Migration Authority to forcibly spread out where immigrants live after being granted asylum. People will, of course, want to be close to relatives or friends already in the country, but it's not good for their integration."
"We would like a few more Swedish Swedes here," added one of Mr Haddad's colleagues as she passed by for a coffee.
In Hovsjo, residents were upset terrorism had reached Sweden but many pointed out tat the phenomenon was not new for them.
Raad Jan, 60, a former accountant who left Baghdad in 2004 with his wife and three children, said: "I've seen so many severed hands and arms. Terror attacks are always shocking but especially so here, where people have been so kind to us. I was sad and angry when I heard the boy was Iraqi. I'm ashamed, even though it isn't a reflection on all of us. We're not all like this."
An elderly Syrian-born man said in broken Swedish: "This is not in the Quran, it's the fault of a few bearded old men issuing instructions on what is halal and handing out fatwas.: For each mention of the word "imam", the pensioner, who did not want to give his name, stroked a long imaginary beard with his right hand.
Although Hovsjo's Iraqis are mostly Christian, there are Muslim families in the surrounding area. Ali Raouf, 33, a sports teacher, arrived with his wife, Esra Hussein, 26, in 2006 with their son. Their daughter Zahra, 4, whose raspberry pink overall protects her against the -6°C temperature outside, was born in Sweden.
"As an Arab I can say that what he did has nothing to do with Islam," Mr Raouf said. "We couldn't believe someone would harm this country. It's the only country in the entire world that has been helpful to us Iraqis."
* The National
Updated: December 18, 2010 04:00 AM