Prosecution of the suspected Stockholm terrorist begins

The prosecution of  suspected terrorist, Rakhmat Akilov, who drove a truck through a pedestrian street in Stockholm last April killing five people, began on  30 January 2018.  Swedish news wire TT reports that the investigation of about 9,000 pages includes a large number of interrogations with Akilov, who has confessed the crime, as well as testimonials.

The public will now get insights into the technical evidence, and thereby details of the deed. Terrorist researcher, Magnus Ranstorp told TT that questions of interests are: what explosives Akilov had in the truck, what does his network look like, how and where was he radicalised and who influenced him, as well as whether he had connections with ISIS. Uzbekistan has said that it warned Sweden of Akilov, but the Swedish Security Service SÄPO has not commented about this. The investigation is expected to have a secret attachment for integrity reasons.

Below is an excerpt from the May 2017 edition of the Monthly Policy Review, which featured the article on the attack.

The Drottninggatan attack and its ramifications

On 7 April, a man rammed a truck into the Åhléns department store in the heart of Stockholm, killing five people andinjuring over a dozen. Prime Minister Stefan Löfven’s leadership after the attack was proclaimed both in Sweden and internationally. But his breakthrough as a Statesman means that the Alliance parties are forced into a difficult balancing act, only 17 months ahead of the elections. Meanwhile, the long-term political and judicial implications of the attack will become clear in the months and years to come.

There are a few dates that are ominous to Swedes; 28 February 1986 – the date Prime Minister Olof Palme was murdered – and 11 September 2003 when Sweden’s Foreign Minister, Anna Lindh, was murder inside the NK department store. 7 April 2017 has now been added to those ominous dates. On 7 April, a man rammed a truck into the Åhléns department store in the heart of Stockholm, killing five people. Fifteen people were hospitalised. Two days later, the police announced that it had identified four of those killed; two of them were Swedish nationals, one was a British national and one was a Belgian national. On 28 April, the police said in a statement that a 60-year-old Swedish woman injured in the attack had died in hospital.

The attack occurred at 2.52pm on 7 April. Within a few minutes, police and rescue personnel were in place (see our infographic alongside). That same evening, news broke that Swedish police had arrested a 39-year old man in Märsta, a northern suburb of Stockholm, for complicity in the attack. The man reportedly ran from the scene of the attack, still covered in blood and glass and was caught on security cameras. By Sunday morning, Swedish media reported that the man’s social media account indicated his support for the Islamic State and the Islamic Party of Liberation, Hizb-ut-Tahrir (HT). The police confirmed on 10 April that the main suspect showed interest for extremist environments such as, for example, IS, and that he was known to the Swedish Security Service (SÄPO), but had been seen only as a ’marginal character’ and not as a militant threat before the attack, police said. The suspect, Uzbek national Rakhmat Akilov, has confessed the attack and the investigation is on-going. A second man was arrested but is no longer being held as a suspect, according to prosecution authorities. However, he will not be released because he already had a deportation order standing against him. No group has claimed to be behind the attack. The National Operations Department, NOA, is in charge of the investigation and its Head, Mats Löfving, estimates that the investigation will take approximately a year to complete and will include about one hundred investigators, analysts, and IT experts.


Rakhmat Akilov had applied for permanent residency in 2014, but this was rejected in June 2016. In December 2016 he was given four weeks to leave the country, according to Police Chief Jonas Hysing. The suspect then disappeared and, on 27 February, the Police Authority reported the person had absconded and issued an alert for him.

Currently, the Swedish Police Authority has received approximately 18,000 enforcement-related cases from the Swedish Migration Agency. Approximately 12,500 of these are listed as absconded and locating the absconded persons is a time-consuming and resource intensive work. Over the next three years, the Migration Agency expects 33,000 people to go into hiding after having their applications for asylum rejected. 200 officers across the country are working to search for absconded persons who have been rejected to stay in Sweden. According to Patrik Engström, the Head of the National Border Police, the biggest challenges police face when attempting to enforce deportation is the person’s identity is not always reliable and that some countries are reluctant to take back their citizens if they don’t return freely. Hence, many disappear if their applications are rejected. According to the Migration Agency, border police efforts have been hampered by a shortage of secure facilities. “It is a problem when police catch a hidden person after an investigation and the person is deemed at high risk of disappearing again, but they cannot be taken into custody,” the Migration Agency in a press release. The latest forecast from the border police is that the number of miscreants is expected to rise to almost 25,000 in the next few years. According to the police, 260 of the 12,500 people listed as absconded are Uzbeks. Approximately 120 of these will be deported to Uzbekistan, and the others to countries both within and outside Europe. But according to the Police, forced returns to Uzbekistan are only carried out to a limited extent. This is due to a judgment from the European Court in 2012 and to a judicial position from the Swedish Migration Agency from 2015. The main rule is that only voluntary departures, without escorts and without any contacts with the authorities, may be carried out.

In a guest editorial in Svenska Dagbladet, Svante E. Cornell, Director of the Institute for Security and Development Policy (ISDP), put the issue of the Uzbeks into its historical context. He writes that fifteen years ago, the Swedish migration authorities faced a problem; they had seen a significant increase in Uzbek asylum seekers claiming to be persecuted for their religious beliefs. Many of them claimed membership in Hizb ut-Tahrir (HT), whose main ambition is to create a global Caliphate. Swedish authorities had determined that the Uzbek government’s targeting of HT was particularly harsh and hence it was out of the question to send peaceful Muslims back to Uzbekistan. In other words, Swedish authorities had enacted directives that practically guaranteed a follower of an extremist Islamist group could remain in the country. HT, of course, knew this and urged its members to keep coming, argues Mr Cornell. Some among the Swedish authorities were well aware of the likely but unintended consequence of this policy – the formation of radical Islamist cells in the Sweden. The only way to change the policy would be to prove that the group was linked to violence or terrorism. Germany banned HT in 2003 on the grounds that its hateful ideology aims to overthrow constitutional order. But unless HT could be classified as a violent extremist group in Sweden, the country would keep granting them residency. In later years, it appears that SÄPO was working to stem the flow of HT members seeking refuge and, according to ISDP, there are a number of cases where SÄPO has intervened to deny HT sympathizers residence permits. However, regulations still prevent deporting many of these individuals to countries where they risk torture or the death penalty. This is something the government is now seeking to review; specifically, the government wants to explore the feasibility of criminalising involvement with terror-listed groups.

Strengthening anti-terror laws

In 2015, the government parties (S+MP) and the Alliance Parties (M, C, L, and KD) reached an agreement to, among other things, ramp-up video surveillance and computer monitoring measures. The Left Party initially participated in the discussions, but pulled out over concerns that some of the proposed measures threatened individual privacy and civil rights.  Last week, on 24 April, the Minister for Home Affairs, Anders Ygeman (S), met with representatives of the Alliance parties to discuss tighter measures against terrorism in the wake of the attack on Drottninggatan. The Left Party and the Sweden Democrats are not part of the discussions.

“The government and I will work tirelessly to ensure your security. Take care of each other. Together we will take care of Sweden.”

Prime Minister Stefan Löfven on 7 April, 2017

On top of the agenda is criminalising involvement with terror-listed groups. It is already illegal to participate in terrorism-related activity abroad, as well as to help finance such activities. However, criminalising involvement with terror-listed groups has thus far been considered a constitutional breach as it could violate freedom of association. A similar law was enacted in Norway in 2013, and has led to the arrest and conviction of several individuals linked to the Islamic State in Syria. Some, however, express scepticism. The Left Party is critical of the proposal pointing for instance to uncertainties as to who should decide what constitutes a terrorist organisation. Similarly, Ingrid Helmius, a lecturer in public law at Uppsala University, told news agency TT: “To make that law you have to say this constitutes a criminalised association and that’s a problem because how do you formulate what it is to participate in that association?” The Sweden Democrats are positive to the proposal.

Around ten proposals are on the table, including;

  • Criminalising collaboration with terrorist listed groups

One of the main proposals is to set up an inquiry into criminalising collaboration with terrorist organisations. All parliamentary parties except the Left Party have stated they are in favour of such a law. The Justice of the Supreme Court, Stefan Johansson, has been tasked with examining the prospects for enacting such a law without violating Sweden’s constitution, which protects freedom of association. Mr Johansson is to advise the government of his proposal by 15 December this year.

  • Exchange of information

Easier exchange of information between the Swedish Security Service and other authorities. This proposal aims to reduce secrecy between SÄPO, the Migration Agency (Migrationsverket) and the police, enabling faster sharing of information. The measure is reportedly supported by the Alliance parties.

  • Electronic ankle tags

Also being considered is the possibility of using electronic ankle tags on people deemed to be a security risk, but who cannot be expelled as they may risk death penalty or torture. The Minister for Home Affairs, Anders Ygeman (S), said that it would be punishable to destroy the ankle band and that its use could be combined with the individual being required to register with authorities on a regular basis.

The Social Democrats, Moderates and the Christian Democrats are positive to the measure, whereas the Liberals and the Centre Party are sceptical.

  • Increasing deportation rate

On 27 April, the government presented new measures designed to ensure immigrants return to their home countries after having their asylum applications rejected. The Minister for Justice and Migration, Morgan Johansson (S) and the Minister for Home Affairs, Anders Ygeman (S), said they want give the Police Authority increased ability to carry out inspections of workplaces to make sure there are not people employed in breach of the Aliens Act. Today, police can only raid businesses if they have reason to suspect a crime. The new measure will allow them to carry out inspections if they believe there is a risk that people are working there without immigration papers. The government also proposed increased fines for any company found to be employing illegal immigrants. Another measure proposed is to include widening the mandate of police to be able to confiscate passports and other forms of ID and giving police officers more power to record fingerprints during domestic routine immigrant document checks.  Furthermore, the government is planning to conduct an assessment on the misuse of temporary passports, travel documents, and residency cards issued to immigrants.

  • Terrorist financing

Sweden has already banned fundraising and fighting for terror groups. But Sweden faces terrorist financing risks, in particular associated with ISIL and foreign terrorist fighters. An April 2017 report by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) – an inter-governmental body established in 1989 – established that Sweden has a strong regime to tackle the money laundering and terrorist financing risks it faces, but needs to improve its national policy coordination. Sweden’s largest challenge is the coordination of a complex structure of government authorities in the field of anti-money laundering and counter-terrorist financing (AML/CFT). Currently, there is no national coordination body for AML/CFT and responsibilities are dispersed between many autonomous authorities. FATF writes that Sweden should urgently introduce legal powers, which will enable authorities to apply targeted financial sanctions relating to terrorism or proliferation.

  • Information during police investigations

The Moderates and Christian Democrats want SÄPO to be able to obtain information electronically during on-going police investigations, something that is currently blocked due to potential ramifications for the use of this information in the legal process.

  • Increased funding

A number of parties also want to increase funding for the security services – SÄPO, the Military Intelligence and Security Service (MUST) and FRA, the National Defence Radio Establishment – and the police. Mr Ygeman said, however, that he does not expect any budget negotiations to take place at this stage.

The Sweden Democrats were not invited to be part of the discussions. The party spokesperson on justice, Adam Marttinen, calls it “irresponsible” that the government disregards the third largest party in the Riksdag. The Sweden Democrats support, for example, the proposal to criminalise collaboration with terrorist listed groups. The party also wants more camera surveillance in areas with a high crime rate and banning spreading propaganda for the Islamic State.

Political ramifications of the attack

Three weeks have now passed since the attack. The Prime Minister has received praise for his statesmanship after the attack, both nationally and internationally. The largest Alliance parties, the Moderate Party and the Centre Party, reacted differently after the attack. Early on, Anna Kinberg Batra (M) said that Rakhmat Akilov would not been on Drottninggatan if the rules for expulsion had worked. Annie Lööf (C) instead praised Stefan Löfven in an effort to act responsibly and respectfully.  In an editorial, the New York times wrote that Stefan Löfven, in the hour of his country’s grief, issued the bravest and the best rebuke to the terrorist, declaring: “Our message is clear: You will never, ever win. We are determined never to let the values that we treasure — democracy, human rights and freedom — to be undermined by hatred.”

If Stefan Löfven wants to keep the image of a statesman and father of the country, he needs to show he can protect his people from the evil of terror. The Alliance parties will not stand in his way, even though it will be painful for them to see the Social Democrats take the glory from any political agreements struck. The Social Democrats could actually get more problems from its own coalition partner, the Green Party, than from the Alliance parties. The Green Party is struggling enormously in the polls and is, thus, in need of profiling itself.

The recently concluded Social Democratic party congress showed that the party will be looking to adopt tougher policies on terrorism and crime. “We will hunt these murderers with the full strength of our Swedish democracy. There can be no compromises,” Stefan Löfven insisted, in his opening speech.  The biggest announcement from the five-day congress came when the Minister for Home Affairs, Anders Ygeman (S), declared that the Löfven government would look to hire another 10,000 police officers over the next seven years. This was a striking announcement as the Social Democrats recently criticised a similar proposal by the Alliance. The conclusion after the congress in Gothenburg is that the Social Democrats are now taking a tougher tone in their political message; the strategy was to neutralise criticism from the opposition at a time when more and more voters are worried about crime and terror.


The attack came as no surprise. Only three weeks prior to the attack, SÄPO wrote in its 2016 yearbook, released on 16 March, that the Security Service believed that any terrorist attack in Sweden in the coming year would probably be carried out by a lone perpetrator. Government sources say that crisis management has been a top priority for Prime Minister Stefan Löfven, who led exercises with the cabinet ministers and State Secretaries twice a year, often with a terrorist scenario.

It is inevitable that the attack will have political ramifications where the opposition will target the government. While the Prime Minister will do everything possible to maintain the image as a father of the country, the Alliance wants to crack that image. But it’s a difficult balancing act and a matter of choosing the right balance and not turning death and terror into party politics.  Furthermore, experience from previous crises show that you need more than statesmanship to win election. Jens Stoltenberg and his Arbeiderpartiet lost the 2013 elections in Norway, despite the dignified handling of the Norwegian terrorist attacks.

The government will do what it can to keep the political field together. By inviting the Alliance parties to a cross-bloc agreement on strengthening the terror laws, it is trying to halt any political problems before they start. The Social Democrats do not want the political debate to be about terrorism as we head in to the 2018 election campaign. This means the government will be prepared to go to great lengths to meet the demands from the Alliance parties both in terms of new legislation and increased resources for the security services and the police. The last thing the Social Democrats want right now is to appear less tough on terrorism than the opposition. But there is no doubt that the attack on Drottninggatan will have ramifications all the way into the next election.

Note: This is a shortened version of the original article, which appeared in the May 2017 edition of the Monthly Policy Review. Footnotes and charts are only available in the subscriber version of the article.


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