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10th Dec 2023

Sweden focuses on Muslim migrants as EU 'terrorist threat'

  • Swedish police on patrol in Stockholm subway (Photo: News Oresund)
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Sweden has called for an EU immigration crackdown to stop terrorism, with a right-wing slant on Muslims that risks sharpening division.

EU ministers should discuss in December how to prevent attacks such as the killing of two Swedish football fans by an Islamist extremist in Brussels on 16 October, the Swedish government said in a letter on Tuesday (7 November).

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"Recently, we have once again seen the ugly face of terrorism show itself in the heart of Europe, when three Swedish citizens were gunned down [the third victim was injured] during a football match in Brussels, merely for being Swedish," Sweden's justice and migration ministers, Gunnar Strömmer and Maria Malmer Stenergard, said.

A 45-year old Tunisian, Abdessalem Lassoued, entered the EU via Italy in 2011 and lived in Sweden and Belgium before carrying out the lethal shooting.

It was "crucial that persons that might pose a threat to our countries and to the lives of our citizens are detected and identified when they try to enter the Schengen Area" before being deported "in a swift, secure, and effective manner," Sweden said.

The Schengen Area contains 400 million people in most EU states, Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway.

EU capitals needed to share more data on red-flagged individuals and further curb terrorist financing, as well as cracking down on external borders and deportations, the Swedish ministers said.

Previous terrorist attacks in the EU have prompted similar calls for action.

But Sweden's EU appeal comes amid what its national security adviser, Henrik Landerholm, called the country's "greatest" moment of danger since WW2 on Monday, citing terrorism, gang shootings, and Russian aggression in Europe.

It also comes amid a flare-up in antisemitic and Islamophobic tension in Europe over the Gaza war.

The Brussels killings saw foreign-media coverage of Sweden hit 85,000 publications between 9PM and 10PM on 16 October, the Swedish Institute (SI), a government body that monitors Sweden's image abroad, told EUobserver.

Despite its "intensity", most of the reporting was factual and sober, the SI said, covering "the chain of events" and "speculation about the perpetrator and his motive". Danish and Norwegian media stood out "in terms of shown sympathy", SI added.

That was a stark contrast to the anti-Swedish hatred whipped up in Arabic and Turkish media over Koran-burning protests in Stockholm in January and June this year.

But if there was broad sympathy, including among Belgium's 800,000 Muslims, for Sweden over the Brussels attack, then authorities needed to weigh their words carefully not to jangle raw nerves, warned Paul Levin, an associate professor of international relations at Stockholm University.

The Swedish ministers who signed the EU letter come from the ruling centre-right Moderate party of prime minister Ulf Kristersson.

They didn't mention "Muslims" or "Islam" despite their overt references to Lassoued, the Brussels killer, and foreign asylum seekers.

But Levin said: "Personally, I'm concerned that an exclusive focus on Muslim immigrants as threats only enhances divisions in our societies and creates rather than solves problems".

"The letter should be seen in the context that we now have a centre-right government that builds its parliamentary majority on the support of the Sweden Democrats, a far-right party that has long focused on immigration as a threat," he added.

"This is a European challenge, not just a Swedish one," he said.

The Gaza war has caused unprecedented casualties on both sides, with over 10,000 Palestinian deaths and 1,400 Israeli victims.

Youssef Kobo, a writer and speaker on Belgian politics, also warned last Friday that if the EU mishandled its reaction, it could make matters worse for homeland security.

"This [the Gaza war] will have bigger ramifications for global security than the Iraqi invasion had and Syria," Kobo said, referring to Islamist radicalisation after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the Syrian civil war, which broke out in 2011.

What Muslims saw as an EU "carte blanche" for Israel had caused "disgust at the sheer indifference to [the] loss of life in Palestine," he said.

European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen has so far given Israel the strongest backing of any top EU official despite an outcry by Arab diplomats.

She met Jordan's king Abdullah II in Brussels on Tuesday and unveiled €900m of EU investments in his country, for projects including water-desalination plants, but did not hold a press conference.

Abdullah II also met EU Council president Charles Michel the same day and warned that Israeli aggression in the West Bank risked aggravating tensions.

Topics interact

"His majesty warned against the continuous escalation in the West Bank and settler violence against the Palestinians, which could lead to an explosion of the situation," Jordan's royal palace said in a statement.

"His majesty reiterated Jordan's rejection of the Israeli measures and continuous violations in Jerusalem as an occupying force in restricting the freedom of worship for Muslims at Al Aqsa Mosque," it added.

Circling back to Sweden, Stockholm University's Levin said: "Both al Qaeda and Isis [Islamist extremist groups] have issued calls for devout Muslims to attack Swedes, and the terror suspect who is accused of murdering two Swedish football fans in Brussels was apparently informed by this discourse. He may also have been informed by anger over the Gaza war, which shows how many of these topics interact."

Terrorism aside, Sweden saw 391 other shootings last year resulting in 67 deaths, many of them involving young teens.

That was a "crescendo" by Swedish and Scandinavian standards, Levin noted.

"At the same time, the total Swedish homicide rate (not just gun-related) has only increased moderately since the 1990s and is lower than that in Finland, France, the Baltic countries, and the Balkan countries," he said.

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