The story of Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly starts in 1981 in Baghdad, where he was born the youngest in a family of four. The Abdalys left war-torn Iraq for Sweden in 1992, and after applying for political asylum, they became full Swedish citizens a year later. They settled in the small city of Tranas. Taimour struggled to adjust. He fell in with hoodlums, got into fights, and seemed headed for a future of petty crime. But in his late teens, he traded in the local delinquents for the local mosque and embraced Islam.
In November 2001, 20-year-old Taimour moved to Luton, England, and enrolled at the University of Bedfordshire, where he studied physical therapy. The move was facilitated by approximately $100,000 in aid from the Swedish government, and his education was subsidized by four years’ worth of student loans. In Luton, he met Mona Thwany, a young Romanian woman born to a Christian mother and Muslim father who had been raised partially in Sweden. Within a year, the two wed, and soon thereafter they welcomed a son, Osama.
During his time as student, Taimour traveled extensively to the Middle East, visiting Jordan, Pakistan, and Yemen. He became a frequent visitor at the Luton Islamic Center but was thrown out in 2007 after preaching jihad during a Ramadan service. He found a new spiritual home in radical imam Abu Hamsa al-Masri’s Finsbury Park mosque.
In November 2010, Taimour moved back to his family home in Tranas. He also made some notable purchases: several cans of propane, a pressure cooker, aluminum powder, and a large quantity of wire nails. On December 10, Taimour went for a haircut at a local barbershop. In the middle of a busy Stockholm street, he detonated a bomb strapped to his body, killing himself and wounding two others. It was the first suicide bombing on Scandinavian soil. Had the device not accidently gone off early, it would have killed at least 40 people.
Just before the attack, Abdaly sent an explanatory email to various Swedish media outlets and the Swedish Security Service: “Because of Lars Vilks and his drawings of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and your soldiers in Afghanistan and your silence about all of this, your children, daughters, brothers, and sisters will die like our brothers, sisters, and children are dying.” Vilks was a Swedish artist who, in 2007, had drawn the prophet Muhammad with a dog’s head. “Our actions will speak for themselves,” Abdulwahab continued. “As long as you do not stop your war on Islam and the degradation of the prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and your stupid support of the swine, Vilks. And to all the Muslims of Sweden I say: Stop pandering and degrading yourselves. Help your brothers and sisters and fear nothing, only Allah whom you worship.”
The British investigation into Abdaly led to the arrest of 21 co-conspirators inside Great Britain. Swedish police, however, have not located any co-conspirators in Sweden and still consider the case to be the subject of an open investigation. It will probably remain so indefinitely.
Taimour Abdaly’s actions constitute a first, but his story is not unique. In the past two years alone, at least 80 young men born and raised in Sweden are believed to have left the country to wage jihad in Syria, Iraq, and Somalia. Twenty of them are confirmed dead, 40 have returned, and 20 are unaccounted for. The International Center for the Study of Radicalization (ICSR) estimates that 11,000 foreign jihadist fighters are currently in Syria and that the largest portion of them comes from Western Europe. According to ICSR, Sweden is, proportional to its size, Europe’s third-largest exporter of international jihadists, behind only Belgium and Denmark.
The Swedish defense research agency, FOI, sounded the alarm last year, claiming that “jihadi tourism” emanating from Sweden is on the rise and unlikely to subside anytime soon. Magnus Ranstorp, head of research at the Swedish Defense College, notes a large increase in jihadist activity inside Sweden over the same period. There are multiple reasons for these chilling trends: lack of effective legal means to stop and prosecute jihadists, ease of travel for Swedish passport owners, Europe’s relatively open borders, an expanding network of jihadist recruitment, and Sweden’s vast social-benefits regime.
Even European countries with terrorist watch-lists and bold anti-terror tools find such measures vitiated by the open borders of Western Europe. Someone on, say, the French terrorist watchlist can easily fly to surrounding countries and then return by car, bus, or train to France. Since the birth of the European Union, borders within the European continent do not hold. As a result, neither does the rule of law.
In Sweden, jihadists have an even easier time of it. The country’s typical jihadist is a Muslim male, between 17 and 30, born in Sweden to immigrant parents. Yet for Swedes, terrorist profiling is more a matter of sociological curiosity than police work. While it is illegal to participate in terrorist training on Swedish soil, it’s not illegal to join a foreign terrorist group. Countries such as Denmark, Great Britain, France, and Norway have prosecuted and expelled citizens involved in terrorist planning abroad, but Swedish authorities have no legal means of acting unless they have reason to believe a crime has been committed. Police and intelligence agencies have only one avenue of prophylactic action: hosting voluntary talks with young men believed to be at risk of becoming jihadists. In these sessions, officers try to change an individual’s mind through words. But if the young men refuse to participate and make their way to training camps or war zones in the Middle East, authorities have no choice but to watch them go. And those who travel abroad to fight will not lose their Swedish citizenship when they return. The Swedish passport allows entrance to war zone and paradise alike.
Thus it’s no surprise that the head of the Swedish Security Service, Anders Thornberg, told Reuters that his country’s most daunting security threat comes from approximately 200 Islamists inside the country, some of whom have been desensitized to violence by their fighting experiences in Syria. “We are talking about a couple of hundred people [who] are supporting, or are willing and capable [of carrying out], terrorist attacks in Sweden, or planning a terrorist attack in Sweden against targets in neighboring countries or other places in the world,” he said. “It is a huge threat, unlike anything we have seen before.”
On the policy level, the country is at a standstill. Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt recently shot down a bill proposing that Swedish citizens who join terrorist organizations be stripped of their citizenship. But the ability to prosecute these men upon their return to Sweden is currently being looked into. The Swedish left and the environmental party, Miljöpartiet, have labeled all such potential legislation a violation of individual integrity and a form of institutionalized racism. In a recent debate on jihadi tourism, the chairman of the Muslim Council of Sweden, Omar Mustafa, played down the threat of domestic jihadists and called for Swedish leaders to spearhead a “truth commission” to investigate crimes against the country’s Muslim population.
That population is a force to be reckoned with. Sweden is home to approximately 400,000 Muslims, most of whom come from Iraq. Since the first Gulf War, Iraqi immigration has been a constant. Iraqis now make up the country’s largest non-Scandinavian immigrant group. Official figures from 2010 show 130,000 Iraqis in a country of 9 million. As of this writing, 1,308 Iraqis have filed for Swedish asylum in 2014 and 42 percent have had their requests granted. But new Swedish laws granting humanitarian asylum for Syrians have now facilitated an even greater flow of Muslims into the country. In 2013, 53,000 Syrians applied for asylum. Officials expect to see twice that amount in 2014.
Terrorism expert Magnus Norell noted in his 2005 study “Swedish National Counterterrorism Policy after ‘Nine-Eleven’” that Sweden has long functioned as a hub for international terrorism and has housed members of international terrorist organizations such as Hamas, the Armed Islamic Group, Al Shabaab, Egypt’s Gamaa al-Islamiyya, and the Islamic State. Because membership in foreign terrorist organizations is not illegal, these operatives have largely been left alone.
In some cases, the Swedish government has gone out of its way to help them. In 2002, Swedish jihadist Mehdi Mohammad Ghezali was captured in Afghanistan by American forces. Deemed an enemy combatant, he was incarcerated at Guantánamo Bay. Stockholm immediately launched a campaign to release Ghezali, and in 2004 he was let out. Five years later, he was arrested in Pakistan for collaborating with the Islamic State.
While other European countries have broadened their anti-terrorism policies in order to crack down on terrorist propaganda, Sweden has become a safe haven for websites and publishers that specialize in jihadist material. Additionally, Sweden is home to certain mosques that are funded by foreign countries and known to function as recruitment centers for terrorist organizations. On the island of Hisingen, for instance, the Gothenburg Mosque, in Sweden’s second-largest city, is financed by Saudi Arabia. The Islamic Center in Malmö, Sweden’s third largest city, is funded and owned by the World Islamic Call Society, an Islamist umbrella organization founded by Muammar Qaddafi. With 60,000 members, it’s the largest mosque in Scandinavia. And the Husby Islamic Center, in the Stockholm suburb, was funded by Qatar. The new mosque to be built in Rinkeby, a suburb of Stockholm, is a Qatari undertaking as well.
But Sweden’s most insidious enabling of jihad is achieved through its generous social-benefits system. According to the latest numbers from the Swedish Social Insurance Agency, the average immigrant family in Sweden, consisting of two parents and two children, receives $3,135 per month in benefits. What’s more, these funds are exempt from the country’s standard 33 percent income tax. This may not seem like a lot of money compared with the gargantuan sums we often hear about in cases of international terror financing, but it’s more than enough to do great harm. The Swedish Security Service concluded that the money Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly and his wife were given in benefits and loans from the Swedish government was used to finance his trips abroad, where he received terrorist training. The family had no other source of income.
Abdaly, Ghezali, and the country’s approximately 200 other potential militants are manifestations of the larger problem of jihad in Europe. There is no shortage of nightmare stories to attest to this ballooning reality. British citizens who received al-Qaeda training in Afghanistan and Pakistan bombed the London subway in 2005. Mehdi Nemmouche, an ISIS member and French national, fought for jihad in Syria before opening fire on innocents at the Jewish Museum in Brussels this past May. The ISIS executioners who recently beheaded American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff and British aid workers David Haines and Alan Henning delivered their crazed overtures to human slaughter in native British accents.
It’s understandable that international anti-terrorism efforts remain focused on the Islamist breeding grounds of the Middle East. But we must take pains to ensure that we do not fight the threat abroad at the expense of defending our homes. Western leaders are now aggressively pursuing ISIS in Iraq and Syria, but while they chase the bad guys from the edge of town, they risk leaving the door to the house wide open. Above all, it must be remembered that the jihadists’ long-term goal is to strike the West. The war they fight has no borders; the caliphate they seek has no geographic limits.
Europe is slow to connect the dots when they form a discomfiting image. For Sweden, a country that prides itself on the progressive values of openness and inclusivity, the steps necessary to fight a counter-jihad at home are almost too painful to countenance. The Swedish measures now in place amount to a kind of counter-radicalization therapy. Without equal efforts on counterterrorist legislation, interdepartmental cooperation, and border security, the Swedish jihad will continue to grow. The country’s swelling Muslim population ensures that any discussion of further efforts will be carried out in an atmosphere of crippling political hypersensitivity. Muslim extremism in faraway lands is a suitable topic for discussion, but addressing the jihadists among us is political kryptonite.
Yet such considerations are meaningless to the jihadists themselves. As Abdaly himself put it: “The Islamic State has lived up to its holy promise; we are here in Europe, and in Sweden. We are a reality, not a fantasy.” In Sweden, Europe’s third-largest contributor to the jihad, we’d do well to take our enemies at their word.