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The intent among jihadists to target both Sweden and Denmark appears to have risen in recent months in response to a spate of Quran-burning incidents there.

This assessment was issued to clients of Dragonfly’s Security Intelligence & Analysis Service (SIAS) on 18 August 2023.

  • We have raised our terrorism threat rating for Sweden from moderate to high after the Swedish authorities raised their own terrorism threat level yesterday, 17 August
  • We assess that the terrorism risk in Sweden is still low; the authorities have proven capable in recent years of preventing attacks

We have raised our terrorism threat level for Sweden from moderate to high. This is not least to reflect Sweden’s own terrorism threat level, which the authorities raised from ‘elevated’ to ‘high’ yesterday, 17 August. It cited ‘the deteriorated situation with regard to attack threats to Sweden’ as the reason and that it assesses ‘that the threat will remain for a long time’. In our assessment, this change was probably in response to a recent call by Al-Qaeda for attacks in Sweden and Denmark to retaliate for several Quran-burning incidents there in recent months. Our terrorism threat level for Denmark remains high.

We now assess that there is a strong possibility that an attack will occur in Sweden; there are clear signs of a heightened intent among jihadists to mount an attack there. But we have not seen any indications that they are more capable to do so. The authorities have proven capable of mitigating the threat. They have successfully foiled plots before the perpetrators carry out their plans, and there has not been a successful jihadist attack there since 2017. We are maintaining our terrorism risk rating at low, which means that high-impact attacks are very unlikely.

Concern increasing among authorities

Official concern has been rising in recent months in Sweden and abroad over the terrorism threat there. The Swedish security services raised the national threat level on 17 August to the fourth-highest on a five-level scale. They had expressed concern over the terrorism threat in February amid a spate of Quran burnings but did not raise the level. However, on 13 August, the UK FCDO updated its travel advice to say that terrorists are ‘very likely to try to carry out attacks in Sweden’; it previously said this was ‘likely’. Other foreign governments, including the US and Australia, have made similar changes to their advice for Sweden in recent months in light of the Quran burnings.

This change in rhetoric and advice among governments seems to be primarily precautionary. The authorities have not suggested that the likelihood of an imminent terrorist attack has increased; the Swedish security services chief specified that the threat level was not raised due to knowledge of a ‘specific plan’, but instead that the general threat from ‘violent Islamist actors’ had increased in the last year. And the prime minister this week said in a press conference that ‘planned terror attacks have been averted’, but did not specify whether these plots were recent or becoming more frequent.

Outrage over burnings fuelling jihadist intent

It is highly likely in our assessment that the recent Quran-burning incidents in Sweden have made jihadists more motivated to carry out attacks there. The media wing of Al-Qaeda’s leadership on 13 August issued calls to Muslims globally to take ‘revenge’ against the burnings, especially in Denmark and Sweden. It specified that the response should be similar in impact to the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris in 2015, and also target Swedish and Danish diplomatic missions and staff. An Islamic State outlet made similar calls for retaliatory attacks in February this year.

The authorities have appeared to take a proactive counter-terrorism approach in light of the Quran burnings. The Swedish police in April this year told international news outlets that they had carried out ‘extensive intelligence and investigative work’ since the Quran burnings, leading to the arrest of five individuals with ‘international links to violent Islamist extremism’, who they suspected of ‘aiding and abetting terrorist offences’.

Jihadist capabilities to carry out attacks in Sweden will probably remain limited. Attacks and plots by jihadists in Sweden have tended to be limited to basic and crude methods and equipment, and these have rarely resulted in casualties. We assess that any attacks in the coming 12 months would very probably involve crude tactics, such as a lone actor carrying out a stabbing or vehicle ramming attack. And the increased terrorism threat level suggests the authorities will be particularly prepared to respond to such incidents; they said this week that they raised it to communicate the ‘importance of continuing to take measures to reduce the risk’ of attacks.

We do not assess that the Quran burnings have significantly raised the likelihood of a high-impact attack in Sweden either. Their capability to do so appears limited; there have been no successful jihadist attacks in Sweden in recent years, and very few plots. The last confirmed jihadist attack in Sweden was a vehicle ramming incident that killed five people on a busy shopping street in Stockholm in April 2017.

Wider strategy to prevent Quran burnings

Raising the terrorism threat level is also likely to make it easier for the authorities in Sweden (and also Denmark) to prevent religious book burnings. The authorities have been authorising the protests during which Qurans have been burnt in line with long-standing laws and traditions on freedom of expression; banning them would go against these principles. But the authorities have strongly linked the Quran burnings to their decision to raise the terrorism threat level, implying that banning them would be in the interest of public safety. It seems likely that they will do so at some point in the coming weeks or months.

Terrorism threat in Denmark

Denmark has not raised its terrorism threat level, which was already at ‘serious’ – the fourth-highest on its five-level scale. The recent Quran burnings do not seem to have significantly affected the terrorism threat level there; the authorities issued a statement this week acknowledging the general calls for ‘revenge’ attacks by Al-Qaeda and reiterated that its terrorism threat level was not changing. They specified that the ‘recent incidents have intensified the threat within this level’; this in our view relates to an increase in the intent among jihadists to mount attacks. Our terrorism threat level for Denmark is already high.

Overall, we assess the Quran burnings have probably had less of an effect on the terrorism threat in Denmark than in Sweden. Burnings in Sweden in recent months have been more high-profile than those in Denmark, gaining traction in international media and prompting outrage among religious and political leaders in Muslim-majority countries. This is probably due to the international media coverage of Sweden’s NATO accession in recent months, and because such Quran burnings have occurred more frequently in Sweden than in Denmark.

Image: Muslims coming from Friday prayer watch the Quran being burnt on the opposite street from the mosque on 28 July 2023 in Copenhagen, Denmark. Photo by Ole Jensen via Getty Images.