The South Asia Channel

Al Qaeda in Iraq’s Swedish connections

The apparent suicide bombing in Stockholm this past weekend has again raised the specter of jihadi terrorism in the West, but key details about the attack-especially whether or not the bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, was working independently, with a cell in Sweden (or Britain), or on the orders of a formal al-Qaeda-linked group-remain ambiguous. Such ...

JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images
JONATHAN NACKSTRAND/AFP/Getty Images

The apparent suicide bombing in Stockholm this past weekend has again raised the specter of jihadi terrorism in the West, but key details about the attack-especially whether or not the bomber, Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, was working independently, with a cell in Sweden (or Britain), or on the orders of a formal al-Qaeda-linked group-remain ambiguous. Such questions have real world importance, not just because a support network might commit follow-on attacks, but because the United States and the West are struggling to determine what elements of the jihadi movement-formal organizations or loosely distributed jihadi supporters-pose the largest threat and how those elements motivate and organize violence.

Twenty-eight when he died, al-Abdaly was only 10 when his family emigrated from Iraq to Sweden, according to postings al-Abdaly made on a dating site online. Al-Abdaly subsequently studied sports therapy at the University of Bedfordshire in Britain. Al-Abdaly also apparently traveled to Jordan for jihad at some point, which raises the question of whether he fought in Iraq. That journey, the prominence of one Swedish citizen in al-Qaeda’s Islamic State of Iraq (ISI) and the ISI’s rhetorical focus on Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks raise as-yet unanswered questions about links between al-Abdaly and the ISI.

A surprising number of Swedes have traveled to Iraq to participate in jihad. The most important of those was Abu Qaswara al-Maghribi (Mohamed Moumou), a Morroccan-born Swedish citizen that was the ISI’s operational chief in Mosul before his death in October 2008. As a result of his control over the primary jihadi entry points to Iraq, Abu Qaswara was responsible for the ISI’s external networks, which focused on the importation of fighters from abroad. Before joining al-Qaeda’s operation in Iraq, Abu Qaswara was a fixture at Stockholm’s Brandenburg mosque during the 1990s (where he wrote articles on Algeria for jihadi publications) and trained at the Khalden camp in Afghanistan.

Although the details are unclear, Abu Qaswara may have been running a wide-ranging network outside of Iraq during his tenure as Emir in Mosul. In 2007, a Moroccan court convicted another Swedish citizen of Moroccan origin, Ahmed Essafri, for leading a network funneling fighters to Iraq. Essafri traveled frequently between Sweden and Morocco and was questioned extensively about Abu Qaswara during his detention. Moreover, during Abu Qaswara’s tenure the ISI was linked to attacks in Europe, most notably the ill-fated effort by two men in Britain, including a British-born Muslim of Iraqi descent, to detonate crude bombs at a London nightclub and at the Glasgow airport.

Abu Qaswara was not the only Swede to make the journey to Iraq for jihad. On November 18, 2010 a Swedish citizen committed a suicide bombing in Iraq whose biography resembles Makram Bin Salem Al-Majri, a Swedish fighter that first arrived in Iraq in early 2007. The men were both described as having been born in 1974 and as having traveled through Egypt to Iraq. (Ironically, al-Majri’s ISI personnel file requests that his wife not be contacted by ISI authorities, but she was apparently called by ISI personnel after his death.) Although al-Majri may have spent three consecutive years in Iraq fighting, the duration raises the question of whether he traveled in and out of Iraq during that period-a process that would have been similar to that undertaken by al-Abdaly if he indeed traveled to Iraq for jihad.

Despite the lack of hard evidence, it is tantalizing to think that the Swedish presence in the ISI may have had an impact on its strategic outlook. In September 2007, then-ISI Emir Abu Umar al-Baghdadi publicly placed a $100,000 bounty on the head of Swedish cartoonist Lars Vilks, who had drawn cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad as a dog. Al-Abdaly’s references to Vilks in a pre-attack message to Swedish authorities has compelled some jihadis to argue that he was fulfilling the ISI’s operational imperative three years hence.

Determining whether al-Abdaly had assistance from supporters in the West or was acting on behalf of an organization in Iraq matters from both an operational and strategic perspective. Operationally it is important to resolve whether there is a threat of follow-on attacks and to wrap up a potentially more experienced operational cell. Strategically it is necessary to understand whether al-Abdaly made the critical jump from radicalization to operationalization on his own or whether he had assistance. If he traveled to jihad previously, how did he subsequently decide to conduct an attack in Stockholm rather than in Baghdad? Was he prompted by the ISI or did he come to that decision on his own? Was al-Abdaly connected to a jihadi network with folks like Abu Qaswara, al-Majri, and Essafri?

At the time of this writing, there is no concrete, public information indicating that al-Abdaly traveled to Iraq or is connected to anyone there.  Nonetheless, it is important that these questions are asked. In a world where Swedish jihadis with ties to Iraq are not as rare as many seem to believe, the surprise in this case would be if al-Abdaly is found to have truly acted on his own.

Brian Fishman is a counterterrorism research fellow at the New America Foundation.

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