STOCKHOLM – Sweden raised its terror alert to the second-highest level on Thursday after a string of public desecrations of the Quran sparked angry demonstrations across Muslim countries and threats from militant groups.
The Swedish Security Service, known as SÄPO, lifted the “terror threat level” one notch to “high,” the fourth of five levels, for the first time since 2016.
The move reflects Swedish concerns that repeated Quran-burnings this year by a handful of anti-Islam activists have made the Scandinavian country a prime target for Islamic extremists.
Prime Minister Ulf Kristersson noted that Swedish interests abroad had already been targeted, including the storming of Sweden’s Embassy in Baghdad last month and an attempted attack on the diplomatic mission in Beirut last week.
“There are also several examples of terrorist groups that have urged their sympathizers around the world to take revenge for the Quran burnings that have taken place in Sweden. Among them are Hezbollah in Lebanon, al-Shabab in Somalia and al-Qaida,” Kristersson said at a joint news conference with the justice minister and the heads of the Swedish Security Service and national police.
Sweden has come under intense criticism from Muslim countries for allowing the public desecrations of the Quran, most of them by an Iraqi asylum-seeker who says he is using his freedom of speech to criticize Islam.
Sweden has no blasphemy laws and Swedish authorities have allowed the Quran-burnings to take place outside Parliament, Iraq's Embassy and a mosque in Stockholm.
Kristersson has repeatedly criticized the acts while noting they are protected by Sweden's extensive freedom of expression.
“Not everything that is legal is appropriate," he said. "I think that if you care about the security situation in Sweden, especially now when we have formalized a higher threat level, you should consider whether what you doing is good for our country or not."
Kristersson said the government is stepping up its joint efforts with government agencies, the security service, the Armed Forces and foreign intelligence services to prevent attacks against Sweden and Swedish interests abroad. He said some attacks had already been thwarted, but didn't give details.
SÄPO chief Charlotte von Essen warned that the higher alert would last for some time.
“We have gone from being considered a legitimate target to a prioritized target for violent Islamism globally," she said.
Sweden and neighboring Denmark, which has also seen public desecrations of the Quran, have both stepped up border controls and identity checks at crossing points. The terror alert in Denmark is also at the second-highest level.
The Quran-burnings have complicated Sweden's attempt to join NATO, with Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan long holding up the process. However, Erdogan said at a NATO summit last month that he would send Sweden's accession documents to the Turkish parliament for ratificatio.
Olsen reported from Copenhagen, Denmark.