Stockholm: Terror’s Latest Target

On Friday 7 April, Stockholm became the newest site in an ever increasing global pattern of terror. Just before 3pm local time, a stolen beer truck plowed into pedestrians on Drottninggatan (Queen Street), a busy shopping district in the heart of Stockholm, before crashing into a department store. The attack immediately claimed the lives of four people and wounded an additional 15. Among the fatalities was 11-year-old Ebba Akerland who was walking home from school when she was hit by the vehicle, along with another Swedish national, a Belgian woman, and a British man. Three weeks later, the death toll rose to five when a woman in her 60s passed away from sustained injuries. Also lost in the attack was a rescue dog named Iggy.

Directly following the assault, the city centre went into lockdown with locals and tourists alike staying inside as police began a manhunt for the culprit. William Andersson, a postgraduate student at the University of St Andrews, was in Stockholm coming out of an office building near Drottninggatan when the incident occurred and describes the situation as ‘shocking.’ ‘People were running and shouting around Drottninggatan and we could spot smoke 50m away, where we saw that the street was being evacuated.’ William took shelter in a friend’s flat close by until news stations declared the area safe again around 6:30pm.

vapi photographie, via Flickr

Image courtesy of vapi photographie, via Flickr, © 2016, some rights reserved.

Later that day, police detained Rakhmat Akilov, a 39 year-old man from the central Asian republic of Uzbekistan, who is said to have taken a train north from the city after the attack and was arrested in a suburb near the airport. On Tuesday 11 April, Akilov confessed to the violence in court and his lawyer later confirmed that he will ‘plead guilty’ to the assault and will remain in custody until a trial begins. Officials also verified that they are investigating a device found inside the truck.

Rakhmet Akilov, who was known to intelligence services, applied for residency in Sweden in 2014. However, according to police, he was rejected in December 2016 and given four weeks to leave the country. In February his case was handed over to authorities for deportation. The Swedish police said Akilov was known to have been sympathetic to extremist organisations, among them ISIS, but that there was nothing to indicate he might plan an attack. Uzbekistan’s foreign minister, Abdulaziz Kamilov, later stated on 14 April that Akilov had been recruited by the Islamic State and had encouraged other Uzbeks to travel to Syria to fight for the militant group. ‘He repeatedly sent propagandist videos with terror content to his relatives and other contacts in Uzbekistan,’ Mr. Kamilov said, ‘trying to induce them to commit acts of violence against representatives of public authority, leadership, and law enforcement of Uzbekistan.’ He continued, stating that ‘information on unlawful acts by Rakhmat Akilov was earlier relayed through intelligence agencies to one of our Western partners for further sharing with the Swedish side.’ The Swedish ministry’s press office responded that, ‘The Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden has not received any such information.’ ISIS itself has not claimed responsibility for the attack, however experts observe that the militant group tends to do so when its supporters are killed, not when they are taken into custody.

Akilov is one of more than 12,000 people wanted for deportation in Sweden and officials have acknowledged how difficult it can be to monitor asylum-seekers ordered to leave the country after their applications are turned down. The country is considered Europe’s most welcoming nation with a record 163,000 refugees arriving in 2015 – the highest per capita rate in the EU. In November 2015, Sweden introduced tighter border controls for the first time in 20 years to help regulate the flow of migrants, most of whom come from countries experiencing conflict in the Middle East. However, despite these adjustments, some within the nation believe much greater regulations are still needed.

Mattias Karlsson, leader of the Sweden Democrats in parliament, has long maintained that asylum seekers create a risk for Swedish security and had promised to reduce the number of refugees entering the country if elected. His party has risen in popularity over the past decade with March polls indicating it is now the country’s most popular party, supported by 24 per cent of the electorate. It is quite possible this figure will continue to climb following the events in Stockholm. Along with rising support for stricter migration policies, the country is also said to be bracing for growing intolerance and hate crimes.

Hours after the 7 April attack, Muslim taxi driver Abdi Dahir was placed in a choke-hold in Stockholm by a passenger sitting in his back seat. The male rider reportedly yelled ‘We have done everything for everyone, we have given them mosques, we have given them everything but they kill our own people. Then we’ll kill them,’ before grabbing Dahir around the neck. The taxi driver, who moved to Sweden from Somalia as a child, activated a concealed alarm which prompted police to quickly intervene.

Under such circumstances it is difficult to know what the right course of action really is. The terror attack in Stockholm comes in the wake of several similar incidents across Europe. In March, a man drove his car into a crowd in London, killing five people and in December, a large truck plowed into a Christmas market in Berlin, killing 12. Last July, 86 people were killed when another large truck plowed through a crowd celebrating Bastille Day in France. Radical extremists have very clearly caused a serious, escalating safety issue over the past year. While stronger migration controls appear to be the answer for many, and certainly is an important area for a number of countries to reevaluate, it is also essential to note that this is not an all-encompassing solution. Even if every current radical was kept from entering a country, national integrity could not be guaranteed. Extremists are not born, they are convinced, converted, and created by existing supporters. In today’s globalised tech world this process can and will occur even if the convertor and convertee are oceans apart. Removing terrorists from a specific geographic location may slow them down but it will not ultimately stop them, the challenge runs much deeper. Terror is no longer an issue that can be dealt with by individual countries, it is a global problem that requires a global response.

Our thoughts, prayers, and kind words may show those effected by the growing list of tragedies that we care, but our united action needs to show them that this violence will no longer be tolerated.