DALARNA, Sweden - Sweden's first suicide bombing killed no one but the bomber himself, yet the two explosions in downtown Stockholm have ripped through already injured harmony in Swedish society and fractured the country's sense of itself.
The blasts, occurring a short walk from each other and minutes away from where the Nobel Prizes had been awarded, were termed the work of a "terrorist" within a few hours of going off on Saturday. The Swedish Security Police (Sapo) stepped in to take over the investigation the next morning.
"He wasn't known to us prior to this," said Sapo communications officer Tina Israelsson, referring to Taimour Abdulwahab al-Abdaly, a 28-year-old "Middle-Eastern immigrant" who had emigrated to Sweden in 1992.
Chief prosecutor Tomas Lindstrand of the Prosecution Office of National Security, at a joint press conference with Sapo on Monday morning, said with "98% certainty" that al-Abdaly was the individual suspected of being behind the blasts. As of Thursday, autopsy results were complete and a positive identification was expected to follow. It was also confirmed that e-mails sent to both Sapo and the Swedish news agency TT minutes prior to the incidents had come from al-Abdaly's mobile phone.
Concerns of a backlash against immigrants that were first raised in September when the far-right Swedish Democrats (SD) - a party with a neo-Nazi past that is widely described as Islamophobic - won 20 seats in parliament, have inevitably been heightened.
On Tuesday, Sweden's TV4 reported the SD had called for a special parliamentary debate on "violent Islamic extremism", and a local SD leader has even charged that many from the Middle East had a "gene" making them more violent. However, in an unusually quick response, the parliament's other political groups killed the SD debate proposal within hours. Nevertheless, as an unusually visible police presence is seen throughout the country, Sweden's thin winter air is thick with tension.
A Swedish opinion piece popular on the Internet warns of a backlash of "anger", emphasizing the bombing could easily make people "racist". The country's 400,000-plus Muslim community is all too aware of this.
On Thursday, the Muslim feast day of Ashura marking a 680 AD rebellion against repression, saw a large anti-terrorism demonstration by Swedish Muslims beside parliament. Swedish National Radio quoted a demonstrator as explaining the purpose of the event as "most importantly, [showing] that Islam contains peace, first and foremost".
Notably, the e-mail received by TT and Sapo threatened attacks against civilians, urged "jihad", and condemned the controversial Swedish cartoonist Lars Wilks (who had portrayed the head of the Prophet Mohammed on a dog's body, an unpardonable affront to many devout Muslims) and Sweden's Afghan mission. The e-mail also carried an apology and goodbye to the alleged bomber's family.
The first blast happened at 16:50, Stockholm time, with fire erupting from al-Abdaly's parked Audi. Additional small explosions came from what are believed to be gas canisters in the car that the first explosion detonated. The blast caused no injuries.
Shrieks of passersby were readily heard on a videotape taken at the scene. Then, within minutes of the car blowing up, a second blast occurred on a side street a couple of hundred meters away, killing the person believed to be al-Abdaly and slightly injuring two passersby.
An apparent error of some kind led to a premature detonation and the suspected bomber's death, but it has been speculated that a successful detonation of the devices might have killed "hundreds".
"We could guess some error or something went wrong, because he was very close to populated places, so we can only give a qualified guess that he was going somewhere", Israelsson told Asia Times Online, referring to official speculation that the bombing target may have been Stockholm's Central Station or Ahlens City, a large department store.
Swedish media reported that al-Abdaly was carrying interconnected bombs (one of which exploded, killing him) and a separate, shrapnel-producing device. Lindstrand confirmed reports that he was also wearing a backpack full of "explosives and nails".
In a statement on Sunday, Swedish Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt observed, "What occurred is unwanted and unacceptable. We must safeguard the open society where people can live together side by side." He added that "it is important to point out that in the present situation we should not draw hasty conclusions."
Also on Sunday, TT reported that a Swedish Defense Ministry staffer had warned an acquaintance of an attack several hours before the events occurred. "We have looked this up, and we haven't found any confirmation ... we think it's just speculation, or a misunderstanding, or something," Sapo's Israelsson said.
Though some media reports have suggested the possibility of al-Qaeda's involvement, Monday's press conference stressed that it appeared the Saturday bombings were the work of one individual acting "alone". On Thursday, Israelsson added that "we still have the hypothesis that he was alone during the attack itself, but he might have had help previous to this - we're still investigating."
From numerous sources, issues of the attacks being "inspired by" some person or group have been repeated throughout the week. Much of this speculation centers around the United Kingdom.
British police executed a search warrant for a house in Luton, north of London, on Sunday, where al-Abdaly, who graduated from the town's Bedfordshire University in 2004, lived. According to reports, the searches revealed nothing significant, but Luton has been described as a hub for radical Islam, from where the 2005 London bombers planned their attack.
In Sweden, al-Abdaly's vehicle was registered in the small town of Tranas, about a five-hour drive southwest of Stockholm, with social media revealing he was married with two young daughters and had developed strong feelings about some aspects of radical Islam. In interviews with Swedish media, al-Abdaly's friends and family claim he must have been "brainwashed in Luton". People in Tranas said he was last there in 2008.
Taking over the investigation from Lindstrand as of Monday afternoon, Agnetha Hilding Qvarnstrom, deputy chief prosecutor of the Prosecution Office of National Security, downplayed the idea of potential al-Qaeda involvement. "I can't say that [there is an al-Qaeda connection] for the moment," Qvarnstrom said, suggesting that reports otherwise were based on "speculation".
Notably, regarding widely reported threats of the Stockholm incident marking the beginning of a 'terror wave', Sapo's Israelsson said: "We have got information about these threats, and there has been a lot of speculation and threats ... but, at the moment, we have seen no reason to increase the threat level in Sweden." The threat level had remained unchanged at a mid-level setting since October and "we see no reason to push it higher", Israelsson said.
As was reported days ago on CNN, "even [Osama] bin Laden said in early 2003, 2004, that if every country was like Sweden, there would be no terrorism". However, times change. Magnus Ranstorp of Sweden's National Defense College, told SvD (a large Swedish daily) that terrorist leanings have been found among those "physically or verbally discriminated against". Ranstorp cited such victimization as "a major driver of radicalization".
In the days before the bombing, a poll released by Statistics Sweden (a government agency) showed the far-right Swedish Democrats had increased 17.5% in popularity during the two months since they were elected to parliament. In October, a gunman killed an immigrant in the SD stronghold of Malmo after a year-long spree of random shootings in which seven other people were injured.
In November, police arrested a suspect in Malmo, and today, their nationwide presence is the heaviest this journalist has ever seen. Sweden is a country reeling, and the biggest question all its citizens are asking is how its wounds will heal.
With Muslim leaders in Sweden denouncing the attacks, Roberta Alenius, chief media officer for Prime Minister Reinfeldt, stressed to Asia Times Online that "Sweden is an open, tolerant society, and we want it to remain that way". That appears to be the position that most Swedes take.
Ritt Goldstein is an investigative political journalist whose work has appeared widely, including in the US's Christian Science Monitor, Spain's El Mundo, Austria's Wiener Zeitung and Australia's Sydney Morning Herald, as well as with other significant members of the global media.
December 18, 2010, Asia Times