The recent rounds of arrests in North America and in Europe highlight the changed face of jihadi terrorism in the West. The profile of the cells dismantled in Toronto and London this past summer confirms a trend that had become apparent after the November 2004 assassination of Theo van Gogh in Amsterdam and the 7/7 London bombings: the majority of terrorist activities inside the West come from independent, homegrown networks. Composed mostly of extremely young, second- and third-generation Muslim immigrants in the West (with the notable addition of a growing number of converts), these spontaneous networks have only an ideological affiliation with al-Qaeda, while generally operating with virtually total autonomy. Although it is unlikely that these groups, given their relatively simple structures and often amateurish preparation, could carry out large operations, they are nevertheless dangerous. Their deep knowledge of Western cultures and languages, possession of Western passports and relative lack of overt ties to large terrorist organizations make their detection a difficult task for authorities. Their proven determination to strike their own countries, combined with the relatively easy access to explosive substances and weapons, makes them an immediate threat to the security of Western countries.
A region where this trend is particularly evident is Scandinavia. Denmark, Sweden and Norway have seen a limited presence of “traditional” organized terrorist groups since the beginning of the 1990s, with outfits such as the Algerian GSPC or the Egyptian Gama’a al-Islamiyya using the countries as convenient bases of logistical support for their activities in North Africa and the Middle East. While some of these groups are still operating today, the overwhelming majority of terrorist activities taking place in Scandinavia currently are carried out by homegrown networks.
In a security report released in September, PET, the Danish domestic intelligence agency, warned that the largest threat to Denmark, as in most European countries, comes from small, unsophisticated groups that are “inspired by al-Qaeda’s global jihad ideology but can act autonomously and apparently without external control, support or planning” . PET’s findings are corroborated by recent arrests in Denmark. On September 6, Danish police arrested nine suspects in the city of Odense, Denmark’s third largest. According to authorities, the men had acquired material “to build explosives in connection with the preparation of a terror act.” Although PET has revealed very few details about the alleged plot, the suspects are believed to be mostly young second-generation Muslim immigrants of various ethnic origins living in Vollsmose, a poor neighborhood of Odense. One of the men arrested is a young Danish convert to Islam (Politiken, September 6).
The composition of the Vollsmose group appears to be similar to that of another alleged terrorist cell that Danish authorities had dismantled less than a year before in the suburbs of Copenhagen. On October 27, 2005, four young men between 16 and 20 years old were detained for involvement in terrorist activities. The arrests in the Copenhagen area were triggered by an operation carried out by Bosnian authorities. A week earlier, counter-terrorism officials in Sarajevo had arrested Mirsad Bektasevic and Abdulkadir Cesur, two young men with close links to Scandinavia . Nineteen-year-old Bektasevic is a Swedish citizen of Bosnian descent who had left Goteborg in September to acquire explosives in Sarajevo. Cesur, a Danish-born 21-year-old of Turkish descent, joined him in the Bosnian capital a few days later. The two managed to purchase on the local market almost 20 kg of various explosive materials, which they had planned to fit in a suicide belt that they had already acquired. The men videotaped themselves while mixing the explosives and boasting about their plan to carry out attacks “against Europe, against those whose forces are in Iraq and in Afghanistan” . Authorities have speculated that the British Embassy in Sarajevo was the men’s most likely target, but they have been unable to determine so with certainty.
Monitoring Bektasevic’s phone conversations, Bosnian authorities tipped off their Danish counterparts about the men’s ties to the Copenhagen area cell. The four youth had been unknown to local authorities and have been described as average teenagers of Middle Eastern origin who had either been born in or had grown up in Denmark. While living a normal life in the suburbs, attending school and playing soccer, they had developed a sudden fascination with radical Islam and had begun to frequent jihadi chat rooms online. It was on the internet that they had met Bektasevic, who, in turn, was also part of a small network of technology-savvy Swedish militants. Further investigations have revealed that Bektasevic was one of the key players in an internet-based network of young cyber-jihadis that spanned from the United Kingdom to other European countries and beyond, to Canada and the United States. Bektasevic, who used the online nickname of Maximus, is also believed to have been recruiting European Muslims to fight in Iraq.
Other cases confirm the importance of the internet in the activities of young Scandinavian militants, from their radicalization to the development of operational networks. Last May, Swedish authorities arrested three young men in different parts of the country, charging them with planning an attack against the Livets Ord evangelical church in the university town of Uppsala. Nima Nikain Ganjin, a 22-year-old of Iranian descent, and Andreas Fahlen, a 25-year-old ethnic Swede, were arrested in the suburbs of Stockholm, while 19-year-old Albert Ramic was arrested in Trelleborg, in southern Sweden. According to authorities, the men had met online and had begun chatting on Mujahedon.net, an internet forum established by Ganjin. Swedish authorities, who had been keeping Ganjin under surveillance because of his involvement in a clumsy Molotov cocktail attack against an Iraqi polling place in Stockholm in 2005, monitored his communications with the other two. The youngsters expressed the intention of attacking the church, which is known for its pro-Israel stance, even though no specific plan was made (Dagens Nyheter, June 14). A court sentenced the three to prison, ranging from eight months to three-and-a-half years, but an appellate court significantly reduced the penalties in September.
What is striking about the members of the Mujahedon network, aside from their extremely young age and operational un-sophistication, is their unusual profile. All three seem to have backgrounds and interests that have little to do with those of an Islamic fundamentalist: they appear to be young men with a greater fascination for violence rather than for the ideology of committed jihadis. Ramic is a troubled teenager who lives with his parents and is a regular hashish consumer (Sydsvenskan, May 3). Ganjin is also known as a consumer and petty smuggler of soft drugs. Fahlen is the son of a wealthy Swedish family and, while acknowledging an interest in Islam, claims not to have converted. Despite these backgrounds, the three developed a sudden fascination with radical Islam and, almost immediately after, began to send threats online. Ramic posted a short clip on the internet in which he threatened Europe with attacks. Ganjin had sent a message to the media the day after the Iraqi polling station in Stockholm had been firebombed. He signed the message as Tanzim Qaeda’t al-Jihad fi al-Soed, in a naïve attempt to portray his amateurish actions as those of a Swedish branch of al-Qaeda.
The profile of the members of the Mujahedon network differs from that of the average radical of 10 years ago. Their knowledge of Islam is virtually non-existent and their fascination with jihad seems to be dictated by their rebellious nature rather than a deep ideological conviction. Nevertheless, these “improvised jihadis” seem to be the norm in Scandinavia. In September, Norwegian authorities arrested four men who had fired shots at an Oslo synagogue and, according to local authorities, were planning attacks on the U.S. and Israeli embassies. Also in this case, the men were previously known to authorities as petty criminals or gang members, but had no known sympathy for fundamentalist ideologies. “This case is exceptional in that only the main perpetrator seems to have had some kind of Islamist motivation, and that developed at quite a late stage,” commented a professor at Norway’s Police Academy (Helsingin Sanomat, October 5).
While organized terrorist groups do operate in Scandinavia, as proved by the recent arrest in Italy of GSPC members with strong links to Norway, homegrown groups represent the most immediate threat. Radicalization is a phenomenon that worries authorities in all three countries. It takes place not only on the internet, but also in some mosques and as a result of the activities of groups such as Hizb-ut-Tahrir, which is active throughout the region. Given these facts, Scandinavia seems to be no longer immune from a terrorist attack, a development that would have appeared very unlikely only five years ago. Danish authorities are particularly concerned due to the active presence of Danish troops in both Iraq and Afghanistan and as a result of the controversy over the publication of the Prophet Muhammad cartoons in September 2005. Yet, security services in the other Scandinavian countries also consider the possibility of an attack on their territory. “It’s only a matter of time before we have a terrorist attack in Scandinavia; in Norway, Denmark or Sweden,” stated the head of PST, Norway’s domestic intelligence service, less than a year ago (Aftenposten, December 14, 2005). Considering current trends, if such an attack is indeed to take place, its most likely perpetrators seem to be homegrown Scandinavian networks.
1. PET report 2004-2005.
2. Indictment of Bektasevic and others, Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina, April 30, 2006.