Sweden’s Problem Isn’t Immigrants, It’s the Internet
As a country tries to recover from a shocking attempted attack, the normal accusations don't really stick.
It was only a mixture of bad luck, incompetence, and the inadequacy of Swedish provincial hardware stores that stopped Taimour Abdulwahab from becoming a mass murderer. When he blew himself up just off one of the busiest shopping streets in Stockholm, only one of the six pipe bombs he had strapped around himself exploded. The rucksack full of nails on his back was not transformed into shrapnel; the car he had left parked a couple of blocks away likewise failed to explode.
Still, in the days since the Dec. 11 bombing, Swedish columnists on both the left and right have been eager to make the reassuring discovery that the averted catastrophe serves as further proof of their respective analyses of national politics. Jan Guillou, writing in the left-wing Aftonbladet, claimed that Sweden made the terrorism problem worse, partly by “joining in the American crusade in Afghanistan” and partly by repressive laws against “encouragement to terrorism” that would never be used against white Swedes. Meanwhile, Ulf Nilson, a former foreign correspondent writing for Aftonbladet‘s right-wing rival Expressen, caused an uproar when he referred to the diminishing number of “pure Swedes” and the growing influence of Islam in the country.
What all these explanations have in common is that they assume that homegrown terrorism is a political problem with its root causes in Swedish social conditions. In reality, however, the problem is primarily a psychological one that has been enabled by broad immigration patterns and deepened by technology that fosters social alienation. Unfortunately, these causes can’t and won’t be easily undone.
Four days after the attempted bombing, the Swedish security police produced a long-planned report on violent Islamist extremism in Sweden that put the true problem into some relief. It concluded that Islamist terrorism was not a huge threat to Swedish society, nor to its fundamental values, because “the people active in these networks are primarily concerned with supporting and assisting terrorism in other countries.” Unsurprisingly, large immigrant communities do tend to bring the grievances of their home countries with them, often growing only more fervent and extreme. But the point should be that those grievances are brought with the immigrants themselves, not cultivated upon arrival.
Abdulwahab — who was born in Baghdad but grew up in the small, almost entirely ethnically Swedish southern town of Tranas — was part of an enormous wave of mostly humanitarian immigration into Sweden in the last 30 years. The figures for 2009 show that 14.3 percent of the Swedish population was born abroad. When you add second-generation immigrants, the total rises to 18.6 percent. The largest group is still Finns and other Scandinavians, but refugees from the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia have been the fastest-growing groups for decades.
For most of the last two decades, the idea that this large-scale arrival of immigrants from troubled, war-torn countries would have negative consequences as well as good ones has been unthinkable — not to mention unspeakable — in most of Sweden. Only in the far southern province of Skane was there a substantial anti-immigrant party, the Sweden Democrats, who have been established in local government there for years. In September, they burst into parliament, where they now hold the balance of power between the leftish opposition and the center-right government, both of which ignore them and devoutly hope they will go away.
That is not to say that the Sweden Democrats have any answers or that this is the type of problem a national parliament can really address. European countries have varying ways of combating the phenomenon of homegrown terrorism through economic and social policy, but the differences are ultimately superficial. Cross-border political comparisons usually obscure more than they reveal: Whatever the architectural demerits of the heavily ethnic French banlieues, or Germany’s inner-city immigrant ghettos, they ultimately say little about the inner lives of the people who reside there.
Yes, Abdulwahab’s schoolfellows in Tranas remember him as a sociable and well-integrated figure, whereas in Luton, Britain (where he had gone to study), he left the local mosque after an argument over his extreme views. But where was he really living throughout this entire time? From the initial evidence, it seems most likely that he was really radicalized neither in Sweden nor in Britain, but in the place where we all nowadays live — online. Most of what we know about Abdulwahab comes from his online life: a dating site where the suicide bomber advertised for a second wife, with the permission of his first, and his Facebook profile, where he liked both “the Islamic Caliphate” and his “Apple iPad.” He posted videos of Iraqi prisoners being harassed by U.S. soldiers and sermons from radical clerics.
Of course, the Internet is not only a bulletin board where terrorists leave behind traces of their individual lives — it’s also an endless repository of inflammatory material that terrorists use to fuel their homicidal fantasies. It’s not long before they are soliciting the endorsements of more experienced criminals: Nidal Hassan, the perpetrator of the Fort Hood massacre, famously wrote emails to fugitive terrorist Anwar al-Awlaki, seeking his advice before executing the attack.
Things were very different when I was a young man living in a Swedish provincial town quite similar to Tranas, shortly after my own immigration from England. I had no real choice then but to check Swedish books out of the library and speak Swedish with my neighbors and colleagues. Integration was painful and took a very long time. But there wasn’t any other social life on offer. When I returned there 25 years later, there were girls in headscarves in the library; more to the point, they were huddled around Internet terminals displaying Arabic and even English pages. I don’t mean that they were living in an imaginary world. It was certainly no more imaginary than the one that I had made for myself without any technological assistance, from books and memories and the knowledge that I was an outsider. But it was not geographically anchored.
Neither, of course, was the small-town society around them. This, too, is increasingly constructed by people who see the world through screens and monitors. Closely knit small-town life was once the soil in which Sweden’s concept of integration was rooted. With that life permanently altered by technology, that ideal is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to grasp. Not only are the immigrants reluctant to settle where they are; increasingly, there is no there there for them to integrate into. As national particularities and national cultures dissolve, it seems that we all — immigrant and native, religious and secular — are in this together. Wherever this is.