The roots of an attack in Stockholm

April 17, 2017

Jeff Skinner reports from Sweden on the background to a recent attack in Stockholm that the media are neglecting.

ON THE afternoon of Friday, April 7, 39-year-old Uzbek immigrant Rakhmat Akilov stole a delivery truck being unloaded by its driver and sped down Drottninggatan, a popular pedestrian street in downtown Stockholm. Four people would be killed and 19 injured before he crashed into the corner of a local department store and fled on foot.

Central Stockholm was shut down completely; all public transportation stopped, stranding thousands everywhere in the system for most of the evening. Despite the shock, residents of the city--as well as café and restaurant owners--immediately opened their doors to anyone needing someplace to stay.

As soon as Akilov had been apprehended and publicly identified, the question of his motives and his possible connections to organizations like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) began to be asked. What has become known so far, however, points less to connections to organized terrorism than it does to the typical experience of immigrants and refugees in Sweden.

Mourners lay flowers to honor the victims of a terrorist attack in Stockholm
Mourners lay flowers to honor the victims of a terrorist attack in Stockholm (Pack Diamant | flickr)

Uzbekistan, where Akilov emigrated from, has been a dictatorship since just before the official dissolution of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. It is nominally a Muslim country, but ex-president Islam Karimov and his successor Shavkat Mirziyoyev have consistently used the fight against fundamentalist Islam as an excuse to silence all opposition.

The September 11 attacks in the United States gave these policies a boost; Uzbek leaders granted the U.S. military access to its airbases and used support for the "war on terror" as cover for stepping up the oppression of their own population in general. As one anonymous Uzbek government official noted:

The U.S. government will fight the Islamic terrorists, and our government will get full support from the West to fight against those our government declares terrorists. Since the West has little understanding or interest in distinguishing between devoted Muslims and extremists or terrorists, all opponents of the government will be easily jailed.

Akilov appears to been one of the victims of such policies. Articles in the Swedish media have appeared since the attack noting that he was wanted in Uzbekistan for "production or dissemination of material constituting a threat to public safety" and "participation in religious and extremist organizations." At the same time, however, those who apparently knew him say that he did not seem to be particularly radicalized until he emigrated to Turkey--raising the possibility that he ran afoul of a dictatorial government that labeled him an extremist for its own purposes.

AKILOV'S EXPERIENCES in Sweden, once he arrived here, were hardly welcoming. He applied for refugee status through Migrationsverket, the Swedish migration board, in November 2014, but his application was rejected after appeal in December 2016. His caseworkers found his claims of torture and imprisonment "unverifiable"--and he was ordered to leave the country. At that point, he went underground, and his case was turned over to the police.

Akilov's experience as a refugee with the Swedish bureaucracy is unfortunately quite typical. Migrationsverket has received a steady amount of criticism for its absurdly long turnaround times (the current waiting period for a work permit, for example, is more than two years), and they have recently drawn media attention for using a law designed to protect the most vulnerable workers to instead reject applications for work and residence permits and deport thousands of ordinary immigrants as well as refugees.

It is not hard to see that, whatever a person's religious or philosophical convictions, the sense of helplessness at being persecuted in their own homeland and frustration at being denied refuge by a country that sees their existence as a "problem" could be a factor in pushing them to violent acts of desperation.

The responses of the Swedish government and the Swedish public to the tragedy starkly illustrate the divide between the two and point, in a general way, toward the solution that Swedish workers of all ethnicities should organize and fight for.

After the attack, Prime Minister Stefan Löfvén delayed his arrival at the congress of the governing Social Democratic Party by a day to coordinate the government's response to the incident. In his speech to the congress after his re-election as party leader, he focused on stepping up the fight against terrorism through reinforcing the military and the police (including proposing 10,000 more police employees by 2024) and extended an invitation to the center-right Alliance bloc of parties to cooperate on improving Sweden's preparedness against terrorism. Speaking at a press conference later that day, he expressed frustration at the presumed ineffectiveness of the asylum process.

In addition, the party leadership as a whole has expressed the view that Sweden's migration legislation cannot and should not differ substantially from that of other countries in the European Union (EU). With millions displaced across the Middle East and portions of Africa, and thousands dying in the Mediterranean in an attempt to reach Europe, the past few years--especially since the Arab Spring and the beginning of the Syrian Revolution--are a testament to the consequences of EU policies that have tightened borders and increasingly turned away migrants and refugees. Sweden's attempts to bring itself into line with those policies will only make the situation worse.

In contrast, on the Sunday following the attack, tens of thousands of ordinary Swedes gathered downtown near the site of the attack in a demonstration against hate. Several racist and far-right organizations attempted to hold demonstrations of their own, but they were so poorly attended that some of the groups openly expressed frustration on social media at their message being ignored.

This relatively spontaneous demonstration of the mood of the Swedish people less than 48 hours after the attack is a good indication that radical antiwar and pro-immigration perspectives have a better chance of being heard and discussed than compared, for example, to the atmosphere in the United States following the attacks on September 11, 2001.

In an era of escalating military engagements and the consequent exacerbation of the refugee crisis, this is a moment that the Swedish left can ill afford to get wrong.

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