Sweden heightens terror alert after Koran burning stunts

Sweden heightens its terror alert level after Koran burning stunts that enraged the Muslim world as intelligence agency warns country is now a ‘prioritised target’

  • The level was increased from ‘elevated’, where it had been since 2016, to ‘high’

Sweden’s intelligence agency heightened its terror alert level Thursday to four on a scale of five after angry reactions in the Muslim world to Koran burnings in Sweden made the country a ‘prioritised target’.

The level was increased from ‘elevated’, where it had been since 2016, to ‘high’, the head of the Swedish Security Police Charlotte von Essen told reporters.

‘The reason for this decision is the deteriorated situation with regard to attack threats to Sweden, and the assessment that the threat will remain for a long time,’ she said.

Von Essen stressed that the decision to raise the threat level was not based on a ‘single incident’, but rather a ‘collective assessment’.

Sweden’s Security Police Chief Charlotte von Essen speaks during a news conference regarding the deteriorating security situation, in Stockholm, Sweden, 17 August 2023

Iranian worshippers burn a Sweden flag during a protest against Koran burning in the Swedish capital Stockholm, at the Imam Khomeini Grand Mosque after Tehran’s Friday prayer ceremony, July 21, 2023

Yemenis participate in a protest denouncing the burning of Islam’s holy book, the Koan, in Sweden and Denmark, on July 24, 2023 in Sana’a, Yemen

Sweden has, like neighbouring Denmark, has in recent months seen a spate of public desecrations of the Koran, including burnings, which have sparked widespread outrage and condemnation in Muslim countries.

Iraqi protesters stormed the Swedish embassy in Baghdad twice in July, starting fires within the compound on the second occasion.

The Jeddah-based Organisation of Islamic Cooperation has also voiced ‘disappointment’ with Sweden and Denmark for not taking action following the spate of burnings.

Last week, a Molotov cocktail was thrown at the Swedish embassy in Beirut though it did not explode, and at the weekend Al-Qaeda called for attacks against the Scandinavian country.

The protests led Sweden to beef up border controls since August 1.

Several Western countries have recently updated their travel advisories for Sweden.

The United States on July 26 urged its nationals to ‘exercise increased caution in Sweden due to terrorism’.

And on Sunday, Britain’s Foreign Office said ‘terrorists are very likely to try and carry out attacks in Sweden’, and added ‘authorities in Sweden have successfully disrupted a number of planned attacks and made a number of arrests’.

Swedish authorities have however refused to comment on whether any attacks had been foiled or arrests made.

In a statement acknowledging Britain’s changed travel advice, Sweden’s National Security Advisor Henrik Landerholm reiterated the increased threats to Sweden since the burnings.

Landerholm said an attempted attack on its embassy in Lebanon on Aug. 9, and also the Aug. 1 shooting of an employee at a Swedish consulate in Turkey, contributed to the risk assessment.

Demonstrators burn the Swedish flag during a protest against the insult to the Koran in Stockholm, in Tehran, Iran July 21, 2023

Kashmiri Shiite Muslims protest denouncing the burning of the Koran in Sweden

Sweden has condemned the desecrations of the Koran but upheld its laws regarding freedom of speech and assembly.

The government has vowed to explore legal means of stopping protests involving the burning of holy texts in certain circumstances, though a majority appear to be opposed to a such a change.

It comes just weeks after Sweden’s domestic intelligence agency sounded the alarm over the increased terrorist threat amid a wave of protests against the burnings.

Koran burnings are permitted in Sweden under free speech rules, but Muslims see burning of their holy book as blasphemy.

The Swedish intelligence agency, known by its acronym SAPO, last month said the burning and desecration of religious books in Sweden have negatively affected the country’s reputation.

The image of Sweden has changed ‘from a tolerant country to a country hostile to Islam and Muslims, where attacks on Muslims are sanctioned by the state and where Muslim children can be kidnapped by social services,’ SAPO said in a statement.

‘It’s a serious situation that we’re in,’ Susanna Trehorning, SAPO’s deputy head of counter-terrorism, told Swedish public broadcaster SVT. 

‘It’s a heightened threat and an attack can occur within the framework of a heightened threat.’

Like many Western countries, Sweden does not have any blasphemy laws.

The right to hold public demonstrations is strong in Sweden and protected by the constitution. Blasphemy laws were abandoned in the 1970s.

Police generally give permission for public gatherings based on whether they believe an event can be held without major disruptions or risks to public safety.

Civil Defence Minister Carl-Oskar Bohlin said in July that the Koran desecrations have made Sweden a target of malicious influencing campaigns ‘by states and state-like actors with the aim of damaging Swedish interests and ultimately Swedish citizens’.

He debunked claims that the Swedish government grants permission for people to burn Islam’s sacred text or other religious books, something that ‘is factually incorrect’. 

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