For decades, Sweden has been regarded as the relative backwater of international terrorism. Even Usama bin Ladin had mentioned Sweden as immune from terrorism in an al-Jazira broadcast in October 2004. This sense of immunity was shattered twice in December 2010. First, a suicide bomber struck in the Nordic countries for the first time ever on December 11. The Swedish security service, Säkerhetspolisen (SÄPO), had no record of the bomber before the attack, as he had studied and lived for a decade in the United Kingdom. At the same time, he admitted he had traveled to Iraq to perform jihad. Second, four Swedes were arrested later that month for planning to conduct a protracted Mumbai-style attack on the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Copenhagen, Denmark. The men were arrested after driving from Sweden to Copenhagen to execute the attack. Third, SÄPO produced a report on violent Islamist extremism which outlined that it had identified about 200 extremists in Sweden; more than 80% were socially connected, and most lived inside the three major cities of Sweden, with more than half residing in Stockholm.[1]

This article examines the circumstances behind these developments and their implications for the evolution of terrorism in Sweden. It illustrates the interconnectivity of terrorist social networks, and it underscores the importance of terrorist travelers to Pakistan and Somalia and the potential for a boomerang effect. To some extent, this article argues that the events in Sweden are a microcosm or reflection of broader terrorism trends.

Anatomy of Sweden’s First Suicide Bomber
On December 11, 2010, a 28-year-old Iraqi-Swede, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, became the first suicide bomber in Sweden when he accidentally detonated one of the six pipe bombs strapped to his body among busy Christmas shoppers in central Stockholm. The Swedish public narrowly escaped a major terrorist attack that was cleverly designed as a multipronged, one-man mass casualty event. Beginning with the explosion of his station wagon filled with gas tubes and flammable material, al-Abdaly had planned to walk down Drottninggatan, a major pedestrian shopping street, toward a large department store and the main central railway station placing two or more explosive devices at different locations before detonating his own serial-connected pipe bombs strapped to his body. Al-Abdaly had at least six pipe bombs filled with ball bearings, a pressure-cooker, and a backpack filled with explosives and nails.

Al-Abdaly commenced the operation earlier that day at the crack of dawn by driving to Stockholm from his parents’ house in the small town of Tranås, a 170-mile journey northward. He would have arrived in Stockholm about three hours later following the collection of explosive devices from an undisclosed storage site. Assuming al-Abdaly arrived in Stockholm around midday, it is still unclear where he initially went and what he did prior to the commencement of the terrorist assault at 4:40 PM. At precisely that time, al-Abdaly sent different e-mails to three recipients: his wife, the Swedish Security Service SÄPO (which failed to check it for 4.5 hours), and Tidningarnas Telegrambyrå, the official Swedish wire service. The e-mail contained pre-recorded sound files. In the English and Arabic versions, al-Abdaly’s message was addressed to his wife asking for forgiveness and explaining that he had been secretly a mujahidin for the past four years and that his business trips to the Middle East had been a lie. Al-Abdaly’s wife, living in Luton in the United Kingdom, would later profess no knowledge of his activities in an exclusive interview to controversial television broadcaster, Muslim convert and ex-Taliban prisoner Yvonne Ridley, yet a longer unedited version of the tape appeared within 24 hours on the couple’s shared YouTube account: mona123timo. His wife inserted a martyrdom picture, “Hoor al-Ayn,” depicting a martyr on horseback as “mood background” for the recording. This suggested either his wife knew more than she claimed, or that there was possibly an accomplice to al-Abdaly at large.[2]

The issue of possible accomplices has been strongly suspected for a number of reasons. First, in the pre-recorded tapes, there is clearly a second person breathing and there have been efforts to remove everything below 100 hertz on all three tapes.[3] A second reason is the two-way radio found by his body after one of the pipe bombs detonated prematurely. Third, according to those close to the investigation, the contraption of pipe bombs was too cumbersome and complex for him to have put on his body alone. Fourth, closed-circuit television footage captured, after the accidental detonation, the images of a man wearing a sketchy billboard sign for “London restaurant” with a red khaffiyeh wrapped around his face that seemed to be the only individual focused and drawn to the scene where al-Abdaly was dying, as everyone else fled the explosion. Fifth, al-Abdaly’s disclosure on the farewell tape that he frequently traveled to the Middle East to wage jihad raised the prospect that he had links to more organized terrorist networks in the region. This was strengthened by his affinity to the Islamic State of Iraq on his Facebook page, postings of Shaykh Muhammad al-Maqdisi and multiple credible claims by radical al-Qa`ida-affiliated websites that suggested he belonged to the Islamic State of Iraq. Postings on al-Hanin and the popular Shumukh al-Islam websites suggested this affiliation.[4] It has also emerged that General Zia Alkanani, the counterterrorism chief in Iraq, has claimed that al-Abdaly spent three months in Mosul at an explosives training camp together with an Egyptian accomplice, according to imprisoned al-Qa`ida members.[5]

After sending his farewell e-mails, al-Abdaly proceeded to ignite his car filled with gas canisters and flammable material, which burst into flames at 4:52 PM. He then walked toward the pedestrian shopping street Drottninggatan for 10 minutes, where he began to fiddle with his equipment, walking in and out of a side street talking on either a communication radio or mobile phone before his explosive device detonated prematurely. From eyewitness accounts, it is clear there was a malfunction rather than a desire to abort the operation. Taking refuge in a more deserted side street, al-Abdaly placed his bomb belt down moments before his pipe bomb exploded.[6] He died quickly without killing anyone else.

Profile of Taimour al-Abdaly
Five days after the suicide bombing, SÄPO provided the findings of a previously cabinet-commissioned report on Islamic extremism in Sweden. Embarrassingly, SÄPO had to admit that al-Abdaly was not among the 200 Islamic extremists it had previously identified. Interestingly, SÄPO’s chief, Anders Danielsson, also placed partial blame why they missed him on MI5—his British counterpart—as al-Abdaly had resided in the United Kingdom since 2001 (although he frequently visited his parents in Sweden).

Profiling Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly has produced a complicated picture of a relative loner that radicalized in Luton in the United Kingdom, surrounded possibly by shadowy figures connected as “brokers” to Mohammed Siddique Khan, a small cadre of the outlawed Islamist group al-Muhajiroun, and possibly by a more nefarious terrorist network emerging from Iraq, as he traveled there frequently.

Al-Abdaly was born in Baghdad in 1982 and arrived with his father, mother, and older sister to Tranås, Sweden at the age of 10. Tranås is a small town with a population of 18,000 inhabitants. It appears that al-Abdaly adapted well there, quickly learning Swedish, becoming known as a keen basketball player and was well-liked by his friends. He graduated from secondary school in natural sciences and there was no major indication that religion was a significant part of his life. In fact, he had a Jewish girlfriend.[7] All of this would change as he moved to Luton in the United Kingdom to enroll at the University of Bedfordshire to study sports therapy in 2001.

Only weeks after al-Abdaly enrolled in the university, the September 11, 2001 attacks occurred. This was a period of immense identity turmoil with intertwined experiences of xenophobia, Islamophobia and extremist Islamist sentiments.[8] The far-right English Defense League was active in Luton as well. The activities of the Finsbury Park Mosque and the openly radical Abu Hamza al-Masri were only a short train ride away, and investigators are pursuing leads as to whether al-Abdaly visited the controversial mosque.[9] There are no signs that al-Abdaly was involved in radical groups at the university. Instead, while at university he met his future wife, Mona (also known as Umm Amira), a young woman from Romania who partially grew up in Sweden.[10] He married her in 2004, and he graduated with a BSc in sports therapy. They had their first daughter in 2006, the second in 2008 and in the summer of 2010 they had a son and named him Usama in honor of Usama bin Ladin. After meeting al-Abdaly, she rapidly became religious, wearing the djellaba.

A suspected turning point for al-Abdaly was the fact that Mohammed Siddique Khan and the London bombers had driven to Luton railway station before heading to conduct the operation of July 7, 2005. In fact, three streets from al-Abdaly’s house in Bury Park, Luton, lived Mohammed Quayyum Khan, known as “Q,” who was instrumental in arranging for the ringleader of the 2005 London bombers, Mohammed Siddique Khan, to travel to Pakistan to attend a terrorist training camp.[11] It is still to be determined if there is any connection between Q and al-Abdaly. It is likely, however, that al-Abdaly came into contact with more extremist elements since the Bury Park area of Luton has “featured prominently in counterterrorism investigations.”[12] Regardless, the July 2005 London attacks likely played a role in al-Abdaly’s radicalization process.

It is also clear that al-Abdaly was affected by the 2006 Israel-Hizb Allah war in Lebanon. This is evident from his postings on Facebook. While he seemed to admire Hizb Allah leader Hassan Nasrallah, it was also clear that he was vehemently anti-Shi`a in Iraq. Similarly, he watched shock video clips with violent images from Chechnya that regularly portrayed Russian atrocities and the bravery of the mujahidin, suicide operations in Iraq, and humiliating interrogation scenes where U.S. soldiers taunted Iraqi prisoners. He also seemed to have a fascination with Judgment Day, radical extremist ideologues and anashid (jihadist songs). His own Facebook profile picture depicted a mujahid raising the black battleflag of Islam. Some have speculated that he came into contact with the Reflect Project, previously known as al-Muhajiroun, which organized a protest at a homecoming parade in Luton for troops who had served in Afghanistan.[13] Some of these followers were connected to radical cleric Omar Bakri Mohammed, and they had open recruitment stalls on the high street near the al-Abdaly family home.

Al-Abdaly appears to have been affected by a confrontation with Qadeer Baksh, the chairman of the Luton Islamic Center. According to mosque officials, al-Abdaly showed up at the Luton Islamic Center, also known as the al-Ghurabaa mosque, during Ramadan 2006-2007. According to Baksh, his congregation immediately drew to his attention that al-Abdaly harbored extremist views about jihad and takfiri principles and was encouraging rebellion against Muslim leaders. This caused Baksh to undertake several personal interventions in an effort to deconstruct his arguments with a theological debate. On several occasions, it seemed al-Abdaly came to accept Baksh’s rebuttals, but it became known that al-Abdaly continued to spread extremist views among the community. As a result, Baksh decided to publicly confront him in front of 100 worshippers at an early morning prayer.[14] Al-Abdaly stormed out of the mosque humiliated, angry and disappeared, probably traveling back and forth to the Middle East and Sweden.[15]

In 2007, al-Abdaly began traveling extensively to Jordan and Iraq. In 2008, he reportedly traveled to Syria as well.[16] Al-Abdaly collected new Swedish passports in 2001, 2007 and 2008, the last of which he claimed was lost abroad.[17] This is seen as evidence that he was attempting to conceal his travel patterns and destinations to perform jihad in the Middle East. It is possible that he even had an extra Swedish passport so he could switch back and forth, concealing his entry and exit to suspicious destinations to British officials.

Al-Abdaly surfaced again on November 19, 2010 when he returned to Sweden alone to stay with his parents long enough to celebrate his own and his father’s birthday, which they commonly share. He stayed in his parents’ flat in Tranås and proceeded over the next two weeks to acquire a vehicle for $1,300, aluminum powder, pyrotechnics and nails and ball bearings from local hardware stores. Few believe that he was alone in what seems to be a rather overly complex operation for a lone wolf. His carefully prepared farewell tapes in Arabic, Swedish and English strengthens this suspicion.

Al-Abdaly’s farewell tapes followed a familiar al-Qa`ida-inspired narrative script. It emphasized humiliation of Muslims under siege as evidenced by the occupation of Muslim lands (Afghanistan); reinforced by metaphorical issues (the Lars Vilks controversy[18]); offering reciprocal revenge by urging “all mujahidin in Europe and Sweden” to strike now. The issue of possible affiliation to the Islamic State of Iraq was raised due to the fact that al-Abdaly alluded to the “Islamic State” in his script. A puzzling feature is why the Islamic State of Iraq, if involved, did not claim any responsibility. By his own admission in the tape, he participated for four years in jihad overseas.

Munir Awad and the Jyllands-Posten Plot
The second terrorist incident involving Sweden in December 2010 was the case of four Swedes arrested for planning to conduct a Mumbai-style attack on the Jyllands-Posten newspaper in Copenhagen, Denmark. The men were arrested after driving from Sweden to Copenhagen to execute the attack. A central figure in the plot is Munir Awad, a 29-year-old Lebanon-born Swedish citizen. This case is well-known in Sweden for a number of reasons.

First, Awad and his pregnant girlfriend, Safia Benaouda (the daughter of the head of the Swedish Muslim Council), was caught initially in Somalia in 2007 by Ethiopian forces and interrogated by Kenyan and U.S. intelligence. They had veered off a trip to Dubai and decided to visit Somalia “to see a more traditional Muslim culture,” in their own words.[19] Traveling in separate convoys, Safia was with the wife of U.S. citizen Daniel Maldonado, a convicted terrorist who had undertaken training in bomb-making and volunteered for suicide operations.[20]

Second, Awad, his girlfriend and their baby were caught in Dera Ghazi Khan by Pakistani security, together with Mehdi Ghezali and seven other Germans in August 2009 after traveling through Iran en route to Miran Shah in North Waziristan Agency of Pakistan’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas. It is believed that two of the Germans have links to the Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan (IMU). According to Ghezali, he was traveling to a Tablighi Jama`at meeting, although security officials confiscated $10,940 in cash, knives, a neck trap (disguised in diapers) and electronic items.[21] This 43-day prison incident became problematic for Helena Benaouda, the chairwoman of the Swedish Muslim Council, who campaigned tirelessly protesting their innocence.

Third, Awad shared an apartment with 26-year-old Ellas Bille Mohamed, one of the two al-Shabab terrorists who were recently convicted of preparing and commissioning suicide operations in Somalia. This connection reinforces the overlapping social relationships in these semi-closed extremist circuits and suspicions about Awad’s previous travel patterns in Somalia and Pakistan. Awad also had strong social contacts with Sahbi Zalouti, one of the accomplices in the Copenhagen plot (who rented the vehicle for the trip from Stockholm to Copenhagen but never joined the operation). While Zalouti was similarly detained in Pakistan in areas controlled by the Taliban and al-Qa`ida, another accomplice, Mounir Dhahri, spent considerable time with extremists in Pakistan.

These overlapping social networks made it easy for SÄPO to identify and monitor the different suspects in the plot against Jyllands-Posten. Apart from Munir Awad and Sahbi Zalouti, the network involved 30-year-old Moroccan Omar Abdallah Aboelazm, a convicted sexual offender who has been in psychiatric care, and 44-year-old Mounir Dhahri, a former drug addict convicted of spousal abuse, drug offenses and assault.[22] It is believed that Zalouti was the more senior leader in the network, but he bailed out of the trip to Denmark. Consequently, it is believed that Mounir Dhahri became the key figure driving the plot forward. Dhahri also spent significant time in Pakistan, which is likely to become key to the investigation.

There are also indirect links between Munir Awad and the Jyllands-Posten plot and the earlier 2009 plot against the same newspaper by David Coleman Headley (who has been linked to the senior terrorist Ilyas Kashmiri).[23] Kashmiri, who also has close ties to Lashkar-i-Tayyiba, provided Headley with two sets of contacts for the planned 2009 operation in Copenhagen: two followers in Derby, England, and one individual in Stockholm named Farid, a Moroccan-born businessman who declined participation in August 2009 as he was believed to be under surveillance by SÄPO.[24] Farid is a major figure in extremist circles in Stockholm and he knew some of the suspects in the Jyllands-Posten plot of December 2010.

After discovering the December plot, SÄPO and the Danish Intelligence & Security Service (PET) kept the Swedes under surveillance for two months. On December 29, 2010, Awad, Aboelazm and Dhahri left Stockholm for Denmark in their rental car to launch a “storming” operation against Jyllands-Posten. In the middle of the night, they started the six hour drive from Stockholm to Copenhagen. Later that day in the morning, they were arrested in Copenhagen in a joint Danish-Swedish intelligence operation after continuous surveillance on the car throughout the journey. In a joint news conference, both the SÄPO and PET heads emphasized that an attack was imminent. The terrorists had in their possession a machine gun with a silencer and 72 cartridge shells as well as a 9mm pistol with 36 shells. They also possessed a large quantity of plastic strips to tie hands.[25] While the terrorist plan was a Mumbai-style operation “in miniature,” closely resembling the original Headley plan, it is unclear whether the suspects had conducted advance reconnaissance on Jyllands-Posten. The PET head, Jakob Scharf, did not want to rule out the possible connection to the Headley case.

Microcosm of Terrorism: Reflecting Broader Trends?
Sweden experienced both luck and skill in averting two major mass casualty attacks in December 2010. Intelligence by its nature involves filtering and puzzling together fragments of information in a timely manner. As the former head of the United Kingdom’s Joint Terrorism Analysis Center (JTAC) once said, “Our work can best be described as trying to drink water from a water hydrant on full blast. It is not the absence of information; rather the difficulty lies in filtering out the necessary and critical pieces and piecing these together quickly, accurately and to the right agencies.”[26] Even if SÄPO was blindsided, it had as much to do with the UK intelligence agencies missing al-Abdaly under their watch.

Both the al-Abdaly and Awad cases illustrate the importance of intensifying focus on so-called terrorist travelers or foreign fighters. SÄPO has stated that it believes there are 20-30 Swedes who have traveled to Somalia to fight and join al-Shabab; three or four individuals have died there. Authorities have focused on working with the Somali communities to strengthen their resilience against extremism and recruitment. Unlike other minority immigrant communities, who are suspicious and difficult to contact and establish trust, the Somali community is the reverse and keen to work with authorities. The Somali issue is also shared with other neighboring countries as there are family and clan links cutting across Sweden, Denmark, Norway and the United Kingdom. Unlike other foreign fighter destination points, Somalis do not have a “romanticized” view about the brutality of the conflict; the reverse is true for Pakistan or Yemen.

Both Sweden and Denmark are increasingly focusing on Pakistan as a destination as well as to a lesser extent Yemen. For Denmark, the security environment has been “red” for a significant period as there have been four terrorist trials during the last four years. There have also been four attacks against Jyllands-Posten and the Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard since 2009. Not only are converts and extremist recruits lured by extremist facilitation brokers, but Denmark and, to a lesser degree, Sweden are becoming prioritized symbolic attack targets for core al-Qa`ida, regional affiliates and Pakistani extremist groups due to the Prophet Muhammad cartoon affair and the Lars Vilks controversy. This is exacerbated by the perception of a possible “Madrid effect,” where extremists are calculating that targeting Sweden, as well as Germany, would not only create a societal shock effect, but also contribute to eroding support for ISAF contribution to Afghanistan.

Terrorist mobility within the European Union is also cause for concern. The recent case of Lars Doukajev, the one-legged Belgian-Chechen bomber who was arrested in September 2010 after his explosives detonated prematurely in a Copenhagen hotel as he was preparing a parcel bomb for Jyllands-Posten, is illustrative of the threat from “lone wolves” or unexpected sources. Doukajev filed off the serial number of his prosthetic limb and did not have a cell phone, identification card, credit card, or any other piece of unique information. It took almost a week to identify him and it was not the intelligence services but rather a tabloid newspaper that succeeded. The worrying element is not what intelligence services see, but rather what they do not know or miss. To an extent, this is the case with those extremist groups in Pakistan emerging out of the shadows, with no connectivity to al-Qa`ida, that are beginning to pose a transnational terrorist threat.

The Swedish context illustrates the close social networks or circuits that extremists move in. Most know each other; some even live together. An equally important, but often unexplored issue is the role of women, wives and widows in these networks. These women play not only supporting roles and provide excellent cover for logistical transactions, but also become pivotal in cementing social network ties.[27] The role of widows of prominent terrorist leaders is interesting in this respect as they can become recruitment sergeants, as in the Belgian case of Malika el-Aroud.

Finally, the December 2010 attacks in and from Sweden were sudden and unexpected. Swedish politicians and the public were shocked. The debate climate about terrorist threat assessment in Sweden had been stifled by ideologically-driven debaters who used the label of Islamophobia and racism to silence the issue. This is not possible anymore. The challenge for Sweden will be to debate the issues more frankly but sensibly, while simultaneously addressing the issue of countermeasures against extremism. For this, Sweden is looking toward Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, which have had longstanding community-based “experiments” in countering violent extremism. The trick is to find suitable transferable lessons. It will require a national strategy against extremism. The other challenge is for the Swedish Muslim community to address the issue of extremism from within.

Dr. Magnus Ranstorp is the Research Director of the Center for Asymmetric Threat Studies at the Swedish National Defence College.

[1] “Våldsbejakande islamistisk extremism i Sverige,” Säkerhetspolisen, 2010.

[2] Martin Ekelund, “Nätet avslöjar medhjälparen,” Aftonbladet, January 3, 2011. Also see

[3] Mikael Stengård and Eveline Grassman, “Experter: Ljudet är manipulerat,” Aftonbladet, December 18, 2010.

[4] Sam Jones and Haroon Siddique, “Stockholm Suicide Bomber Confronted by Luton Mosque Leaders,” Guardian, December 13, 2010.

[5] “Iraqi Official to al-Arabiya: Stockholm Bomber Trained 3 Months in Mosul,” al-Arabiya, January 7, 2011.

[6] Richard Ashberg and Johanna Hellsten, “Buken full med metal,” Aftonbladet, December 16, 2010.

[7] Eduardo Grutzky, “Jag var självmordsbombarens fritidsledare,”, January 5, 2011.

[8] Jonathan Githens-Mazer and Robert Lambert, Islamophobia and Anti-Muslim Hate Crime: A London Case Study (Exeter: University of Exeter, 2010).

[9] Sean O’Neill and Daniel McGrory, The Suicide Factory: Abu Hamza and the Finsbury Park Mosque (London: Harper Collins, 2006).

[10] Olle Lönnaeus and Erik Magnusson, “Mannen som skulle sprang sig själv,” Sydsvenskan, December 19, 2010.

[11] Sam Jones, Ian Corbain, Richard Norton-Taylor and Shiv Malik, “The ‘Bubbly’ Luton Radical Who Became a Suicide Bomber in Sweden,” Guardian, December 14, 2010.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Jason Lewis, “Stockholm Bomber: Banned Extremists Recruit Near Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly’s Luton Home,” Sunday Telegraph, December 19, 2010.

[14] BBC Newsnight, December 13, 2010.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Martin Evans, “Stockholm Bomber: Family Blame Britain for Radicalization,” Telegraph, December 13, 2010.

[17] Martin Ekelund, “Reste med olika pass,” Aftonbladet, December 23, 2010.

[18] Lars Vilks is a Swedish artist who depicted the Prophet Muhammad in drawings.

[19] “Nowhere to Go: Sweden’s Complicity in the World-Wide Detention of Monir Awad,” Cage Prisoners, November 2010.

[20] Michael Taarnby and Lars Hallundbaek, “Al-Shabaab: The Internationalization of Militant Islamism in Somalia and the Implications for Radicalisation Processes in Europe,” report supported by the Danish Ministry of Justice, February 26, 2010; “American Charged with Receiving Al Qaeda Terrorist Training in Weapons, Bomb-Making, and Interrogation Techniques in Somalia,” U.S.A. v. Daniel Maldonado a/k/a Daniel Aljughaifi, Southern District of Texas, 2007.

[21] “Här grips de – misstänkta för terrorism,” Aftonbladet, September 12, 2009.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Jette Elbeak Maressa and Heidi Plougsgaard, “Han er den pakistanske forbindelse,” Jyllands-Posten, October 28, 2010.

[24] Yassin Marmasbash, “Investigators Look into Possible Ties to ‘Mickey Mouse Project,’” Jyllands-Posten, December 30, 2010; Kaare Sorensen and Carsten Ellegard, “David Headley forsogte at rekruttere terrorist i Sverige,” Jyllands-Posten, November 9, 2010.

[25] “Terrorsigtede havde 108 skarpe skud klar,” Berlingske Tidende, December 30, 2010.

[26] Personal interview, Swedish National Defence College, November 2006.

[27] Nivette Dawood and Kristina Edblom, “Hustru – till en terrorist,” Aftonbladet, December 19, 2010.

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