Photo: Unsplasch

When the Terrorism Threat Came to Sweden

After the numerous incidents of Quran burnings during the summer, Sweden has become a designated target for terrorists. But what does the threat assessment look like when placed in a historical context? And what technical solutions are we using to protect ourselves in society?

Mats Fridlund is a technology and history of science historian and associate professor in the history of ideas and learning at the University of Gothenburg. He leads three research projects on the history of political terrorism.

Right-wing Extremist Terrorism and Islamist Terrorism

In his research within the SweTerror project on the use of the term "terrorism" in the Swedish parliament, Mats Fridlund observes how its meaning has evolved from the 19th century to the present day.

– Terrorism and political terror were used for a long time to describe violence by foreign regimes. Only in the 1920s did it start to be used to describe political violence in Sweden, particularly related to violent conflicts in the Swedish labor market, he explains.

Right-wing extremist terrorism and political violence have existed in Sweden since the mid-1980s and have claimed the lives of around 40 people. The Islamist threat began to emerge only in the 2000s, especially after 2010 when the artist Lars Vilks became a target for his drawings of the Prophet Mohammed. This development led to the terrorist attack on Drottninggatan in Stockholm in 2017, where five people lost their lives.

– What sets these two terrorism threats apart is that right-wing extremist violence is usually targeted at individuals - political representatives and representatives of different ethnic and sexual minority groups. Islamist violence, except for threats against Vilks, has been perceived as targeting the general public.

Historically High Threat Level

Among researchers studying terrorism, the concept is defined as politically or ideologically motivated violence aimed at intimidating and influencing.

– It is often said that the primary goal of terrorists is not those they are trying to kill but those who are frightened and affected by those the terrorists harm or kill.

Sweden recently raised its terrorism threat level from 3 to 4 on a five-point scale. This has only happened once before in Sweden's history, a few days after ISIS's terrorist attack on France in 2015.

– The preparedness was raised after what was described as an extremely concrete threat that a suspected terrorist was preparing a terrorist act in Sweden. However, it turned out that SÄPO (Swedish Security Service) was completely wrong in its assessment; it was an innocent Iraqi refugee they suspected, says Mats Fridlund.

Normalization of the Terrorism Threat

In one of his research projects, he examines how society uses various technical solutions to protect itself against terrorism, such as surveillance cameras, X-ray machines, barricades, and other obstacles, which can often have unintended consequences.

– At the same time as it can protect us, it also normalizes the terrorism threat and makes it a part of our daily lives, often lingering even after the threat is over.

Mats Fridlund compares this to the historical redoubts and moats preserved in Gothenburg, even though the threats they were meant to ward off no longer exist.

– They are seen as a normal part of the cityscape and are no longer associated with any threats. Future historians, perhaps even myself, will see if the same happens with today's technical solutions.


Text: Hanna Erlingson